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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A three-meter high, white 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. A brass plaque on the cross bore the following inscription,
IN MEMORY OF THOSE
MEMBERS OF D COY 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 6RAR/NZ
(ANZAC) BN 18 AUG 69.
On 17 August 1969, A and D Companies launched an airmobile assault into the Long Tan Rubber plantation, searching and securing the area which was still littered with rusty weapons and equipment discarded during the battle in 1966. Then, under the wet season rain, the two companies settled into night defensive positions .
On the following morning, the battalion’s assault pioneers supervised the clearing of the rubber trees from the site of 11 Platoon’s last stand. Once cleared, a RAAF UH1H helicopter flew in with the cross suspended underneath.
With platoons securing the perimeter around the site, the majority of the battalion, ferried by APCs, moved in and formed a hollow square around the clearing. Ten soldiers who had served during the battalion’s first tour and fought at Long Tan in 1966 (nine from 6RAR and one from 3 Troop, 1 APC Squadron) flanked the cross in an honour guard while pipers played a lament and a chaplain led the dedication ceremony.
By midday the ceremony had concluded and the companies returned to Nui Dat, with D Company being the last to leave. Few Australian Task Force soldiers would see the cross again during their tours as it became inaccessible and only visited during operational patrols.
Sometime after the war the cross was removed and “recycled” by local people as a memorial for a deceased Catholic parish priest, Nguyen Van Chinh, whose name was engraved on the cross when they erected it over his grave. It was subsequently ‘found’ by an Australian researcher and in 1984 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).
In 1987, Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke , announced that the 18th of August, Long Tan day, would also be known as Vietnam Veterans Day and in 1989 a replica was constructed by the local population at Xa Long Tan and placed on the site.
The Vietnamese inscription on the replica reads (in translation):
Socialist Republic of Vietnam
The Ministry of Culture
Recognises: Historic Place
Battlefield: D445 of Ba Ria – Long Khanh province contacted
6th Battalion of the Royal Australian Army
near Long Tan village on 18-8-1966.
The replica cross remains on the battlefield site and special permission must be sought to visit the memorial. The cross was left without its plaque, though visitors can request to have the plaque brought from the local authorities’ office and displayed at the site.
In April 2002, the Australian Veterans Vietnam Reconstruction Group, assisted by the Australian government and with the permission of Vietnamese authorities, completed restoring the replica Long Tan cross and memorial site.
The replica cross has since become a focus for visits and remembrance ceremonies by Australian Vietnam Veterans, although the Long Dat District People’s Committee and the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam insist on strict protocols for ceremonies – the number of visitors is limited, no uniforms or decorations may be worn, and ceremonies must be low key.
It should be remembered that the preservation of the Long Tan cross, although only a replica, is a considerable concession from the Vietnamese. It remains the only foreign war memorial permitted on Vietnamese soil, aside from the single French military memorial at Dien Bien Phu.
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 remained in Australia until April 2013 before being returned to Vietnam. For many veterans of the battle it was the first time they had seen the original cross as they never returned to Vietnam after their tour ended in June 1967.
After its temporary visit to Australia, negotiations began to have the original cross return to the Australian War Memorial as part of a permanent display and on 6 December 2017 the acquisition of cross was unveiled before it went on public display as part of the Vietnam Gallery in time for Vietnam Veteran’s Day on 18 August 2018, the 52nd anniversary of the battle.
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’s who was the platoon sergeant of 11 Platoon at the battle, Dave Sabben’s (12 Platoon commander) account and 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, which can be seen below. 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 and gives a much better perspective than the 2019 dramatised feature film, Danger Close.
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