Wartime issue 55 featured article: 'Unique memorial - the Long Tan cross'
In the years immediately following the battle of Long Tan, the main focus of Australian task force operations gradually shifted to the more remote regions of Phuoc Tuy province and beyond. Few Australians visited the site of the battle in the Long Tan rubber plantation, although it lay less than five kilometres from the task force base at Nui Dat.
On the third anniversary of the battle, however, the Australians returned in strength. In 1969, 6RAR was on its second tour to Vietnam. Renamed 6RAR/NZ (ANZAC) with the integration of a New Zealand rifle company, the battalion had conducted a spectacularly successful shakedown operation, codenamed Lavarack, in the north of the province in June. The following month, the unit suffered heavy casualties from enemy-laid mines during pacification operations around the populous south-east of Phuoc Tuy during Operation Mundingburra.
Shortly after Operation Mundingburra, 6RAR/NZ conducted an unconventional operation. On 17 August, A and D Companies launched an airmobile assault into the Long Tan rubber plantation, then searched and secured the area. Soldiers found it was still littered with rusty weapons, clothing and equipment discarded in the battle. Then they settled into night defensive positions under the wet season rain.
On the following morning, infantry and assault pioneers cleared rubber trees from the site of 11 Platoon’s last stand of 18 August 1966. They then erected a three-metre-high, white concrete cross, which had been constructed by the battalion’s pioneer platoon and flown in suspended underneath an RAAF Iroquois helicopter. A brass plaque on the cross bore the simple inscription:
In memory of those
members of D Coy and
3 Tp 1 APC Sqn who gave
their lives near this
spot during the battle
of Long Tan on 18TH August 1966
Erected by 6RAR/NZ
(ANZAC) Bn 18 Aug 69.
Platoons secured a defensive perimeter while the remainder of the battalion moved in by armoured personnel carriers and formed a hollow square around the clearing. Ten soldiers who had served during the battalion’s first tour and fought at Long Tan in 1966 (nine from 6RAR and one from 3 Troop, 1 APC Squadron) flanked the cross in an honour guard while pipers played a lament and a chaplain led the dedication ceremony.
The ceremony concluded by midday and companies began to return to Nui Dat. D Company was the last to leave. Few task force soldiers would ever visit the site again as it became inaccessible except to occasional operational patrols.
The Long Tan cross was to have a curious subsequent history. In the years after the communist victory in 1975, the cross was removed and “recycled” by local people as a memorial for a deceased Catholic parish priest, Nguyen Van Minh, whose name was engraved on the cross when they erected it over his grave.
In 1984, the cross was recovered and acquired by the Dong Nai Museum in Bien Hoa city, where it was displayed with other relics from the Vietnam War. In the meantime, in 1989 the Long Dat District People’s Committee erected a replica cross on the site in the Long Tan rubber plantation. The Vietnamese inscription on the replica reads (in translation):
Socialist Republic of Vietnam
The Ministry of Culture
Recognises: Historic Place
Battlefield: D445 of Ba Ria – Long Khanh province contacted
6th Battalion of the Royal Australian Army
near Long Tan village on 18-8-1966.
In April 2002, the Australian Veterans Vietnam Reconstruction Group, assisted by the Australian government and with the permission of Vietnamese authorities, completed restoring the replica Long Tan cross and memorial site. The cross was left without its plaque, though visitors can request to have the plaque brought from the local authorities’ office and displayed at the site.
The replica cross has since become a focus for visits and remembrance ceremonies by Australian Vietnam Veterans, although the Long Dat District People’s Committee and the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam insist on strict protocols for ceremonies – the number of visitors is limited, no uniforms or decorations may be worn, and ceremonies must be low key. Nevertheless, the preservation of the Long Tan cross, although only a replica of the original, is a considerable concession. It remains the only foreign war memorial permitted on Vietnamese soil, aside from the single French military memorial at Dien Bien Phu.
Ashley Ekins is Head of the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial
Update July 2012: The Long Tan cross will be on display at the Australian War Memorial from 17 August 2012 until April 2013. The Long Tan cross has been generously loaned to the Australian War Memorial by the Dong Nai Museum and with the support and approval of the Ministry of Culture of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.