"With the heel of my boot I marked the site": the story of the Long Tan Cross
It’s rough, scarred and made of concrete, but the Long Tan Cross has a beauty and poignancy that transcends its rudimentary form.
Erected in memory of the 18 young men who died in one of the most intense and dramatic actions of the Vietnam War, the cross has been adopted by veterans to symbolise all Australians who died or were wounded in that conflict.
The cross is now on display at the Australian War Memorial, loaned by the Dong Nai Museum in Bien Hoa City. At its recent unveiling, the men who fought in the now famous battle of Long Tan joined with those who built the cross and placed it on the battle site, to reflect on its significance.
“The memorial cross is what Long Tan was all about. It’s a symbol that enshrines the spirits of those 18 young men … but [it also] now symbolises the 520 young men we lost in Vietnam and the 3,000 that were wounded,” said Harry Smith, the commander of D Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), which fought that day on 18 August 1966.
The battle of Long Tan was the most costly single engagement for Australians in the Vietnam War. An isolated infantry company of 108 men withstood massed Viet Cong attacks for three hours in torrential rain in a rubber plantation near the small village of Long Tan. They were outnumbered by at least ten to one, and they might have been overrun, but for a timely ammunition resupply, accurate artillery fire from the nearby Australian base at Nui Dat, and the arrival of reinforcements by armoured personnel carrier But victory came at a high cost: 17 Australians were killed and 25 were wounded, one of whom later died of his wounds. After the battle, the bodies of 245 enemy soldiers were found. There was evidence that many more bodies had been carried away.
“The next morning we went back and it was like the aftermath of Cyclone Tracey,” Smith recalled. “There were trees everywhere, and there was carnage. There were bodies and bits of bodies everywhere. It was a terrible sight, and it lingers in my mind.”
As the war raged on and the focus of Australian task force operations shifted to other areas, few Australians visited the site of the battle. But Long Tan was not forgotten, and on the third anniversary of the fight an unconventional operation was launched to return to the site.
In 1969, 6RAR was on its second tour to Vietnam, now as 6RAR/NZ (ANZAC) with the integration of two New Zealand rifle companies. Allan MacLean was the sergeant of the regiment’s pioneer platoon. He and his men were getting ready to board helicopters for an operation to neutralise mines and booby traps when he was pulled aside by his regimental sergeant major and asked to manufacture a cross.
“He didn’t tell me why, he didn’t have to; he just had to tell me to do it, that’s all,” MacLean recalled. “And so we did it. It was pretty much a team effort: one man drew up a plan, I handed that to another and told him what I wanted, the grade of concrete that we needed. Then we went off to the Long Hai hills to give Charlie a hard time.”
A team of three or four men constructed the cross while MacLean was on operations.
“I remember flying back to Nui Dat to have a look at the cross and see how it was going. They were having a few problems with it but we sorted that out. After our operation, we went on what they call Operation Long Tan, to take the cross out and plant it where we wanted it.”
Neil Rankin was the platoon sergeant of 10 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR in 1966, and he fought in the battle of Long Tan. He returned to Vietnam with 6RAR/NZ (ANZAC), and on 18 August 1969 he was sent out to the rubber plantation in an armoured personnel carrier, charged with finding the right site for the cross.
“The site that I was looking for was not D Company’s position, but a certain location where the second contact took place,” he said. “That position was 11 Platoon’s, one of the three platoons that took part in the battle. This platoon, under the command of Gordon Sharp and Bob Buick, not only had the first and second contacts with the enemy, but repelled attack after attack [against] machine-guns of 50 calibre which were zeroed at ground level. This was the platoon that took the most casualties. Out of a strength of 28, 13 were killed and eight wounded. This to me was the site on which the cross had to be erected.”
Rankin had a special attachment to these men: he had trained them prior to the battle, and also knew the families of most of them. After some searching, he found the site of their last stand.
“The rubber trees bore the scars of small arms and heavy machine-gun fire. With the heel of my boot I marked the site where the cross was to be erected. The cross was flown in, slung underneath a helicopter and positioned on the battlefield where three years earlier the bloodiest battle involving Australian troops took place.”
The entire battalion of 6RAR/NZ (ANZAC) were assembled for the dedication ceremony led by a chaplain. Standing on either side of the cross, flanked by two pipers, were ten soldiers who fought at Long Tan in 1966.
“When they played the piper’s lament, that’s when it really hit home, when it really got emotional,” Rankin said.
“Where I put that cross – in 11 Platoon’s position – I knew it was in the blood of that platoon. It was important to me that that was where that cross stood.”
The cross was removed some time after the communist victory in 1975, and recycled by local people as a memorial for a Catholic priest. In 1984, it was recovered by the Dong Nai Museum and went on display with other relics from the Vietnam War. Two years later, a replica cross was erected on the site and is now a focus for visits and remembrance ceremonies by Australian Vietnam veterans.
Rankin said those who come to view the original cross at the Australian War Memorial would see “not just a scarred cross but a symbol of our heritage and our sacrifice”.
“I hope when you look at the original Long Tan cross you will see it with a different view, by having the knowledge where this cross once stood, in the blood-soaked earth where so many young men paid the ultimate price for what they believe.”
The Long Tan Cross is on display at the Australian War Memorial until June 2013.