Australia and the Vietnam War

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Combat

Battle of Long Tan: The Battle

A commemorative service held at Long Tan by 6RAR/NZ (ANZAC) troops, three years after the battle. [AWM EKN/69/0085/VN]

A commemorative service held at Long Tan by 6RAR/NZ (ANZAC) troops, three years after the battle. [AWM EKN/69/0085/VN]

In 1987 Prime Minister Bob Hawke designated 18 August as Australia’s official Vietnam Veterans’ Day. The date commemorates the Battle of Long Tan, during which Delta Company 6 RAR fought an ‘encounter’ battle against enemy forces in the Long Tan rubber plantation just a few thousand metres from the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat. Delta Company suffered 42 casualties, including 18 dead – more than one third of its strength – while some 245 enemy troops were killed. Delta Company’s 105 men, and three New Zealanders from 161 Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery, fought for almost four hours against soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army who outnumbered them by ten to one.

Major Harry Smith, Officer Commanding D Company 6RAR briefing foreign press representatives in Saigon on the battle of Long Tan. [AWM CUN/66/0709/VN]

Major Harry Smith, Officer Commanding D Company 6RAR briefing foreign press representatives in Saigon on the battle of Long Tan. [AWM CUN/66/0709/VN]

I must admit looking back now if Harry Smith hadn't been the commander he was and if myself and other sergeants and corporals we had in Delta Company had not been of the calibre they were I don't think we would have survived Long Tan. I think the whole hundred and eight would have been killed. So that's how important it was for us as NCOs.

[Sgt Bob Buick, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive Interview no: 2181]

18 August 1966

2.43 am: A 22-minute barrage from 82 mm mortars and 75 mm recoilless rifles startles the occupants of the base at Nui Dat. There are 24 Australian casualties and some damage to tents and vehicles. The base is readied for an attack which does not eventuate.

6.31 am: B Company 6RAR is dispatched to search for the enemy and spent the day tracing enemy tracks. They are re-supplied with rations and remain away from Nui Dat overnight.

Later that morning

The three D Company platoons, 10, 11 and 12, are sent out to relieve B Company and to continue the search for Viet Cong troops. The men leave the base at Nui Dat just as a group of visiting entertainers (including Col Joye and Little Pattie) are setting up their equipment for a much anticipated concert.

1.00 pm: The two companies rendezvous and B Company returns to Nui Dat for the concert. Delta Company Commander, Major Harry Smith, his three platoons, a company HQ group and three New Zealand artillery observers set off into the rubber plantation.

3.00 pm: 10 and 11 Platoons move forward and spread out. Suddenly they make their first contact with a group of enemy soldiers who walk straight into the middle of the Australian patrol. Sergeant Bob Buick fires and wounds one who is picked up by his companions. They bolt into the surrounding vegetation. The Australians are surprised to see that, unlike the local Viet Cong, these men are dressed in camouflage clothing and carry AK47s, the Russian-made Kalashnikov.

4.08 pm: As 11 Platoon continues their advance in ‘one big long line’, they come under heavy fire which kills four of the Australians. The survivors, now fighting for their lives, fire back.

4.12 pm: Trapped by the enemy in torrential monsoon rain, 11 Platoon Commander Second Lieutenant Gordon Sharp calls in artillery support.

4.26 pm: NZ artillery shells are fired from Nui Dat but miss the target. When Gordon Sharp stands to re-direct the artillery fire he is shot and killed. His Platoon Sergeant, Bob Buick, sends a desperate radio message requesting more ammunition, and then his radio antenna is shot off.

Major Smith orders 10 Platoon Commander, Second Lieutenant Geoff Kendall, out to find 11 Platoon. With rain falling, Kendall’s platoon intercepts a group of the enemy and overcomes them. But when they move on they are attacked from three sides. A number of his men are wounded and his radio is destroyed. Private William ‘Yank’ Arkell, a Radio Operator from Company HQ, braves the enemy fire to locate Kendall and hand over a replacement radio. (Arkell was later awarded a Mention In Dispatches for his actions). With radio contact restored, Smith orders 10 Platoon to retreat.

4.50 pm: Completely isolated from the rest of the company, and with minimal ammunition, 11 Platoon fight on. Sergeant Bob Buick calls in artillery fire from Nui Dat and directs it over his mens’ heads onto the enemy.

5.15 pm: 10 Platoon returns to the Company HQ position and Smith orders 12 Platoon Commander Second Lieutenant Dave Sabben, to take two sections of his Platoon (20 men instead of 30) to search for 11 Platoon.

5.30 pm: 12 Platoon runs into groups of the enemy attempting to outflank 11 Platoon and have to force their way through. Eight Australians are wounded.

5.45 pm: At Nui Dat, Lieutenant Adrian Roberts, Alpha Company 6RAR musters 7 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) of 3 Troop and heads out to support Delta Company.

6.00 pm: Two 9 Squadron RAAF helicopters negotiate torrential rain and almost zero visibility to drop cases of ammunition wrapped in blankets down to the embattled soldiers. Sergeant Bob Buick and the remainder of 11 Platoon having made a desperate dash to escape the enemy locate 12 Platoon. Together the survivors of the two platoons manage to fight their way back to Company HQ where Harry Smith deploys them into defensive positions to await enemy attacks.

6.35 pm: The enemy start their ‘human wave assault’ charging towards the Australians who reply with machine gun and rifle fire. Smith calls in the artillery at Nui Dat but despite their mounting casualties, the enemy continue their attack.

