Australia and the Vietnam War

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Battle of Long Tan: The other side

Enlarge photo of Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Kiem and Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Duc Thu

Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Kiem (right) with Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Duc Thu in the rubber plantation at Long Tan. Both men were senior Viet Cong officers during the war and Kiem has often been referred to as the officer commanding the Viet Cong's D445 Battalion during the battle. In 1966, however, Kiem commanded a different unit and did not take charge of D445 until early 1968. During the Battle of Long Tan the Viet Cong commander was Bui Quang Chanh, also known as Sau Chanh.' [AWM P01293.010]

From prisoners and captured documents it was learnt that the Australians defeated a force that dramatically outnumbered them. The Viet Cong 5th Division comprising 275 Viet Cong Main force battalion and D445, the local provincial mobile battalion, had been involved in the battle.

When the Australians returned the next morning for the gruesome task of ‘battlefield clearance’ they found 245 enemy corpses each of which had to be searched for intelligence purposes before burial.

We had to search the packs, the equipment. We had to search their pockets. We had to retrieve wallets. There were photographs of families. They had families. They had Mum and Dad and the kids and there were photographs there wrapped in plastic against the humidity. There were little letters, books, dried flowers pressed in the pages of a book. We had to retrieve all of this along with the documents and the equipment and the metal, and we had to take them into a central point so that the intelligence people could start piecing together what unit were they from, what rank they were, where they came from, where they had been operating…

[Second Lieutenant David Sabben, Platoon Commander, 12 Platoon, 6RAR in Michael Caulfield, The Vietnam Years, Hachette Australia, 2007 p 325 – Drawing on Interview No:2585 in the Australians at War Film Archive]

The Australians also captured an array of ammunition and weapons. The enemy carried Soviet-designed automatic AK47 assault rifles or SKS rifles, both as effective as the Australian self-loading rifle. Each enemy soldier carried a greater quantity of ammunition than the men in Delta Company, enabling them to maintain a far greater rate of fire.

Enemy propaganda celebrated the great victory against the Australians and the hundreds who had been killed by ‘our country’s liberation forces.’

The North Vietnamese units involved in the battle were awarded medals and Radio Hanoi reported that:

The Australian mercenaries, who are no less husky and beefy than their allies, the US aggressors, have proved as good fresh targets for the South Vietnam Liberation Fighters… [who] put out of action 400 Australian mercenaries, thus annihilating two full-sized companies, heavily decimated another, set a fire three M113 armoured cars, downed one US jet fighter and captured a great quantity of arms and munitions.
…The day before, 17 August, the LAF in the same province wiped out over 100 Australian mercenaries. For these victories the South Vietnam LAF Command had decided to award a Liberation Military Exploit Order Third Class to the victorious units.

[1-31 January 1967, Commanding Officer After Action Report (COAAR) Operation Smithfield, p 43, AWM 95,1/4/26]

Radio Peking International Service (in English) announced on 28 August 1966:

More than 500 Australian Satellite Troops including two whole companies were wiped out by the South Vietnam Liberation Army in Baria Province on 17 and 18 August when it launched fierce attacks on an Australian battalion and an Armoured Car Column, reported the South Vietnam Liberation Press Agency. In an attack on an Australian Base in Nui Thu on 17 August, the Liberation Army in Baria Province wiped out more than 100 Australian troops.

In the afternoon the following day, the Liberation Army knocked out a number of Australian troops which fell into an ambush in Long Tan Hamlet. Then, the Liberation Forces concentrated their fire on the rest of the enemy and wiped out more than four hundred Australian Satellite troops. Two companies were completely wiped out and another company was heavily battered. Three M113 Armoured Cars were destroyed. The Command of the South Vietnam Liberation Armed Forces has recently decided to award this victorious unit with the Liberation Exploit Order, Third Class.

[Ian McNeill, To Long Tan, p 357]

Enlarge Ho Chi Minh sandal

A Ho Chi Minh sandal found on the battlefield at Long Tan. [AWM REL/02086]

Ian McNeill from the Australian War Memorial's Official History Unit conducted an interview with Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Kiem, Commander of the Viet Cong D445 Battalion from early 1968. Kiem persisted in his belief that the Viet Cong had fought an Australian battalion (not just one company) at Long Tan and that the Australians had been untruthful about the number of their own casualties as well as the number of enemy casualties.

Surrounded by his compatriots he explained the reason for the battle:

Because the Royal Australian forces attacked and established their base at Nui Dat in order to separate the people from our soldiers and to push the revolutionary forces further away. They drained the people the area to make this a white belt (area under government control). So they evacuated the people of the two villages of Long Phuoc and Long Tan to resettle them in Dat Do, Long Dien and Hoa Long. There it was decided at higher level that D445 had to be prepared for battle… We also wanted them (the Australians) to leave Nui Dat so that we could recover our two revolutionary villages of Long Tan and Long Phuoc.

[Ian McNeill, To Long Tan, p 366]

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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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View video of Interview 2 Second Lieutenant David Sabben , 12 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR, Australians at War Film Archive Interview No.2585