The Battle of Long Tan is part of the Australian Story – our history, our story!
Now, 57 years on the Battle of Long Tan should resonate across all the veterans of the Vietnam War. All, whether you were in the Army, the RAAF, the RAN, or the Merchant Marine
It is also my story.
The events of Thursday 18 August 1966 tell the story of the early days of the Army’s occupation of Nui Dat, which is in the geographic centre of what was Phuoc Tuy Province of South Vietnam.
Before the base was secured the surrounding area had to be cleared of the enemy. The enemy had to be made aware that the Australians had arrived and meant business.
5 RAR and 6 RAR did this by constant patrolling while at the same time establishing the Nui Dat Base which was to be our home until 1972.
In the lead up to the Battle both battalions, 5 RAR and 6 RAR were constantly on the move, patrolling, seeking the enemy by cordoning and searching villages to gain dominance of the Area of Operations. It was a constant struggle not only against the enemy but with the elements – the monsoons had arrived.
Thursday 18th August was no different.
D Company 5 RAR, of which I was a member, had arrived back at Nui Dat base on the morning of 18th August 1966 after many days patrolling.
After returning stores, cleaning weapons, and cleaning up there was the expectation of a day or two break. Though you who have lived in that environment will understand that a break meant digging pits, wire parties, sentry duty, close in TAOR patrols and duties of one form or another.
Little Patti and Col Joy were arriving on the first Concert Tour so there was the possibility of a lucky few getting a look in there.
All of this came to a halt when the guns of the NZ 161 Battery started firing. And the skies opened in true monsoon fashion.
The concert was cancelled and not long after 103 Field Battery, then 105 Field Battery also began firing along with the guns of an American 155 mm battery which was in support of the Australian Task Force.
In all 24 guns were firing. Firing to the east of the Task Force base toward the area we knew well as the Long Tan rubber.
We knew that something serious was happening. Towards last light D Coy 5 RAR was warned to move at first light on the 19th August.
The Company, then the platoon and then the sections had received their orders late that evening amid a cacophony of noise so loud, so constant and so ominous that it was impossible to avoid the thought that we were heading into something serious. Being put on one hour’s notice to move simply reinforced that there were interesting times ahead.
Before first light on the 19th August 1966, D Company 5 RAR saddled up and moved down to the helicopter pad to be airlifted to the Long Tan rubber plantation.
It is history now that D Company 6 RAR had clashed with a large enemy force five kilometres to the east of the Nui Dat Base Camp. This clash became the Battle of Long Tan and was to result in the death of 18 Australians and over 240 of the enemy.
The Battle commenced when 11 Platoon 6 RAR had a minor contact at 3.35 pm. The Platoon was ordered to follow up the enemy which it was doing when it literally ran into an enemy force estimated to be between 2,500 and 3,000 strong. The battle raged for the next three hours amid torrential rain, shortage of ammunition, thousands of rounds of artillery and American jets overhead waiting for a break in the clouds to try to get in and ease the pressure on the soldiers of D Company.
At the time I was a recently promoted Lance Corporal and a Section 21C in 12 Platoon D Company 5 RAR and my story of Long Tan is nowhere as inspiring as that of the men of D Company 6 RAR.
The Battle of Long Tan is rightly the story of the men of D Coy 6 RAR.
However, it is a story that will be familiar to all who served in Vietnam during the period 1962 to 1973. It is a story that lives with us constantly. Constantly however not for reasons of our choosing but because of the history of the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War and the on-going struggle many veterans live with.
D Company 5 RAR’s mission on the 19th August 1966 was to be the left assault company for the clearance of the battlefield and then to follow-up or pursue the enemy. I will always recall moving from the open country into the gloom of the old growth rubber plantation where the Battle of Long Tan had been fought just a short time before.
It was a mind focussing experience. The apprehension, the tension was almost hypnotic. The quiet was only broken by the noise of the armoured vehicles that were with us. Yet and despite these vehicles we all heard the quiet, the stillness of the plantation where fellow Australians had just recently performed a magnificent feat of arms.
The results of the battle were there for us to see. Carnage was all around us, rubber trees destroyed by the artillery fire, discarded weapons everywhere and death. It is said that only God can explain why such events happen, why men do such grim deeds to each other.
War is a funny game. At the same time, it is a serious endeavour. The grimness of it is often pushed back into the dark recesses of the brain.
50 years on it is fair to ask what it was all about and more importantly what are the lessons that we as a nation should take from the Vietnam experience and from all subsequent military deployments.
The soldiers, sailors and air men and women who served in Vietnam did the nation proud. Sadly, many of the nation’s political leaders did not reciprocate that pride.
It was left to the broad Australian community and the families of the veterans to embrace and welcome them home just as families have always done through the years.
Returning veterans were not received as their fathers and grandfathers were from the then recent world wars. The political environment encouraged an anti-Vietnam campaign that ran rampant through many of our universities, much of the media and the political establishment.
The political leaders of the time stood mute in the face of the abuse of the veterans. They did not know how to develop a winning narrative at a time when the veterans and their families sought clear national support.
That should not happen again. Ever!
Is it worth fighting for? This is a question we all should ask. If it is, then we fight to win. That may sound grim but that is what veterans, and their families want – that their efforts will make a difference.
War and a commitment to war requires a commitment by the nation to share in the sacrifices, to share in the resolve it entails.
Seeking to limit casualties as our political leaders did limit the options of the military leadership. Rather it simply inspired the enemy which became more determined to win.
Again, we as a nation must demand total commitment to support the men and women it sends off to war on the nation’s behalf.
To the veterans of Long Tan and all those who served in Vietnam I say, ‘Well done’.
Thomas Mordaunt, a British general and poet wrote during the Seven Years War in the 1750s:
“Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
Throughout the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.”
Vietnam was your crowded hour. It has earned you a place in the Australian Story. For the rest of your life, you will be able to recall that when called by the nation you stepped forward and did your duty. Your crowded hour!
Be proud that you are a Vietnam veteran. Well done!
Kel Ryan 18082023