In September 2010 I went back to Australia for a while after spending months travelling in the US, Europe and Asia. My return was to catch up with family and friends, do some travel there and a few months of contract work to boost the coffers, then I had planned to move to the US. But with the economy still in the gutter I thought, what the hell, I am going to Vietnam and Laos for 2 months (via Singapore)! So I put the relocation off for a while and headed to S.E. Asia. I wrote a number of travel emails from that trip and I thought it would be fun to revisit them with some additional info and photos. The following blog is Part 10 of that journey (Phuoc Tuy Province – the sector where the Australian military mostly fought in the Vietnam War).
November 30th, 2010
Meeting some Aussie Vietnam veterans in a bar last night and discussing their past soon made me forget all this though! Bunch of characters on a tour, most said when they left here during the war they vowed they would never set foot in Vietnam again, but are all really glad they did (bought up a lot of emotions for all of them – some actually live here, but most are from back at home on a visit). Talking to them stirred up thoughts and images from the classic Australian band Redgum and their song “I was only 19” and they also reminded me of the crazy humour of Graham Kennedy in the movie “The Odd Angry Shot“.
Today I made the journey out to Nui Dat (Earth Mountain) and Long Tan to pay my respects to fallen countrymen. There is nothing much left of the old Australian Army Task Force (ATF) base at Nui Dat – the runway (Luscombe Field) is now a road in the nearby village, “Kangaroo Pad” (helicopter landing zone) is a farmer’s field, “SAS Hill” has corn and other crops growing on it! The “Pearly Gates” (former entrance to the base) remain in ruin. It was nice to visit a kindergarten that is funded by Aussie veterans.
Along the way I also visited the third major tunnel complex in Vietnam – Lon Phuoc Tunnels. These tunnels were different again from Vinh Moc and Cu Chi. Smaller in distance etc, but they also had some larger tunnels to walk through (I could almost stand), others I had to bend in half to walk through. They also had various “spider holes” that the VC shot at the Aussies through. A bat wasnt so impressed by my visit and kept landing and taking off just in front of the guide and myself. The guide, she wasn’t so happy about the possibility the bat might come back at her (luckily didn’t, not too keen on that myself)!
The Long Tan Memorial cross is a simple tribute to an incredible and heroic battle. Well worth the journey, even though there is little to see – just the white cross. I placed a floral tribute to the fallen.
Following the previous days mortar attack on the Nui Dat base, Aussie troops and a few Kiwis (108 men in all) made contact with the Communists on the afternoon of August 18, 1966 in a rubber plantation in Long Tan 4.5 km East of Nui Dat . This engagement was part of “Operation Smithfield“. It turned out during the battle the company from 6 RAR (Royal Australian Regiment), were heavily outnumbered, but they fought off a large enemy assault of regimental strength (it is estimated that those few men with fire support fought up to 2500 Viet Cong!). The Viet Cong were not just the local guerilla forces, many of them were wearing military uniforms rather than the standard black clothing and had planned to wipe out the Australian base at Nui Dat (the base had only been established 3 months beforehand).
The battle raged throughout the night in heavy rain – 18 Australians were killed and 24 wounded, while at least 245 Viet Cong were killed (the body count was 245, but it is estimated at least another 150 were killed), approximately 500 more were wounded and 3 were captured. A Viet Cong document captured in 1969 indicated that 878 VC were KIA/MIA or later died from wounds sustained in the battle and approximately 1500 were wounded.
It was a major Australian victory and highlighted the importance of coordinating infantry, artillery, armour and aviation to defeat the enemy. The Australians in this region were never seriously challenged again in a major battle by the Communists for the rest of the war. This battle goes down in the history of Australian military as one of great courage and success.
FROM ARMY CANBERRA
TO 1 ATF
“Our forces in their latest engagement have acquitted themselves with skill effectiveness and high courage in the best Australian tradition. Please tell them that Australia is proud of them. I have publicly expressed my sympathy to the bereaved. My sympathy also goes to the wounded. I send them best wishes for a speedy recovery.”
Prime Minister of Australia (1966-1967).
“Hearty congratulations to the 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment and a company of the 5th Battalion RAR for their fine show in Operation SMITHFIELD. Your troops have won a most significant victory over the enemy and one of the most spectacular in Vietnam to date.”
General William C. Westmoreland
Commander US Military Assistance Command Vietnam (1964-1968).
The original memorial was removed by the Communists after they won the war. But was replaced in more recent years. Australian veterans make a pilgrimage here each Anzac day and Long Tan day.
If you would like to learn more about the Battle of Long Tan I recommend you watch the excellent documentary in this link.