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The Battle of Balmoral - A Turning Point for Brian Cleaver by hilary andrews

The Canberra Times, May 29, 1968, page 1.
Brian Cleaver, speaking about the same attack on Fire Support Base Balmoral on May 28, 1968.

Brian John Cleaver was conscripted into the Australian Army on July 12, 1967, having “won” the birthday ballot. Between 1964 and 1972, 804,286 twenty-year-old Australian men compulsorily registered for national service, 63,735 had their birthdate drawn in the ballot, and 15,381 went to serve in Vietnam. Private Brian Cleaver was one of these men. In March 1968, after army training in Australia, he was deployed to Nui Dat, South Vietnam in the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), 4 Section, 11 Platoon, D Company. Being conscripted into the Army would be one of the major turning points in his life.

Army recruit training, September 1967. Brian Cleaver is on the right.

In early 1968, the Vietnam War was at a stalemate and neither side seemed to be winning. Over the Lunar New Year in late January, which was usually an informal truce, the North launched a general offensive, which involved the combined communist troops – North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong (VC) – simultaneously attacking multiple cities in South Vietnam. Although the Tet Offensive, as it came to be known, was a military failure for the North Vietnamese, it was a massive propaganda victory and a turning point in Western attitudes towards and support for the war.

On May 5, 1968, the North Vietnamese carried out a second set of coordinated attacks, including on Saigon, known as Mini-Tet. At the same time, the South Vietnamese and Allied troops launched operation ‘Toan Thang’ (Complete Victory), which attempted to sever communist routes into Saigon. In early May, American military intelligence suggested there was a build-up of 10,000 NVA troops near Bau Hung, 40 kilometres north of Saigon. In response, on May 12, 1968, the Australians sent troops to set up Fire Support Base (FSB) Coral to stop the NVA from advancing south. A fire support base is a temporary base set up for a particular operation to provide artillery fire support to nearby infantry. The Australian set-up of FSB Coral on May 12 was poorly organised, and the North Vietnamese, who had been observing the Australians, decided to attack straight away and take advantage of the general disorganisation and the wet weather conditions. It was the first time that an Australian unit had engaged with the NVA.

The location of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral, in Bien Hoa province, Vietnam.

In the early morning of May 13, Brian Cleaver and other members of D Company were positioned approximately 500 metres north of Coral. Brian and his fellow soldiers could hear movement, footsteps and hushed whispering in the nearby trees. A machine gunner radioed headquarters, asking if they could fire on the suspected NVA soldiers. They were ordered to hold fire, as this would reveal their position. Shortly after, at 2:30am, they heard and saw the start of the attack on Coral. There was nothing that D Company could do except watch. It was a ferocious battle, which escalated in intensity when the American D47 gun ship ‘Spooky’ arrived to provide air support, firing 16,000 rounds a minute at NVA troops. Combined with the red and green tracer rounds and the RPG rockets, “it looked like fireworks night” and was excruciating to experience.

In the morning, Brian was part of a team assigned to escort 3RAR’s doctor to Coral. Upon arriving, they were shocked to find a large number of Australian casualties – 9 were killed in action and 28 were wounded. For three days afterwards Brian was "unable to eat, the impact was so strong”. It was his first experience with the shocking realities of war, and “those sights and smells shook me to my very core … this is what fighting in a war is really like."

Brian Cleaver on patrol

On May 24, 3RAR moved position and began to set up FSB Balmoral, about 4.5 kilometres north of Coral. Although they were not attacked for two nights, Brian said the tension was growing and they felt an attack was imminent. Having seen what had happened at Coral, he feared the same would be inflicted on Balmoral. The soldiers did what they normally did to prepare for an attack – they set up the machine guns, positioned the tanks, erected a defensive line consisting of star pickets and barbed wire, and dug ‘shell scrapes’ – small personal pits for protection that were dug into the ground. Since D Company was facing open ground, they received minimal resources to defend themselves with, and were provided with a single strand of barbed wire to define the 'line' separating the Australians and NVA. D Company was placed only twenty metres back from the line.

Part of 3RAR (A and C Company) flying in to set up FSB Balmoral on May 24, 1968

At 3:45am on May 26, a single NVA soldier crept across the clearing up to the Australian line and measured the distance back to their guns. The North Vietnamese soldiers then began an attack on Balmoral, firing their mortars at the Australians with deadly accuracy. After this initial mortar attack, waves of North Vietnamese soldiers ran across the open clearing towards D Company’s position – an unexpected move, since the base was surrounded on three sides by trees and scrub. Fortunately, two of the four tanks had been positioned to defend the clearing. This action had been taken by 3RAR Commander JJ Shelton, whose experiences during the Korean War had taught him that enemy troops sometimes conducted unexpected attacks across open ground.

