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]
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]
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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,