'That's where it belongs - on the wall in the War Memorial'
It was made of reinforced concrete and was flown in by helicopter before being set in to the red dirt at the site of Australia’s most costly engagement in the Vietnam War. But now the Long Tan Cross has a new home on the white walls of the Australian War Memorial.
Erected almost 50 years ago by members of 6RAR in memory of those who died during the battle of Long Tan, the cross has been gifted to Australia by the Vietnamese government and is now on display in the Captain Reg Saunders Gallery at the Memorial.
For retired Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith SG MC, who was the commander of D Company, 6RAR, which fought in the battle on that day on 18 August 1966, the news couldn’t have been more welcome.
“I’ve always said that’s where I think it should be … It was wonderful when it was there in 2012 [on loan]. Now it’s here permanently, that’s absolutely outstanding,” Smith said.
“[Last year], I knew I’d be going to Long Tan in the August and I said at the time I’d move heaven and earth if I could to get the cross sent out to Australia on a permanent basis and … that’s now happened.”
Over the years the Long Tan Cross came to symbolise Australia’s decade-long involvement in the Vietnam War and represent those who died or were wounded in the conflict. For those who fought in the rubber plantation at Long Tan more than 50 years ago, the news that the cross has returned to Australia is particularly special.
“Oh yes, it really is,” Smith said. “It symbolises the battle [and] it symbolises the courage and the determination of the soldiers of Delta Company that fought the enemy, supported at the end, of course, by the APCs [armoured personnel carriers] and Alpha Company.
“Long Tan was probably the most significant battle we had in Vietnam. There are other battles … that went for longer with similar casualties, but Long Tan was such a short, sharp, savage battle, and it stopped the Vietnamese regiment from attacking the taskforce base, and our company was able to hold that regiment off, of course, supported by wonderful artillery fire.”
The battle of Long Tan was one of Australia’s fiercest and most intense engagements of the Vietnam War. The isolated infantry company of 105 Australians and three New Zealanders were cut off and outnumbered by at least 10 to one when they withstood massed Viet Cong attacks for three hours in torrential rain. They suffered the heaviest Australian casualties in a single engagement in Vietnam, but prevailed against the odds.
“We were the victors although we didn’t know it until we went back in the next morning,” Smith said.
“Because it was so dark that afternoon – there was a monsoonal storm, and there weren’t any pieces of sunlight or anything like that – the enemy were firing at us with tracer ammunition and all I could remember is all these green and red buzzers going over my head.
“Luckily we were on a slight [reverse slope] … and unless they got right up close to us, like 50 metres away from us, they couldn’t actually fire at us, and most of their shots went over our heads, thank goodness.
“My soldiers fired over 10,500 rounds out of their rifles and machine guns, which certainly took a toll, and the enemy decided to leave because it suffered so many casualties. It was an extraordinary battle … and an amazing victory for the Australian army.”
But the victory was not without cost for Australia – 17 Australians were killed and 25 were wounded, one of whom later died of his wounds.
“I did not want to leave the battlefield that afternoon or that evening because I had 15 men missing,” Smith said,
“I was told by the senior officers to withdraw and we went back to the edge of the rubber and we stayed there all night.
“We went back into the battlefield [at] about 9 o’clock the next morning and it was like Cyclone Tracey – the trees were just blown apart by all the shelling and the bullets and there were bodies and pieces of bodies, enemy bodies everywhere, and I still have vivid memories.
“We were very fortunate to find that of the 15 soldiers missing, two were still alive, and they were evacuated and they are still living today …
“[But] I have always remained very sad about the loss of the 17 soldiers that were killed, my soldiers, and I also have regrets about the families of all the enemy soldiers that we killed. They left 245 bodies on the battlefield and we know that a lot more were carried away, and indeed from documents that were captured in 1969 it would appear that they lost about 876 who died or who died of wounds later on.”
The battle of Long Tan was never forgotten. On the third anniversary of the battle, 6RAR, now titled 6RAR/NZ (ANZAC), with the addition of two New Zealand rifle companies, was on its second tour of Vietnam. The entire battalion returned to the site to commemorate the battle and erect the cross in memory of those who died. Ten soldiers who fought at Long Tan in 1966 stood on either side of the cross, flanked by two pipers, for the dedication ceremony.
Sometime after the communist victory in 1975 the cross was removed and reportedly used by local people as a memorial for a Catholic priest. It was later found in a hut and put on display in the Dong Nai Museum in Bien Hoa in the late 1990s. Today it still bears stains from the red dirt of the battlefield. And for Smith, who spent decades fighting for his men to be officially recognised for their courage and bravery at Long Tan, the cross is extremely special, providing a symbolic reminder of the battle and those who died that day.
“I certainly will never ever forget it,” Smith said. “People say to me, ‘Were you scared,’ and I say, ‘No, I wasn’t scared, I was too bloody busy to be scared.’ I was giving orders to my platoons. They were sending me information. I was passing that information back to battalion headquarters … and I was so busy I never thought about being scared until after it was all over. And then I wondered, you know, how in the hell did I survive, and how did about 80 of my men survive.
“I remain extremely proud of my soldiers and officers who fought with me that day. They were mostly … national servicemen who had really very little training compared with Regular Army training and they fought as good as, if not better than, some of the Regular Army people. And their courage and determination under enemy fire was absolutely outstanding.
“I think that’s where [the cross] belongs – on the wall in the War Memorial.”