Brian’s job was to protect Tank 32A. He was situated in a shell scrape behind the tank, ready to defend it if enemy soldiers broke through the line and tried to overrun it. With each firing of the tank, he was hit by a “back-blast of dust, smoke and explosive noise that reverberated through my head.” Being set behind the tank, he could not see the attack taking place and this increased his level of fear.

During the attack, Balmoral received supporting fire from Coral, and the NVA retreated at first light on May 26. Australian casualties were three soldiers killed and fourteen wounded.

Google Earth image of FSB Balmoral, with markings by Brian Cleaver showing how D Company bore the brunt of the NVA assault during the battle. Brian Cleaver's shell scrape pit was protecting Tank 32A.
View from the 4th Section, 11th Platoon machine gun pit on the morning after the first attack, May 26, 1968. Photo by machine gun spotter Private John Bryant. John Bryant took many photos 'illegally', as soldiers had not been permitted to take their cameras from Nui Dat to Balmoral, but he defied this order.

At night, each soldier was required to watch over the machine gun pit for two hours. Two days after the initial assault, at 3am on May 28, Brian finished his duty and returned to his shell scrape near Tank 32A. He heard the popping sound of a mortar firing and knew this was the start of a second attack on Balmoral. The NVA were attacking across the clearing a second time, much to the surprise of 3RAR. Many years later, when Brian met General Doan, who commanded the NVA troops at Balmoral, he asked why the army had attacked across the field twice. “We believed your commanders would not expect us to attack you across the open ground,” General Doan said. When Brian asked why they repeated it, he replied, “Your commanders would expect it even less.”

Brian was in his shell scrape, and again he could not see what was going on, but he sensed the NVA were attacking in larger numbers and closer to the line than before – in fact, D Company were outnumbered 50 to 1. Tank 32A and the 4th Pit, 11th Platoon machine gun were firing almost non-stop, to the point where they were overheating. ‘Spooky’, the D47 air gun ship, was called in to assist, and fire rained down on the advancing NVA.

At one point, an NVA rocket that was aimed at the tank hit a tree three metres behind Brian, and exploded. The tree shattered, and rocket shrapnel went flying, with shrapnel hitting Brian in his back and shredding all his equipment, including his rifle. He no longer had a weapon to defend himself with, and there was no chance of getting a replacement. For the rest of the night, Brian huddled in his pit, panicking and hoping nothing would hit him, thinking, “If the NVA break through our defensive wire, I am a dead man.” When asked, Brian said that this terrifying night in his pit was the turning point of his life.

The battle grew heavier as the NVA slowly but gradually came closer to the line. The Australians were firing at 'zero range', as the NVA were only twenty metres away. Eventually the North Vietnamese simply didn’t have enough soldiers to continue the attack, and retreated.

View of the clearing at Balmoral on the morning of May 28, 1968. This picture was taken from the machine gun pit in 4th Section, 11th Platoon. The pickets show the line - one strand of barbed wire came between the Australian and NVA troops. Photo by John Bryant.

At first light, Brian was put on ‘clean-up’ duty, which involved searching the clearing for wounded soldiers and taking them back to the base. Seven wounded NVA soldiers were found.

When the patrol started the clean-up process, Brian said that he felt “passive and compassionate, intent on helping the wounded soldiers … instead of being the enemy, they were humans in need … of medical attention.” However when a wounded NVA soldier, who was being treated by the Battalion doctor, threw a hidden hand grenade, killing himself and severely injuring the doctor, “any passivity or compassion now turned into intense anger.” At this point he realised “there was absolutely no way the allied forces could defeat the NVA when they were prepared to martyr themselves for their country.”

Soldiers tend to wounded NVA solders after the second Battle of Balmoral on May 28, 1968.

After the second assault the bodies of 42 North Vietnamese soldiers were found, although many more were suspected dead as the NVA always took bodies away from the battlefield. The enemy bodies were searched, prepared for burial, picked up by the army bulldozer and buried in a bomb crater about 50 metres outside the line. The After Action report stated that, “42 NVA soldiers KIA were buried en masse in one large bomb crater located on the battle-ground. The precise location of this mass burial was not recorded.”

A picture of a bulldozer backfilling a crater containing 42 NVA soldiers killed in the second Battle of Balmoral on May 28, 1968. This and other similar 'illegal' photos have been useful in Brian's search for the crater. Photo by John Bryant.
The view of Balmoral on the morning after the second attack on May 28, 1968. This image can be found in the AWM collection as P04729.006, but it has defects including a purple background and triangle shapes. Brian Cleaver has restored this image.

