Remembering Long Tan, Australia’s Costliest Vietnam Battle
One Aussie is determined to remind people
On Aug. 18, Australians remember their countrymen who served in the Vietnam War. The official name of the holiday is Vietnam Veterans Day, but many Aussies still call it “Long Tan Day” after the location of Australia’s bloodiest battle since the Korean War.
On that day in 1966, 105 Australian soldiers and three New Zealand forward artillery observers faced 2,500 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army guerrillas in a rubber plantation in Phuoc Tuy province, South Vietnam.
They fought desperately in darkness and torrential rain for nearly four hours. The Australian Army lost 18 men that night and the fighting injured a further 24.
While well-known to Aussies, there are few people outside Australia who have heard about the ferocious fighting that erupted that night. I learned of it only last year when I came across the 2006 documentary Battle of Long Tan on YouTube. I was hooked.
With reconstructions of radio communications and interviews with soldiers on both sides, the movie had me fixed to the screen. Avatar star Sam Worthington narrates the story with the convincing air of someone who lived through it—no doubt thanks to having met the veterans of the battle.
It’s one of my favorite war documentaries, so for the 48th anniversary of the battle, I sought out the man behind the film—former Aussie commando Martin Walsh.
A marketing professional from Melbourne, Walsh first learned about what happened at Long Tan while serving with 1 Commando Regiment in the Australian Army in 1990. A friend recommended military historian Lex McAulay’s seminal book The Battle of Long Tan.
“I couldn’t put it down and I think I read it in just a couple of nights,” Walsh told me. “At first I was simply amazed and stunned at the story and the gallantry, but that quickly turned to anger.”
Walsh said he was surprised that he’d never learned about Australia in the Vietnam War while at school. What he had learned about the war came from Hollywood movies depicting the American experience. The Aussies’ unique approach to the war never made it into popular culture.
Australian way of war
Vietnam was Oz’s longest war—beaten only by its 12-year involvement in Afghanistan. 59,000 soldiers rotated through the conflict before Australia withdrew in 1973. Nearly a third were conscripts under the controversial National Service scheme—a selective draft which ran from 1964 to 1972.
Five hundred Australian servicemen died in action in Vietnam, making the conflict the nation’s fourth bloodiest war after the World Wars and the Second Boer War from 1899 to 1902.
As with the U.S. Army, the Australian Army’s first deployment to South Vietnam was a small military advisory group. But by June 1965, Australia was neck-deep in the conflict with 1,100 troops under the command of the U.S. 173 Airborne Brigade at Bien Hoa.
The Battle of Long Tan came about because of Prime Minister Harold Holt. After visiting U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson in June 1966, Holt co-opted Johnson’s 1964 campaign slogan, pledging that Australia was “all the way with LBJ.”
The U.S. needed “more flags”—international allies—to legitimize its increasingly bloody involvement in Indochina and Holt was eager to help out. He trebled Australia’s deployment to 4,500 troops. The Australian Army redeployed as 1st Australian Task Force and moved to a new base Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy.
The decision to give the Australian effort independence of command grew out of the increasingly obvious differences between the American and Australian ways of war.
Australian forces had fought alongside the British in Malaya from 1955 to 1963. Their units arrived in Vietnam with a firm understanding of how to wage a counterinsurgency in the jungle, but the American focus on “big war” stifled the operational effectiveness of the Aussie units under their command.
Nui Dat was a new start. A canvas village of Australian and New Zealand troops flanked by artillery and Special Air Service units from both countries. The Royal Australian Air Force also contributed a squadron of UH-1B Iroquois helicopters in support of the task force.
The Australian Army chose Phuoc Tuy as its tactical area of operations because it was swarming with Viet Cong guerrillas. 1ATF deployed at Nui Dat to create the maximum possible disruption to the Viet Cong. The Australians put their base right between a major Viet Cong stronghold and the provincial capitol, Ba Ria.
From there, the Aussies struck out into the bush to clear a five kilometer perimeter to protect them from incoming bombardment. They called this perimeter “Line Alpha.”
To pacify and secure Line Alpha, the Australians brought back strategies that helped them beat the insurgency in Malaya. Resettlement was an important part of Australian counterinsurgency strategy—clearing villages one by one, processing the inhabitants and interning suspected insurgents.
Prior to the arrival of 1ATF, American, Australian and South Vietnamese forcibly resettled the thousand inhabitants of a village called Long Tan, just within Line Alpha’s eastern frontier.
Long Tan should have been abandoned, but patrols kept reporting a large Viet Cong presence around the village. The Americans were skeptical but 1ATF commander Brig. Oliver David Jackson knew the Viet Cong were out there.
Australian secret signals intelligence had tracked a radio transmitter to the area around Long Tan. Even though the Aussie patrols had yet to make contact with the large Viet Cong force gathering around Long Tan, in hindsight, it was inevitable that they would be drawn into combat.
Events escalated in the early hours of Aug. 17, 1966. The Viet Cong bombarded the Nui Dat base from within Line Alpha. The attack injured 24 of 1ATF’s men. Australian and New Zealand artillery returned fire and the bombardment soon stopped.
Jackson sent out B Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which found the firing positions by the afternoon and began tracking the enemy fire team.
At noon the next day, Jackson sent out D Company to continue the search to the east. The Aussies and their Kiwi artillery liaisons trekked into the rubber plantation around Long Tan not knowing that around them was the Viet Cong 5th Division. The division was a mix of differently trained and organized forces.
