40th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan

8 mins read
Michael Jeffery AC CVO MC

It is indeed a special privilege this morning –as a Vietnam Veteran myself – to share with the nation this commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. This epic battle reinforced traits for which Australian soldiers have become world renowned: courage and determination, mateship and teamwork, leadership and tenacity, compassion and humour. It further reinforced our international reputation as a skilled exponent of the profession of arms.

So, how did this battle come about?

In the months preceding August 1966, the Australian Army had established its combat military base in the heart of Phuoc Tuy Province, located about 100 kms SE of the capital Saigon. The Viet Cong had long dominated the area – even the French Army in Indo-China days had failed to bring it under control. The Viet Cong were determined to keep their hold on what they saw as tactically vital ground through intimidation of the local population. It was the primary function of the 1st Australian Task Force to prevent that intimidation by defeating the Viet Cong local and regional forces present in the province at the time.

Much conjecture still exists as to whether the Viet Cong units involved, including D445 Regional Force Battalion and 275 Main Force Regiment, were gathering for a major assault against the Nui Dat base. What is certainly true is that D Company of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment’s encounter battle, fortuitous though it may have been, put paid to any idea of a Viet Cong assault on the Task Force Base.

The Battle of Long Tan itself developed as a consequence of Viet Cong mortaring of the Australian Task Force compound on the night of 16/17 August 1966. This, together with intelligence reports indicating that several Viet Cong units were close by, galvanised a rapid Australian response. Company-sized groups were ordered to search the surrounding area around the Nui Dat Base with the aim of locating and neutralising the threat.

As part of this operation, on August 18th, the 108 men of D Company 6 RAR under the command of Major Harry Smith, relieved their B Company mates and continued patrolling just east of the Nui Dat base in the Long Tan rubber plantation. 11 Platoon (commanded by 2LT Sharp), which was slightly separated from the main body of 10 and 12 platoons and the Company Headquarters, were following up an earlier contact with a small party of Vietcong when at around 3:40pm, it came under heavy Viet Cong machine gun and rifle fire, suffering immediate casualties. This was followed by an assault on the platoon by some 80 of the enemy, in which the platoon commander was killed, leaving SGT Bob Buick in command, but with his radio to company headquarters out of action, it’s aerial shot off. Fortunately at this critical time, heavy rain began to fall reducing visibility substantially.

As Major Smith recalled, “It became obvious from radio conversations and firing that 11 platoon was pinned down and taking heavy casualties… Then radio communications with 11 platoon ceased… My worst thoughts were that they may have been overrun.”

As the volume of enemy fire increased, so fortunately did the torrential rain of the monsoon. Wet, muddy and with increasingly poor visibility, 11 platoon continued to fight magnificently. Unable to withdraw at the time, and suffering heavy casualties, they nevertheless exacted a severe toll on their opponents. Major Smith ordered both air strikes and air resupply, however the USAF fighter aircraft were unable to locate the battle zone due to poor visibility and were forced to drop their ordnance further east. It was later realised that this incidental bombing fortuitously assisted D Company, as heavy casualties were inflicted on the VC rear echelons.

However, the magnificent crews and helicopters of 9 SQN, Royal Australian Air Force, saved the day. Through skilful flying and tremendous physical courage, by men such as Frank Riley and Bob Grandin they effected a resupply of ammunition in appalling conditions, which enabled D Company to remain in action. Meanwhile, under the direction of an expert New Zealand Forward Observer Artillery Party, led by Captain Morrie Stanley, ANZAC 105 mm and US 155 mm Artillery batteries fired over 3000 rounds with devastating accuracy against the Viet Cong, including almost on top of 11 Platoons’ position. The effect of shrapnel from artillery high explosive shells on the Viet Cong in the open rubber would have been devastating, but a saving grace to the soldiers of 11 platoon and indeed D Company. See that afternoon, D company had no respite, as the Vietcong furiously assaulted again and again, only to be thrown back by magnificent Australian infantry and their supporting artillery.

So much is owed by our veterans at the sharp end, to the skill and dedication of our artillery forward observation parties and the gun crews who remained instantly and faithfully on call 24 hours a day, every day.