Australian forces withdrew from Coral and Balmoral and returned to Nui Dat on June 6, 1968. Coral and Balmoral were the longest, fiercest and most costly battles for Australia during the Vietnam War. In total, 26 Australian soldiers lost their lives and more than 100 were wounded, including Brian. It is thought that at least 300 North Vietnamese also lost their lives.

Brian returned to Australia on the HMAS Sydney in November 1968. To avoid protestors, they circled around Rottnest Island multiple times so they could berth in Fremantle Harbour at midnight. HMAS Sydney left Fremantle at 5am, again to avoid the protestors. This same return and treatment was experienced by many Australian Vietnam War veterans.

After ten weeks of annual leave in Perth, Brian was based in Victoria to complete his army commitments as a printing specialist working with secret code books. When discharged on July 12, 1969, he was told to leave the premises immediately as he was now on private property. As Brian said, there was “no handshake, no thank you, there’s the door.”

Shortly after returning home, Brian began to experience the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is an emotional and physical illness caused by traumatic experiences. However, it would be another 25 years before he was officially diagnosed. In 2002, Brian returned to Vietnam and the site of the Battle of Balmoral for the first time, as part of his healing process. “Many people did not want to return to Vietnam for the fear of memories of the past,” said Brian, but he felt it was a way to face the past.

While visiting Binh My, he met Mr Hoa, chairman of the local veterans’ association. When discussing their experiences, they discovered that the Vietnamese and Australian records were remarkably similar – the Vietnamese records noted 41 soldiers were missing in action after the second attack on Balmoral, while the Australian records stated 42 NVA soldiers had been buried in the crater. Mr Hoa asked Brian to search for the crater, and he agreed – “it was very hard to say no”.

Since then, Brian’s goal “has been to reunite these 42 with their families.” In traditional Vietnamese belief, those who die separated from their families become ‘wandering souls’, condemned to wander the earth, searching for their loved ones. As Brian said, “If it was me lying out there, I would hope to hell that somebody would be looking for me.” Since 2002, he has made 12 trips to Vietnam to excavate 30 craters at the site of the battle, looking for the missing 42 NVA soldiers. Brian believes his search “brings a form of closure to the battles that took place there – everybody has been returned to their respective families.”

The search for the crater has involved old military maps, aerial surveys using radar, photographs taken by Private John Bryant after the battle and the assistance of Professor Roland Fletcher of Sydney University, who is one of the world’s leading archaeologists.

In 2009, Brian and his team found the body of a Vietnamese soldier, which raised their hopes, but they haven’t found any other bodies since.

In 2014, producer David Bradbury accompanied Brian Cleaver, John Bryant and machine gunner Paul Donnelly to the Balmoral battle site to film the documentary The Crater, on Brian’s tenth and final dig. The documentary has been shown all around the world, including in Vietnam, to acclaim.

Excavating at Balmoral in March 2014.

In 2014, Brian decided to stop searching after 12 years. “Maybe they don’t want to be found … they want to stay together.” However, he has recently discovered new evidence of an uncharted bomb crater, which was missed due to its close position to another crater. This site aligns with his and other veterans’ memories. In May 2019, Brian will return to Balmoral for his final dig. He’s “quietly confident” that he’s found the right place, and he will be “ecstatic” if he is correct.

John Bryant, General Doan (Former Battle Commander, who led the 7th NVA Division enemy forces at the Battle of Balmoral) and Brian Cleaver. Photograph taken in 2014 during the filming of The Crater.

On May 13, 2018, Brian attended the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Battles of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral at the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra. Only days earlier, the 3,000 Australians who had fought at Coral and Balmoral were awarded the Unit Citation for Gallantry, which was only the third time this has been awarded in the Australian military. Brigadier JJ Shelton, who commanded 3RAR during the battles, watched the ceremony on television from his hospital bed, and died shortly after the ceremony finished. He had waited 50 years to see his Battalion recognised for their bravery.

Memorial at the site of the Battle of Balmoral, April 2018. Photo by Hilary Andrews.

The second attack on Balmoral was the turning point in Brian Cleaver’s life. It permanently altered the course of his life – as a result he developed PTSD, and since then has lived with the psychological wounds of the battle. His search for the 42 buried NVA, in order to return their spirits to their families, is his attempt to move on from that haunting night at Balmoral.

What makes Brian unique in his search is that he is not searching for Australian soldiers. Instead, he’s trying to help the former enemy. “Yes, they were always enemy during the Vietnam War,” he says in The Crater. “The war’s over, it’s 45 years over. Let’s forget about the basics of the war, let’s look at rebuilding humanity.”

