One of the most well-known Australian engagements of the Vietnam War was the Battle of Long Tan, 18 August 1966. The battle saw the action of 108 ANZACS against a Viet Cong (North Vietnamese) force estimated between 1,500 and 2,500. The Battle was one of the heaviest conflicts of the Vietnam War as well as one the few battles in the recorded history of the world to be won against such odds.
Vietnam Veterans’ Day, celebrated in Australia on 18 August each year, commemorates the Battle of Long Tan and those Australians who served during the Vietnam War and is an opportunity to remember those who did not come home.
The Vietnam War was the longest war Australia was ever involved in. Australian involvement in the Vietnam War was marked by controversy and significant levels of public opposition to conscription and concern about casualties. The Vietnam War was also the first war witnessed ‘live’ on television.
In the late 1960s, the escalation of the Vietnam War coincided with the hippy movement and music as the chosen vehicle for an alternative lifestyle. It also was a period when Australians reflected on their relationships with the United States of America (USA) and with Asia.
Australian involvement in the Vietnam War (1962 – 1973)
Australia’s support for the Vietnam War in the early 1960s was in keeping with the policies of other nations, particularly the USA, to stop the spread of communism in Europe and Asia. Upon request from Ngo Dinh Diem, leader of the government in South Vietnam, a team of 30 Australian military advisers arrived during July and August 1962 and in August 1964, the Royal Australian Air Force sent a flight of Caribou aircraft.
By early 1965, the USA requested Australia, as an ally, to also commit further support. Australia sent the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) in June 1965.
As hostilities escalated, the Australian government increased Australia’s involvement by calling up conscripts under the National Service Scheme, as well as all nine RAR battalions over the period of the War.
Commencing in 1968, public opinion in both Australia and the United States began to turn against the War.
By 1969 anti-war protests were gathering momentum in Australia. Opposition to conscription mounted, as more people came to believe the war could not be won. A ‘Don’t register’ campaign to dissuade young men from registering for conscription gained increasing support and some of the protests grew violent.
In April 1970, the decision to order troops to cross the border into Cambodia, a formally neutral sovereign state inflamed the protests. While large quantities of North Vietnamese arms were captured; the action ultimately proved disastrous. The Cambodian government was weakened – until the Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975 and killed several millions of Cambodians. In the well-known Moratoriums of 1970, more than 200,000 people gathered to protest against the War, in cities and towns throughout Australia (Australian War Memorial).
The combination of the 1968 ‘Tet’ Offensive, the 1970 decision to go into Cambodia, the unpopularity of conscription, rising casualty rates, public concern about the effects of chemical warfare, especially ‘Agent Orange’, and public opposition forced the allied political leaderships to announce the gradual withdrawal of allied forces from 1971. The Australian commitment ended in June 1973.
Long Tan (1966)
The Australian operations base at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province was fired upon by the Viet Cong with mortar and shell at about 2 am on 17 August 1966. On 18 August, D Company, 6 RAR Battalion, numbering 105 Australians and a three-man New Zealand artillery team, was sent into the Long Tan rubber plantation, all coming under heavy machine-gun fire and mortar attacks from Viet Cong – estimated to be at least 1,500 and possibly 2,500 troops. D Company commander, Major Harry Smith, requested resupply of ammunition and troop reinforcements by helicopter, which was supplied.
Long Tan, Vietnam. 19 August 1966. Private David J. Collins guards a captured Viet Cong.
After almost three hours of intense fighting by D Company, reinforcements from A Company arrived in armoured personnel carriers (APC). Ammunition was distributed and the wounded were tended. Early in the evening, B Company also arrived and engaged the Viet Cong. Soon after that, seven APCs arrived, having risked skirmishes with the Viet Cong along the way. The extra fire-power finally stopped the Viet Cong, and all firing ceased.
There were 18 Australians killed – 17 from D Company and one from the 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron – and 21 wounded. The Viet Cong insurgents left 245 dead and many more wounded. In later years, it was found out that D Company had run into a reinforced regimental force waiting to attack Nui Dat.
Reflections in Australia on the Vietnam War
For the 10 years of the War and the 20 years that followed, the Vietnam War was the focus of much reflection, debate, expression and representation. Works were produced and presented in wide-ranging media and form.
In the late 1960s, the hippy and peace movements known as ‘flower power’, coincided with the War, influenced the new generation, known as ‘baby boomers’ as well as lyrics and a new wave of Australian folk and rock music. The Push and innovative jazz music challenged the feel of popular music performed by the likes of Little Pattie and her popularisation of Australian beach culture.
One of the most enduring songs to come out of the period, and which became an anthem for some Vietnam Veterans, is the song penned by John Schumann; I was only 19 (A Walk In The Light Green) .
And there’s me in my slouch hat, with my SLR and greens…
God help me, I was only nineteen.
From Vung Tau riding Chinooks to the dust at Nui Dat,
I’d been in and out of choppers now for months…
And can you tell me, doctor, why I still can’t get to sleep?
And night time’s just a jungle dark and a barking M16?
And what’s this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?
God help me, I was only nineteen.
The Long Tan Cross, located in Ba Ria Vung Tau Province approximately 110 km east of Ho Chi Minh City, marks the site of the Battle of Long Tan. Other than a memorial to French forces at Dien Bien Phu, it is the only place in Vietnam where a foreign memorial has been permitted.
The Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial is located on Anzac Parade in Canberra. The interior space is the dramatic centre of the memorial. A larger-than-life sized image in etched polished granite shows a platoon of Australian troops about to board helicopters for their return to Nui Dat. On another interior stele, 33 quotations are fixed in stainless steel lettering. Contained within the circle suspended above are the names of those Australians who died in the Vietnam War 1962-1973 (Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial Commemorative Booklet 1992).
Vietnam Veterans did not have an easy time on their return from the War. The march and dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in 1992 was the beginning of a healing process for Vietnam Veterans and the Australian nation. Some marchers wore their service medals as well as peace badges.
Decades after the war in Vietnam ceased, Australians are returning there. As well as a tourist destination, Vietnam is a country where Australians, young and old, can examine and come face-to-face with one of our most tumultuous periods of history. Australian veterans have revisited and helped to renew places devastated by the war and isolation from the west, including building schools and conducting education and health programs. However, unlike other places where Australians have fought, Vietnam does not have many places where an Australian presence is evident in the way of cemeteries or museums, other than the memorial at Long Tan.
The National Vietnam Veterans Museum, located on Phillip Island in Victoria, was opened in March 2007. It is the only museum of its kind in Australia that covers a specific period in Australia’s military history. The museum evolved under the auspices of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia to present the factual story of the veterans’ involvement during a time of deep national civil and political division. The museum’s collection of around 6000 artefacts exists to permanently record Australia’s longest commitment to any war, a period of 10 years. Outside the museum is a purpose-built Garden of Reflection with a replica of the Long Tan cross as a centrepiece.