Now back to 11 Platoon. Greatly outnumbered, very hard pressed and with only 6 of his 29 soldiers not wounded or dead, SGT Buick ordered his troops to make a run to LT Sabbens’ 12 Platoon, identified through that officer throwing coloured smoke. The link had first been effected, when around 60 VC were sited to the rear of the Platoon. This group was severely dealt with, primarily by 12 Platoon machine gunners after which 2LT Sabben withdrew his tiny force (including wounded) back to the vicinity of Company Headquarters.

Meanwhile back at Nui Dat, around 4:40pm, the 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron was tasked to carry reinforcements from Nui Dat base to relieve Delta Company in the rubber plantation. But because the Task Force commander was worried about a possible attack on his lightly defended base, it wasn’t until 7.10 pm, in fading light that these additional soldiers from A Company 6RAR arrived, to the intense relief of their D Company mates. This signalled the turning point in the battle, when the Viet Cong Commander decided he could not take on fresh Australian troops and their armoured vehicles and silently withdrew his force, leaving some 245 dead on the battlefield along with many more dead and wounded who were carried away.

Intelligence estimates suggest that D Company fought off some ten times their number in these four to five hours of unrelenting close quarter and bloody fighting; an incredible performance.

The bravery displayed by the men of D Company that day was recognised with the award of a United States Presidential Unit Citation ‘for extraordinary heroism’, presented by President Lyndon B. Johnson on May 28th 1968; only the third time that an Australian Army unit has been so honoured. Additionally, the Commanding Officer of 6RAR, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Townsend – who only recently passed away – was awarded a Distinguished Service Order and the Officer Commanding D Company, Major Smith, a very well deserved Military Cross. Two Distinguished Conduct Medals, two Military Medals (including one to SGT Buick) and 22 South Vietnamese medals were also awarded. Six officers, non-commissioned officers and one soldier were mentioned in dispatches.

Tragically, 18 Australian soldiers were killed in the Battle of Long Tan – 17 from Delta Company and one from the 1st APC Squadron, whilst another 24 men were wounded. The names of the dead are inscribed on the Wall of Remembrance in this War Memorial, along with more than 500 regular and national service sailors, soldiers and airmen who also went to Vietnam and did not return. We continue to honour their memory and the supreme sacrifice they made when their country called.

War of course is a dirty, frightening and totally unpleasant business and never to be glorified as such, and today, happily, we are very close friends with our former enemy. Whilst we all have our views on the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War, I believe as veterans, we can and should be proud of our achievements, because we did our duty with courage, compassion and professional skill. We also left behind a far more stable and secure Phuoc Tuy province than the one to which we had first come. Physical security was vastly improved, more land was under cultivation and schools and government administration were again operating for the benefit of the local population. We treated enemy prisoners, casualties and their dead with respect and the local population similarly. That is one reason why our veterans today can sit with their Vietcong counterparts and share a beer and a common story. There is no hatred.

It was to our country’s shame that it did not recognise the sterling performance of its armed forces in Vietnam until almost 20 years later at the national ‘Welcome Home’ parade held in Sydney in 1987. Some 25,000 veterans marched. This motivated the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke, to announce that August 18th would be known as Vietnam Veterans’ Day. So whilst today we come to commemorate the splendid service of those who took part in the battle of Long Tan, this day has special significance also for all veterans of the Vietnam War. Some 50,000 Australians and 3,500 New Zealanders – encompassing our ground troops, including the most highly decorated unit per capita in our country’s history – the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, our Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Australian Navy personnel; regular and national servicemen alike, linked inextricably together in a common cause and a common bond.

But today’s anniversary is also an acknowledgment of those who intimately and outstandingly supported our deployed Australian personnel during the Vietnam War in a variety of ways; the command, logistics and training organisations, the Gold Coast rest and recuperation volunteers, and magnificent doctors, nurses and medical orderlies, our Padre’s and the Salvo’s and in particular our families; for they too experienced their own private battles during this time; prejudice, ignorance, loneliness and of course – loss. Today is also for them.

Thus, on this 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, we thank the gallant participants of that battle, and all the veterans who served their country in the conflict that was Vietnam. We honor those who did not return and those who returned hurt in body or mind. None should ever be forgotten, none will be forgotten; nor indeed will the families and loved ones who supported us.

So magnificently well done D company. Very well done the 6th battalion. Well done all our veterans. Be proud of what you achieved and hold your heads high, in the knowledge that you were the equal of the very best that ever went away to serve our nation, from the Boer War to the present day and that you did indeed make a difference.

Let us never forget.

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