Battle of Long Tan anniversary speech
Speech by Major Ash Graham,
Officer Commanding Supply Wing, Army School of Ordnance
Delivered at Junction Place, Woodnga
18 August 2016
It is indeed a special privilege this morning to share with you this commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. This epic battle reinforced traits for which Australian soldiers have become world renowned: courage and determination, mateship and teamwork, leadership and tenacity, compassion and humour. It further reinforced our international reputation as a skilled exponent of the profession of arms.
In the months preceding August 1966, the Australian Army had established its combat military base in the heart of Phuoc Tuy Province, located about 100km South East of the capital Saigon. The Viet Cong had long dominated the area, and were determined to keep their hold on what they saw as tactically vital ground through intimidation of the local population. It was the primary function of the 1st Australian Task Force to prevent that intimidation by defeating the Viet Cong local and regional forces present in the province at the time.
Much conjecture still exists as to whether the Viet Cong units were gathering for a major assault against the Nui Dat base. What is certainly true is that the encounter battle fought by Delta Company of the 6th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, fortuitous though it may have been, put paid to any idea of a Viet Cong assault on the Task Force Base.
The Battle of Long Tan itself developed as a consequence of the Viet Cong mortaring the Australian Task Force compound in the early hours of 17 August 1966. The bombardment lasted just 22 minutes but it left 24 soldiers wounded and raised fears that it could be a prelude to a full-scale enemy attack on the base. This, together with intelligence reports indicating that several Viet Cong units were close by, galvanised a rapid Australian response. Company-sized groups were ordered to search the surrounding area around the Nui Dat Base with the aim of locating and neutralising the threat.
As part of this operation, on August 18th, the 108 men of Delta Company relieved their Bravo Company mates and continued patrolling to the east in the Long Tan rubber plantation where rifle platoons had their first fleeting contacts with scattered groups of enemy. Contacts increased rapidly and it was soon obvious that the Australians were facing a large enemy main force regiment. The Australians were used to short, sharp enemy actions in which local guerrillas quickly struck, then slipped away. But the enemy were standing and fighting, not avoiding contact, and they were massing for attack with large volumes of fire.
11 Platoon was almost surrounded and pinned down by heavy RPG and automatic weapons fire. At about this time, the monsoon broke and the battle continued through a torrential downpour. Within 20 minutes, the platoon commander and one-third of his platoon of 28 men were killed or wounded. The survivors were forced to pull back and rejoin the other platoons who were also fighting off heavy enemy attacks and manoeuvring to counter enemy flanking movements.
Under intense enemy fire, the soldiers of Delta Company fought off successive assaults, assisted by accurate artillery fire from the base at Nui Dat five kilometres away. Labouring in acrid cordite smoke and driving rain, the gunners knew their artillery support was crucial to the infantry company’s survival. They worked hard to maintain their rhythm of preparing, loading and firing while checking and adjusting the fall of their shells in response to the calls from the forward observer in the field. Soldiers from around the base were called in to assist in unpacking the artillery rounds and feeding them to the gunners.
Meanwhile the soldiers of the besieged Delta Company fell back on their training and teamwork. Men knew what they had to do and were sure from their training of what their mates alongside them were doing, and so worked together as a unit. As each wave of Viet Cong came forward they fired as a team, providing covering fire for each other.
With soldiers almost out of ammunition, the artillery briefly halted fire while RAAF helicopter crews flew a daring resupply mission. At 6pm two RAAF helicopters succeeded in dropping boxes of ammunition to the company while hovering at tree-top level, despite the heavy downpour and the risks from enemy ground fire.
The enemy continued to press their attack. For over two hours our soldiers had been fighting a ferocious battle against overwhelming odds and they were now virtually surrounded by a determined and well-equipped enemy. Then, just before 7pm, as the enemy were apparently forming up for a final assault, the relief company of infantry, mounted in armoured personnel carriers, broke through the enemy lines and drove them off.
Intelligence estimates suggest that Delta Company fought off some 10 times their number in these four to five hours of unrelenting close quarter and bloody fighting; an incredible performance.
The bravery displayed by the men of Delta Company that day was recognised with the award of a United States Presidential Unit Citation ‘for extraordinary heroism’, presented by President Lyndon B. Johnson on May 28th 1968; only the third time that an Australian Army unit has been so honoured.
Despite this, numerous individual acts of conspicuous gallantry had received no official recognition until now, whereby last week the Australian Government recommended the award of military honours to 10 servicemen whose brave actions will now receive due acknowledgment.
Tragically, 18 Australian soldiers were killed in the Battle of Long Tan – 17 from Delta Company and one from the 1st APC Squadron, while another 24 men were wounded. The names of the dead are inscribed on the Wall of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, alongside more than 500 regular and national service sailors, soldiers and airmen who also went to Vietnam and did not return. We continue to honour their memory and the supreme sacrifice they made when their country called.
It was to our country’s shame that it did not recognise the sterling performance of its armed forces in Vietnam until almost 20 years later at the national ‘Welcome Home’ parade held in Sydney in 1987. Some 25,000 veterans marched. This motivated the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke, to announce that August 18th would be known as Vietnam Veterans’ Day. So while today we come to commemorate the splendid service of those who took part in the battle of Long Tan, this day has special significance also for the some 50,000 Australians and 3500 New Zealanders, who are all veterans of the Vietnam War, linked inextricably together in a common cause and a common bond.
Those who serve in the Australian Defence Force today owe the veterans of Vietnam an enormous debt of gratitude, as it has been your struggles and efforts in the years post Vietnam that have made the difference for those who serve today.
Similarly, the intense focus on the ongoing mental health of veterans and their families is a direct result of the years of work of Vietnam Veterans. The creation of the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service, now the Veterans’ and Veterans’ families counselling service is stark evidence of this.
But today’s anniversary is also an acknowledgment of those who intimately and outstandingly supported our deployed Australian personnel during the Vietnam War in a variety of ways; the command, logistics and training organisations, support volunteers, doctors, nurses, Padre’s, and in particular your families; for they too experienced their own private battles during this time; prejudice, ignorance, loneliness and of course – loss. Today is also for them.
So on this 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, we thank the gallant participants of that battle, and all the veterans who served their country in the conflict that was Vietnam. We honour those who did not return and those who returned hurt in body or mind. None should ever be forgotten, none will be forgotten; nor indeed will the families and loved ones who supported you.