Not only did the Vietnam War and his experiences prove to be a turning point in Brian Cleaver's life, but his awakening and journey of sacrifice after the war provides a significant turning point for all students of history. In Brian's words, a rebuilding of humanity no longer includes a them and an us. The nation needs to be thankful for the total experience of all those who served in the Vietnam War and their personal sacrifices that followed their service.

Brian Cleaver and Hilary Andrews on Vietnam Veterans' Day, August 18, 2018.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

INTERVIEW

Andrews, Hilary. (2018, August 18). Personal interview with Brian Cleaver.

  • This three-and-a-half-hour interview with Brian Cleaver was extremely useful for threading together a narrative and gaining an understanding of the events that occurred at the Battle of Coral-Balmoral from his point of view, as well as to learn about his life after the war and hear personal stories. It was an honour to be able to meet with him.

MILITARY REPORTS

Balmoral After Action Report. Australian Army Commanders’ Diaries (Vietnam) – AWM95 Subclass 1/4 - Headquarters, 1 Australian Task Force, Annex C, 1 - 31 May 1968. Retrieved from https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1373509

  • These reports are the official daily military after-action reports written by unit commanders, outlining what occurred in a very factual and clear way. This source was useful as it gave an official account of the events and helped me to clearly understand everything that happened.

UNPUBLISHED DOCUMENTS

Cleaver, B. (2018). Narrative: Operation ‘Toan Thang’ – Vietnam – 24th May-5th June, 1968. Unpublished document.

  • This 39-page document was written by Brian Cleaver and details his experiences at FSBs Coral and Balmoral. Similar to the interview, it was very valuable in gaining an understanding of the events from Brian's perspective and very powerful to see original photographs in the context of his narrative.

PHOTOGRAPHS

Beveridge, R. (1968, May 28). Aerial view from a 9 Squadron helicopter of FSB Balmoral on the morning of May 28, 1968. Retrieved from https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1267113

Bryant, John (Photographer). (1968, May 28). Overlooking the battle field at FBS Balmoral. Retrieved from https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1106659

Crothers, R. (1968, May 28). Bien Hoa Province, South Vietnam. Wounded North Vietnamese soldiers captured during the battle being treated by soldiers from 3RAR. Retrieved from https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C318594

Personal photographs of FSB Balmoral provided by Brian Cleaver.

Photograph of FSB Balmoral memorial by Hilary Andrews.

Secondary Sources

ARTICLES

Australian War Memorial. (2018, May 15). "Vale Brigadier Jeffrey James “JJ” Shelton DSO MC". Retrieved from https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/vale-Jeffrey-Shelton

  • This website tells the story of Brigadier JJ Shelton, who was the Commanding Officer of 3RAR.

Booth, M. (2018, May 12). "The battles of Coral & Balmoral: May-June 1968". Retrieved from https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/the-battles-of-coral-balmoral-may-june-1968

  • This website provides a brief summary of the Battles of Coral-Balmoral.

Ekins, A. (2018, April 11). "They’ll come looking for you". Retrieved from https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/wartime/FSB-Coral

  • This website provided an overview of the Battles of Coral-Balmoral, which was useful in finding and compiling general information relating to the attacks.

Ellery, D. (2018, May 11). "Battle of Coral Balmoral remembered 50 years on". Retrieved from https://www.canberratimes.com.au/national/act/battle-of-coral-balmoral-remembered-50-years-on-20180418-p4zea7.html

  • This article describes the events that occurred during the Battles of Coral-Balmoral.

Unknown Author. (1968, May 29). "Australian Troops Hurl Back Attacks." The Canberra Times, Retrieved from https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/107054361

  • This page 1 newspaper article from The Canberra Times, written the day after the second Battle of Balmoral, recounts the events from an official point of view. It provided an interesting contrast to Brian's personal experience of the same battle and provided an interesting angle for introducing Brian's story.

Unknown Author. Press Release. (2014, March 13). "Academy Award winning filmmaker David Bradbury to film Vietnam’s ANZACs." Retrieved from https://www.if.com.au/academy-award-winning-filmmaker-david-bradbury-to-film-vietnams-anzacs/

  • This article is a press release about the documentary The Crater (using its working title at the time of writing), which provided helpful background information about the crater digs.

Unknown Author. (2015, August 1). "Australian veteran seeks mass grave of 42 Vietnamese soldiers for 12 years." Retrieved from http://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/special-reports/137311/australian-veteran-seeks-mass-grave-of-42-vietnamese-soldiers-for-12-years.html

  • This is an online Vietnamese news article that describes Brian's search for the 42 missing NVA.

