Australian Airborne Insignia #1 – Airborne Platoon?

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As yet to be positively identified Australian Airborne patch. The design is printed on calico / linen material, reminiscent of the patches sometimes used by Australian and Commonwealth units in the 1950’s.

This is the first of an ongoing series of articles which will take a closer look at some of the insignia used by the Airborne and Special Operations units of the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

This week, my thoughts on a couple of mystery Australian Airborne patches which have not yet been positively identified. I suspect that both of the badges featured have a connection to the platoon of qualified parachutists, known as Airborne Platoon, that has been attached to the Australian parachute training units since the 1950’s.

Airborne Platoon has been an integral part of the parachute training activities carried out within the Australian Defence Force since 1951. The platoon formation was promulgated in Military Board Instruction 145 of 21 September 1951 and states,

“Establish in the Australian Military Forces a mobile group capable of providing Army, inter-service and public duties in the following fields.

  1. Land/Air Warfare tactical research and development;
  2. Demonstrations to assist Land/Air Warfare training and security;
  3. Airborne fire fighting
  4. Airborne search and rescue;
  5. Aid to the civil power – national catastrophes.

Method: By regular attachment of a rifle platoon from the Royal Australian Regiment to the component of the School of Land/Air Warfare. Platoon to be relieved annually.”

In subsequent years the role and tasks performed by the Airborne Platoon has evolved and today its function is different to that originally outlined above. Soldiers from Airborne Platoon, which number around 20, assist with various training activities conducted at the Parachute Training School (PTS). Colloquially known as ‘stooging’ these include providing sticks of qualified parachutists for trainees to use during advanced courses for example the stick commander’s course as well as demonstrating techniques, operating simulators and training equipment etc.

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Airborne Platoon 1963. Note the unit crest with the words “AIRBORNE PLATOON” superimposed on the boomerang. Unfortunately I have been unable to ascertain the exact colours used for the crest, however I suspect it may consist of a white parachute, pale blue wings, red brown kangaroo and yellow boomerang. The members of the platoon when this photograph was taken in 1963 are as follows:  Back row L-R – John Clarke, Frank Carroll, Charlie Liddell, Wayne Blank KIA in Vietnam , Mick Caroll DCM in Vietnam, Tom Davidson, Alex McCloskey DCM in Vietnam, Jimmy Acorn, “Smudger” Smith Centre L-R -Ted Harrison, Bernie Considine, John Burling, Peter Wilkes DCM in Vietnam, John Mulby, Rob Perry, John Durrington KIA in Vietnam, Roy Cladingbole, Ron Gilchrist, Sitting Front L-R – Brice French, Bob Mossman, Maurice Barwick, Dick Collins, Bill Jenkinson, Lou Langabeer

Members of the platoon wear the maroon beret and wing type for which they are qualified, but my research, thus far, does not indicate the use of any other authorised uniform insignia. However, photographs of the platoon show that the platoon displayed a distinctive unit crest for official photographs and also at the platoon lines on base. The crest features a stylised version of the Australian parachute qualification with white parachute and blue wings, surmounted by a red/brown kangaroo above a boomerang. Photographs from the 1950’s and 60’s show the boomerang featuring the words “AIRBORNE PLATOON” but by the 1970’s this had evolved to include the words “ROYAL AUSTRALIAN REGIMENT”.

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Airborne Platoon photograph showing members of the unit in 1973. Note the change to the unit crest including the replacement of the words “AIRBORNE PLATOON” on the boomerang with “ROYAL AUSTRALIAN REGIMENT”

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Two members of Airborne Platoon by their unit crest displayed at their lines during the 1970’s.

The use of this crest could provide clues to a couple of unusual Australian military parachutist insignia that are known to exist but have not yet been formally identified. The first is a printed calico badge (shown at the top of the page) of the type used for shoulder patches by Australian Commonwealth Military Forces during the 1950’s and 60’s.

The second badge which I hold in my collection also incorporates the same design elements. The manufacturing style and weave of this badge indicates that it dates from the 1960’s and possibly made by the ACE Novelty Company in Japan. There are differences in scale, shape of the various design elements and colours when compared to the later RAR Airborne Platoon insignia. However, the symbolism used in both the badges and the Airborne Platoon crests leads me to suspect that both these two insignia may both have been made for and used by the Airborne Platoon in the first couple of decades of its existence.

Unidentified Australian parachute patch. Because of the symbolism used here and also with the early Airborne Platoon crest, I wonder if this badge may have been used unofficially on sports wear, jumpsuits etc by members of the Airborne Platoon at some point from the late 50's through 1960's? I don't know the answer and any additional information is welcomed. Collection: Julian Tennant

Unidentified Australian parachute patch. Because of the symbolism used here and also with the early Airborne Platoon crest, I wonder if this badge may have been used unofficially on sports wear, jumpsuits etc by members of the Airborne Platoon at some point from the late 50’s through 1960’s? I don’t know the answer and any additional information is welcomed. Collection: Julian Tennant

At this stage these observations are my own and unsubstantiated by any verifiable evidence that I am aware of. If anybody can provide any more information about either of the badges (or has an example of the printed calico patch for sale or trade), I would welcome your input and any additional information, so please contact me if you can help.

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The Australian Army in action in Vietnam 1966

This is a 25 minute documentary made by the Australian Commonwealth Film Unit in 1966 shortly after the Australian Task Force established itself in Phuoc Thuy province and before the anti-war movement took hold. The film shows combined operations with US troops in War Zone D, hearts and minds and general life in-country. Its purpose was to give the public back in Australia an understanding of what the war was like and how the Australian diggers went about their day to day activities. Government propaganda of the time, but worth watching nonetheless.
Directed by John Abbott and made available for public viewing by the National Film And Sound Archive.

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Presidential Unit Citation

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.

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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

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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.

Battlefield memorial at Long Tan, 1998.

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

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.

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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.