18-8-1929 – 12-8-2016
We buried Major General James Curnow Hughes one month shy of the 45th anniversary of the epic battle of Nui Le.
Sunny Jim was a man welcome at any Diggers’ booze-up and the scourge of any indifferent officer; and the Colonel who took 4 RAR Battalion to Vietnam in 1971 and who came within inches of losing an entire company of 120 men to the 33 Regiment of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA)
There are still people looking for this closure thing but Jim got all the closure anyone needs on that sunny Melbourne morning. What a magnificent day it was. It took me nearly an hour to walk to the church from the hotel and I thought of no one else as I moved through the dappled sunlight of Melbourne’s streets.
Jim Hughes was every inch an Australian and a Duntroon man. Born into a military family in Adelaide, he followed his older brother to Duntroon and then to Korea, where he won a Military Cross for his bravery at Maryangsan.
But the summit of his career must have been the command of 4 RAR battalion in Vietnam, where his easy sense of authority and willingness to share it came into full flower. The last time I spoke to him was at his Battalion HQ on Courtenay Hill in Vietnam in 1971. I was an intelligence officer in 1 ATF and I was there to discuss a special agent report that had placed the entire 33 Regiment at the foot of the hill barely two hours earlier.
I opened by asking if those reports were true, where was the 33 Regiment now? A couple of dozen HQ staff maybe, but 1500 heavily armed men? After looking closely at the plantation bathed in sunlight he agreed they weren’t there: even for them, it would be impossible to conceal that many troops.
I then remarked that the NVA often hived off their HQ staff from the main body before a major attack in order to deceive the enemy. He agreed but neither of us went on to ask ourselves the obvious question: if this was a deception ploy, where was the main body of the Regiment and where was it going to strike?
Twenty-four hours later, D Company had found the rear of 33 Regiment’s position all right and was in a fight for its life. Jim Hughes and 120 of his soldiers had no further need of my insights.
The 33 Regiment had set a major ambush on Route 2, hoping to lure an Australian reaction force into a deadly trap but with no result. In fact, they were on the point of withdrawing when D Company stumbled upon their rear position and it was then game on, albeit a game that neither side had anticipated.
At this point, the reader needs to know a bit about 33 Regiment. This was the NVA unit that gave the Americans their first taste of real battle in the Ia Drang valley in 1966. As the US and South Vietnamese would always have air and artillery superiority, the NVA concentrated on an area where they could be superior: infantry field tactics.
General Giap called this “seizing the enemy’s belt”, where the NVA engaged the enemy so closely that they dared not use air strikes or artillery for fear of killing their own troops. Thereafter, the Vietnamese believed that their superior infantry skills would do the job. And they were usually right.
By late afternoon on September 21, 1971 they pretty well had D Company where they wanted them – almost totally pinned up against an impregnable bunker system with dozens of assault teams streaming into a creek bed behind them to close the nutcracker. One blast from the battlefield director’s whistle would launch hundreds of NVA troops into the poorly defended rear of D Company and it would all be over in minutes.
But that didn’t happen. Kept separated from his charts and radio by the zealous attentions of an NVA machine gunner, the artillery officer (FO) attached to D Company ended up lying face down in the mud in the gathering gloom doing the trigonometry for an artillery strike in his head and then yelling the fire mission coordinates to the radio operator.
A minute later, the distant stuttering of guns far to the west told him the shells were on their way, but where would they land and would they be in time?
The shells were in time and right on target. While they might not have terrified the assault teams of 33 Regiment, they must have given the Regimental Commander cause to reconsider. Accurate artillery fire and the rapidly falling night were new factors and he would not risk the lives of his men needlessly. Furthermore, the Australians might well have been trapped but they would not go down without a hell of a fight. Shortly afterwards, the assault teams were glimpsed going back out of the creek bed and by morning, the 33 Regiment had disappeared.
So where was Colonel Jim, the armchair strategist might ask? Well, physically he was on top of Courtenay Hill, anguishing about the fate of D Company and watching the dust and smoke billowing up from the battle several kilometres away. But he had already made his most telling contribution during the previous two years with his sunny confidence that their best WAS good enough.
The battalion withstood the very best the NVA threw at it, but not with any Hollywood-style antics on his part. He had already said what needed to be said and it was now up to his soldiers to make those words good. And they did.
Canberra was obsessed with getting our troops out of Vietnam and the award of medals for courage in this battle was almost flippant. Medals were sprinkled throughout D Company but the FO, the man who saved their lives through the rumble of incoming artillery shells at the very last minute, got nothing.
After Vietnam, the promotions and senior jobs in Australia must have been an anti-climax. Jim finished up as the Commander of Logistics Command based in Melbourne and then became the chairman of Legacy and an active member of the Korean War Veterans Association.
Was this the best use we could make of such a talented officer?
I’ll always remember him cheerfully talking with the soldiers as they wolfed down a meal after a field exercise near Townsville. When I offered to get him some food, he replied without any pomposity: “No thanks Greg. Officers eat last.” If it was a rebuke, it was a gentle one; if it was a lesson, it’s one I have always tried to honour.
Duntroon graduate Greg Dodds was on the staff of 1 ATF at Nui Dat in 1971.