The Long Tan Memorial cross

11:00 hrs, 18 August 1966. Nui Dat, South Vietnam.

Delta Company from the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (D Coy, 6RAR), comprising 105 Australian infantrymen and 3 New Zealand Forward Artillery Observation party gunners from 161 Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery step off from the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) base at Nui Dat to commence Operation VENDETTA. Each soldier is carrying 3 x 20 round magazines and another 60 rounds in boxes in their packs. Each M60 machine gun team carries 5 x 100 round belts and another 5 x 100 round belts in their packs.

Soldiers of the 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), push through dense scrub country in search of retreating Viet Cong. This photograph was taken the day after the battle. CUN/66/0693/VN

Aerial view of the Long Tan rubber plantation on 18 August 1966.

The company-sized patrol, under the command of Major Harry Smith, is part of a response to a mortar and recoilless rifle (RCL) attack on the 1 ATF base in the early hours of the previous morning. D Coy is tasked to relieve B Coy, 6RAR, who had just discovered a dug in position for about 20 men plus signs of a 75ml RCL that had fired at the base. For most of the company this was just another patrol, nothing special apart from missing out on a concert being held at the base by Little Patti and Col Joyce that evening.

Long Tan Action, Vietnam, 18 August 1966. Bruce Fletcher, 1970. [Oil on canvas 152 x 175cm. AWM ART40758]

Just before 16:00hrs in the rubber plantation at Long Tan they made contact with the enemy. For the next three and a half hours, in an area no larger than two football fields and in a blinding monsoon thunderstorm, the men of D Coy fought off an enemy force that outnumbered them 26 to 1. By the end of the battle, 16 members of D Coy lay dead and 23 were wounded. Two more (one from D Coy and one Armoured Corps soldier from the relieving force carried aboard 3tp 1 APC Squadron) would die from their wounds. Four other Aussies from the relieving force, three from A Coy, and one from B Coy were wounded.

The Fallen: 19 August 1966. The body of 11 Platoon Commander Second Lieutenant Gordon Sharp on the battlefield of Long Tan. In the background is the body of another unidentified Australian soldier from 11 Platoon, 6RAR.

Of the 2650+ NVA regulars and Viet Cong guerrillas who were on the battlefield 245 bodies were counted on the battlefield and 3 were captured. However during Operation MARSDEN in late 1969, Australian forces captured a Viet Cong dispensary that had a casualty list attributed to the battle at Long Tan. That list identified 878 as KIA/Missing/Died of Wounds and approximately 1500 wounded in action. It was a significant defeat for the NVA and VC forces whose stated aim was to lure an Australian battalion out of the task force base to destroy them, then attack the base at Nui Dat itself. Instead, the battle severely weakened the enemy in Phuoc Tuy province and they never again posed a serious threat to the Nui Dat base.

The Presidential Unit Citation awarded by US President Lyndon B Johnson to D Company 6 RAR for heroism at the battle of Long Tan.

In May 1968, US President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded D Coy, 6RAR the Presidential Unit Citation (Army) “For Extraordinary Heroism”. This prompted plans by 6RAR BHQ to build a memorial in Vietnam during their second tour of Vietnam, which commenced in May 1969. The cross was built in the battalion lines at Nui Dat out of concrete by pioneers from 6RAR-NZ Anzac Battalion’s Assault Pioneer Platoon and was overseen by Sgt Allan McLean. It was suspended under a RAAF UH1H helicopter and flown to the site of the battle in the Long Tan rubber plantation, where it was erected and dedicated in memory of the fallen by 6 RAR-NZ Anzac Battalion on the 18th of August 1969, the third anniversary of the battle. In 1987, Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke also announced that the 18th of August, Long Tan day, would also be known as Vietnam Veterans Day.  The site at Long Tan remains one of only two foreign war memorials permitted in Vietnam, the other being French at Dien Bien Phu.

Pipers from the 6 RAR-NZ Anzac Battalion band surround the Memorial Cross and play a lament for the dead of Long Tan during it’s dedication on the 18th of August 1969. Picture: Christopher Bellis

Close up of the plaque on the cross, which reads
“In Memory of those members of D Coy 6 RAR 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 6 RAR/NZ (ANZAC) Bn 18 Aug 69”.
Photograph by Jay Cronan/The Canberra Times.

Sometime after the war the cross was removed, reportedly by a Catholic farmer for his father’s grave and a replica was constructed by the local population at Xa Long Tan and placed on the site. The original cross was subsequently found by an Australian researcher and placed on display at the Dong Nai museum (Nguyen Ai Quoc Street [Dong Nai Province Square] Tan Phong Ward , Bien Hoa City, Dong Nai Province, Vietnam). The replica cross remains on the battlefield site and special permission must be sought to visit the memorial.

The battlefield and memorial, featuring the replica cross, when I visited Long Tan in 1998.

In July 2012, the cross was sent to Australia, on loan to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. It was put on public display on the 17th of August and will remain in Australia until April 2013 before being returned to Vietnam. For many veterans of the battle it will be the first time they have seen the original cross as they never returned to Vietnam after their tour ended in June 1967.

Vietnam vets examine the cross at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, prior to it going on public display in August 2012.
Photograph by Jay Cronan/The Canberra Times.

Accounts of the Battle of Long Tan

There are numerous excellent on-line accounts of the battle of Long Tan. If you would like to do further reading, I recommend checking out the OC of D Coy, 6 RAR,  Harry Smith’s page, Bob Buick, who was the platoon sergeant of 11 Platoon at the battle, Terry Burstall’s (who was a private in D Coy during the battle) research into the enemy’s perspective, with further information being found at the Australian Government’s official  Vietnam War page and the 6 RAR Association website. An ABC regional radio interview with Albany farmer and Long Tan veteran, Harley Webb is also worth listening to for a personal account of the battle.

In August 2006, on the 40th anniversary of the battle, Martin Walsh of Red Dune Films, in conjunction with FOXTEL premiered this excellent documentary of the battle. Narrated by Sam Worthington and running for an hour and forty one minutes it provides an excellent account of the battle through the experiences of the participants. It is definitely worth taking the time to check it out.

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