1,600 full-time soldiers of the 275th Viet Cong Main Force Regiment provided the bulk of the force. They were better trained and organized than the local insurgents commonly associated with the name “Viet Cong.” In addition to the 275th Regiment, 500 North Vietnamese Army soldiers and 550 soldiers from the D445 Provincial Battalion.
The Viet Cong had hoped to lure 1ATF from their base, but they didn’t seem to have readied an ambush. The Australians stumbled upon the large force in waiting and both sides scrambled in action.
There was no better company to be facing the Viet Cong that day. Maj. Harry Smith had served in Malaya and then three years with 2 Commando. He wanted his men to be ready for anything and rode them hard.
“We didn’t walk anywhere,” Sgt. Bob Buick of 11 Platoon would later recount, “we fucking ran.” This special forces-level training was arduous on the men and caused friction with Smith’s commanding officer. But all that hard work was about to pay off.
11 Platoon made first contact at around 15:40, firing on a unaware Viet Cong screening patrol in green uniforms. The Viet Cong patrol retreated, leaving behind a trail of blood from one of their wounded. 11 Platoon gave chase and came under machine gun fire. Pinned down, the Aussies called in artillery support from the 18 Australian and New Zealand batteries at Nui Dat.
Once the firing began, it barely let off for three hours, dropping over 3,500 shells on the hills and plantation around Long Tan. Firing at eight rounds per minute through lightning strikes for hours without a break at their maximum range of five kilometers—Long Tan was to be a showcase of close artillery support.
Heavy fire had trapped 11 Platoon and mortars soon began bombarding the rest of the company. At 16:15, Smith estimated that they faced a platoon of Viet Cong. Ten minutes later, Smith reported a company of enemy. Then as 10 Platoon moved up to help extract 11 Platoon at 16:40, that estimate rose to a battalion-size force.
To make matters worse, torrential monsoon rain began to pour, halving visibility and hampering movement.
11 Platoon didn’t return to the rest of D Company until two hours into the battle. Its platoon commander was dead and Buick had to make the difficult decision to leave behind 14 other men he knew or believed to be dead.
As the Viet Cong tested D Company’s positions, the Australians were running out of bullets. Task force headquarters at Nui Dat dispatched Huey helicopters with cases of loose ammunition while mustering reinforcements including armored personnel carriers. The wounded were piling up, but help was on the way.
From 18:35 to 18:50, D Company had only around 60 fighting men available. The Viet Cong launched human wave assaults on their entrenched position. Friendly artillery formed a wall of destruction between the Aussies and the encroaching enemy, falling as close as 25 meters from the company’s position. Then at 19:00, there was silence.
The battle was over and 18 Australians had lost their lives—11 of them conscripts. The reinforcements from Nui Dat arrived and escorted D Company back to base. The company owed its survival to the intense artillery support rained in by their Kiwi forward observers, and outstanding leadership at the company and platoon levels.
D Company left behind a battlefield littered with body parts. In an era when body counts meant everything, the Australians counted 245 enemy dead, but the real number likely was much higher. The fighting had severely bloodied the Viet Cong and firmly established the Australian presence in Phuoc Tuy.
Large-scale combat was an anomaly in the small-scale patrolling that embodied the Aussie counterinsurgency strategy. While this wasn’t the last major battle of their campaign, it was the deadliest engagement of the Australian effort in Vietnam. The thought of the sacrifices made at Long Tan being forgotten is a worry for Martin Walsh.
Recognizing Australia’s heroes
Walsh’s passion for the history of Long Tan rekindled in 2004 when seven Australian commanders published their stories in a collection edited by Bob Grandin, co-pilot in one of the RAAF Hueys that resupplied D Company with ammunition. “I thought it was about time somebody brought this story to the screen and to as many people as possible,” Walsh told me.
He put his marketing skills to use and created a plan for a feature film to commemorate the battle on its 50th anniversary in 2016. The first stage was a feature-length documentary for the 40th anniversary in 2006, along with the formal memorial services which Walsh helped organize with PR specialist Graham Cassidy.
Cassidy worked on the Sydney 2000 Olympics PR campaign and has helped Walsh promote his Long Tan work through the years.
“I feel so strongly about their lack of recognition, particularly as they are all just regular guys trying to make a living and get through life, that along the way I’ve done a lot of other things for them personally.” Walsh told me.
Walsh has connected with the veterans of the battle through the project and has helped D Company commanding officer Harry Smith, a fellow commando, lobby hard to upgrade the citations and medals awarded for the action that day.
Upon learning in 2008 that New Zealander Maurice Stanley had terminal lung cancer, he pressed the Australian and New Zealand governments to formally award the forward artillery observer with the Unit Citation for Gallantry awarded to the Australians of D Company.
Walsh has made it his personal mission to see that the veterans of Long Tan are given the recognition they deserve. “I’m so sick of celebrities and politicians and others getting recognized for not much whilst all the amazing stories, service, gallantry and sacrifices of ordinary boys and girls never truly get the recognition they deserve.”
After 10 years and spending about $250,000 of his own money, he is reaching the end of this journey. With a new script entitled Danger Close, Walsh is rushing to get a Long Tan movie financed and into production for August 2016.
Walsh hopes that his efforts will go someway towards keeping D Company’s stories alive. “This has all simply been my own small way of saying thanks to our veterans and their families and to try and get their stories out,” he told me.
But he also has a point to prove. “I also want to demonstrate to the Australian film industry that we can make great 15-to-20-million-dollar movies which can do well commercially when we have the right kinds of stories with the right kind of well thought out marketing.”
You can watch the whole documentary online courtesy of Walsh’s production team, Red Dune Films. If you need some convincing, watch the opening two minutes below.