6.45 pm: 3 Troop’s APCs arrive, dispersing the enemy and ending the battle.

10.45 pm: The wounded and the dead are transported to the landing zone at the edge of the rubber plantation and evacuated to Vung Tau in dust off helicopters. Delta company’s dead are left in the plantation to be collected the next morning.

19 August:

Delta Company together with 6RAR’s Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Companies and Delta Company 5RAR, with APCs, return to the battleground to search for the Australians who were killed in the battle. Two of the missing men from Delta Company are found wounded but alive and are evacuated in dust off helicopters. Thirteen Australian bodies are retrieved. Some wounded Viet Cong are taken prisoner and interrogated. That afternoon, the Australians dig shallow graves and bury more than 200 enemy dead where they fell.

19-21 August: Companies ‘scour the battlefield’, extending their search area and finding traces of enemy camps, supplies, scattered groups of civilians and some graves. The enemy is not pursued and the battalion returns to Nui Dat, ending Operation Smithfield at 5 pm on 21 August 1966.

D Company 6RAR withdraws to Vung Tau for two days R & C.

Long Tan: the aftermath

  • Private (Pte) Jimmy Richmond, 11 Platoon 6RAR, with US Army Nurse Moore a week after he was recovered from the battlefield. Pte Richmond was wounded in the chest and spent the night after the battle at his section post. He was discovered the next morning and evacuated to an American hospital at Vung Tau for immediate treatment and later medevaced to Australia. August 1966. [AWM CUN/66/0717]
  • Members of D Company 6RAR display the cigarette cases and dolls received from the South Vietnamese government for their action at Long Tan. [AWM CUN/66/750/VN]
  • Corporal William Moore, D Company 6RAR, of Qld is congratulated by Mr Lewis Border, Australia’s Ambassador to South Vietnam, after receiving a Mention in Despatches award for his actions during the Battle of Long Tan. June 1967. [AWM COL/67/0547/VN]
  • The original Long Tan Cross is displayed in the Dong Nai Musuem in Bien Hoa City. [Image courtesy of John Newman]
  • Long Tan, December 2008. [Image courtesy of John Newman]

Awards:

I think, in retrospect, the Battle of Long Tan has been promoted to its icon status by the public and by the Viet vets themselves, rather than by the politicians or the senior military. It's sobering to realise that in fact only four medals were awarded for the Battle of Long Tan.

The politicians and the senior military didn't recognise it as a great event, possibly because there might have been more of them at the time. But it's sobering to realise that it's the public and the Viet vets themselves that have made … Long Tan the icon that it is today where 18th August is the nationally celebrated Vietnam Veterans Day.

[Second Lieutenant Dave Sabben, Australians at War Interview No:2585]

In May 1968, Delta Company 6RAR was awarded a US Presidential Citation ‘for extraordinary heroism’, one of only two Australian units to have received the decoration. (3RAR received the award for its role in the Battle of Kapyong during the Korean War).

Eight months earlier, in September 1966, the South Vietnamese Government had also arranged to present the Australians with an award – the South Vietnam Cross of Gallantry – at a special parade near the Task Force headquarters. However, the Commander of the Vietnamese Armed Forces and Chief of State, General Van Thieu, was advised that Australian government policy forbade the acceptance of foreign awards. The parade was delayed until President Thieu’s advisors returned with replacement gifts for the men: wooden cigar boxes for the officers, cigarette boxes for the NCOs and dolls dressed in national costume for the other ranks. The men have never received the awards.

Fifteen of the soldiers received Commonwealth decorations for their roles during the action. In the endnotes to Chapter 16 of To Long Tan, Ian McNeill writes that ‘the system of allocation of medals by quota resulted in the number and degree of awards being little short of insulting in view of the heroism displayed.’ [Ian McNeill, To Long Tan, p 564]


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View a map showing the relief of Long Tan.

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View a map of Phuoc Tuy Province.

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Sketches detailing the movements of Australian and enemy troops during the Battle of Long Tan. [To Long Tan, Ian McNeill, Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1993]

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Headlines from The Canberra Times, August 20, 1966.

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After action reports
The Australian War Memorial holds vast collections of after action reports and unit diaries from the war in Vietnam. Pages 21-41 of this report on Operation Smithfield (Long Tan) contain Delta Company Commander Major Harry Smith's detailed account of his Company's action at Long Tan. [Commanding Officer After Action Report (COAAR) Operation Smithfield, 1-31 January 1967, AWM 95, 1/4/26]

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A record of the battle of Long Tan from Task Force HQ Log – Citation for a Rifle Company, Royal Australian Infantry Corps, Ingleburn, NSW. January 1970 pp 20-28.

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Operation Smithfield (Long Tan)
On 19 August 1966, soldiers of Delta Company 6RAR, return to the battlefield.

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Military Cross Presentation
Gallantry awards, including a Military Cross, a Distinguished Service Medal, three Military Medals and six Mentions in Despatches were presented to 11 Australian soldiers in a ceremony at Nui Dat, South Vietnam, in January 1967.

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Prime Minister Presents Unit Citation
This citation, the highest US award, was presented to Delta Company 6RAR at a parade in Townsville on 18 August 1968, two years after the Battle of Long Tan.

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Civilian entertainer Patricia (Little Pattie) Thompson who was part of a NSW Concert Party visiting Vietnam in August 1966, shares her memories of her performance at Nui Dat on 18 August.

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View video of Interview 4 Second Lieutenant David Sabben, 12 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive Interview No.2585.

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View video of of Interview 3 Second Lieutenant David Sabben, 12 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive Interview No.2585.