BOOKS AND PUBLICATIONS

Department of Veterans’ Affairs. (2018). Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Battles at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral. Canberra, Australian Capital Territory: Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

  • This document was the official programme for the 50th anniversary service commemorating the Battles of Coral-Balmoral, which was held at the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra on May 13, 1968. The programme included interesting photos from the AWM collection and a summary of the battles.

Ham, P. (2007). Vietnam: The Australian War. Sydney, New South Wales: HarperCollins Publishers.

  • This book was extremely comprehensive and gave lots of information about the Vietnam War, as well as referencing many other sources, which I then went on to use. It also had two extremely detailed chapters about Coral-Balmoral, which were very useful when writing the factual parts of the essay.

Hodges, I. (2008). The Battle of Fire Support Bases Coral/Balmoral. Canberra, Australian Capital Territory: Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

  • This was a relatively short but information-rich book from the Department of Veterans' Affairs. It was very comprehensive and gave detailed descriptions and insights, which were useful when researching and writing the essay.

McAulay, L. (1988). The Battle of Coral. Hawthorn, Victoria: Century Hutchinson Australia.

  • This book is considered to be one of the definitive books about the Battle of Coral-Balmoral. It was extremely useful as it provided very detailed insights into the events that took place.

McNeill, I. & Ekins, A. (2003). On the Offensive – The Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948 – 1975. Crows Nest, New South Wales: Allen & Unwin.

  • This resource is the official history of Australia's involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts, including at the Battles of Coral-Balmoral. Many other sources referenced this offical history, and as a result it was valuable to read the relevant chapters, not only to gain information but to also gain a deeper understanding and insight which I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Moremon, J. (2002). Vietnam. Canberra, Australian Capital Territory: Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

  • This book from the Department of Veterans' Affairs includes overview information about the Vietnam War. On each page, it takes an inscription from the 'wall of words' at the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra, and writes about the significance or meaning of those words. It was very interesting to learn about these inscriptions and the inspiration behind them.

Picken, B. (2012). Fire Support Bases Vietnam. Newport, New South Wales: Big Sky Publishing.

  • This was a very detailed book which discussed various Australian and American Fire Support Bases in Vietnam during the war, including Coral and Balmoral.

DOCUMENTARIES

Bradbury, D. (Producer and Director). (2015). The Crater: A True Vietnam War Story [Motion Picture]. Australia: Spirited Films.

  • The Crater is a documentary about Brian Cleaver and his search for the 42 missing North Vietnamese soldiers buried at Balmoral. This documentary was very powerful and moving, and I watched it before my interview with Brian Cleaver.

Burns, K. & Novik, L. (Producers and Directors). (2017). The Vietnam War [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Public Broadcasting Service.

  • The Vietnam War is a ten-part PBS documentary about the Vietnam War, which took the producers ten years to make. Watching the series was extremely valuable, if disturbing in parts, and helped me to better understand the entire Vietnam War.

MAPS

Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Anzac Portal. (n.d.). Map showing the location of the Battles of Coral and Balmoral, in Bien Hoa province, Vietnam. Retrieved from https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/history/conflicts/australia-and-vietnam-war/events/combat/battle-coralbalmoral

WEBSITES

Australian Government. Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal. (2018, April 3). Report of the inquiry into unit recognition for service at the Battles of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral. Retrieved from https://defence-honours-tribunal.gov.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Coral-Balmoral-Report-Final.pdf

  • This document is a report explaining the process of awarding the 1st Australian Task Force a Unit Citation for Gallantry.

Australian War Memorial. (2017, October 10). Coral and Balmoral, Battle of Fire Support Bases. Retrieved from https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/coral

  • This Australian War Memorial website provides an overview of the Battles of Coral-Balmoral. As one of the first websites I visited, it guided my research by providing an overview of the battle facts and statistics.

Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Anzac Portal. (n.d.). Australia and the Vietnam War – Battle of Coral/Balmoral. Retrieved from https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/history/conflicts/australia-and-vietnam-war/events/combat/battle-coralbalmoral

  • The Anzac Portal website was a useful resource since it provided extensive information about the Vietnam War, as well as the Battles of Coral-Balmoral.

Department of Veteran’s Affairs, Anzac Portal. (n.d.). The Birthday Ballot – National Service. Retrieved from https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/history/conflicts/australia-and-vietnam-war/events/conscription/birthday-ballot

  • This website described the process of conscription in Australia and the 'Birthday Ballot', as well as Australian attitudes towards conscription during the Vietnam War.

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