Vietnam Veterans Day

The battle of Long Tan occurred on the afternoon of 18 August 1966, just two months after the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) established its base at Nui Dat in the heart of Phuoc Tuy province, South Vietnam.

While searching a rubber plantation near Long Tan for communist forces who had attacked the base with mortar and rocket fire in the early hours of 17 August, D Company, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) encountered a combined force of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars and local and provincial forces of the National Liberation Front (NLF). D Company numbered 108 men.

The combined enemy force, estimated at over 2,000 soldiers, comprised the

local Viet Cong D445 Battalion (reinforced with North Vietnamese soldiers) and elements of the main force 275 Viet Cong Regiment. It was later learnt that 274 VC Regiment also occupied an ambush position on Route 2, north of Binh Ba.

Under intense enemy fire, the separated platoons of D Company fought off enemy attacks and then regrouped with the company headquarters. They continued to withstand repeated enemy attacks, supported by accurate artillery fire from the base at Nui Dat. As D Company’s position became increasingly desperate, two RAAF helicopters succeeded in dropping ammunition to the men despite the heavy monsoonal downpour which persisted throughout the battle.

After three hours of continuous fighting, as it seemed that enemy forces may be gathering for a final assault, the besieged company was reinforced with the arrival of A Company, 6RAR mounted in armoured personnel carriers. On the following day, 245 enemy bodies were counted on the battlefield although the enemy is believed to have retrieved many more dead and wounded during the night. Australian losses were 17 dead and 25 wounded, one of whom later died of his wounds.

The decisive victory at Long Tan was achieved against odds of over ten to one but left one-third of the Australian company killed or wounded. Fifteen Commonwealth decorations were awarded to individual soldiers for their actions during the battle and D Company 6RAR was awarded a US Presidential Unit Citation. In March 2008, an independent review panel recommended that Commonwealth awards to three soldiers should be upgraded by the award of modern Australian decorations.

Although challenged at the time and since in communist Vietnamese accounts, the victory effectively imposed the Australians’ dominance in Phuoc Tuy province for the duration of their presence there.

During Australia’s ten-year-long involvement in Vietnam, there were bigger and more sustained battles, involving larger Australian formations. But few were so intense and dramatic. It was also the army’s most costly single engagement in Vietnam.

The bravery, tenacity and sacrifice of Australian and New Zealand soldiers at Long Tan became legendary. That single engagement on just one afternoon in August 1966 has come to symbolise Australia’s ten-year-long involvement in our nation’s longest war. Since 1987, when Prime Minister Bob Hawke declared 18 August “Vietnam Veterans Day”, the anniversary has commemorated all Australians who took part in the conflict.

Ashley Ekins

Head, Military History Section

Australian War Memorial

 

References for further reading: Lex McAulay, The Battle of Long Tan (1986); Terry Burstall, The Soldiers’ Story (1986); Ian McNeill, To Long Tan (1993); Bob Grandin, et al., The Battle of Long Tan as told by the

Commanders (2004); Lieutenant Colonel Charles S. Mollison, Long Tan and Beyond: Alpha Company 6 RAR in Vietnam 1966-67 (2005)