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The Battle of Long Tan and the Vietnam War

Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, November 1966: 6RAR soldiers follow an armoured personnel carrier (APC) during Operation Ingham.

Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam, November 1966: 6RAR soldiers follow an armoured personnel carrier (APC) during Operation Ingham. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: P01404.028.

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)

A wounded digger is evacuated to Vung Tau.

Vietnam: a wounded digger is evacuated to Vung Tau. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: COL/67/0140/VN.

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.
Australian War Memorial

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.

Long Tan, Vietnam. 19 August 1966. Private David J. Collins guards a captured Viet Cong found hiding on the battle field by Delta Company, 6th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial: FOR/66/0659/VN.

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.

Music

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.

Television, film, video and installation

Neil Davis (1934-1985), combat cameraman.

Unknown photographer, Neil Davis (1934-1985), combat cameraman.

More than thirty Australian Broadcasting Commission correspondents and camera crew were accredited to cover the Vietnam War from 1965 onwards. The consequences of reporting the War was that people could sit at home eating their dinner, watching television and witness the destruction of the War.

Television brought a great change to war coverage. The immediacy with which people in Australia and the United States could watch film of events in Vietnam, forced greater scrutiny of the military and of the role of government.
Australian Broadcasting Authority

News agency cameramen such as Neil Davis of Visnews became famous for his film of the frontline fighting. A documentary, Frontline (1980), was made of Neil Davis's work by David Bradbury. Vietnam (1987), a television series, looked at 'Australia's difficult place... in a new international order in which the USA influence was considerably diminished and the need to 'deal' with Asia was pronounced'. It also dealt with the relationship of an Australian daughter of an Eastern European Serge with the son of a Viet Cong woman, blending documentary and fiction (Tom O'Regan with Albert Moran, Australian Screen, 1989).

Dinh Q L, Lotusland (detail) 1999.

Dinh Q L, Lotusland (detail) 1999. Gallery of Modern Art Acquisitions Fund. Image courtesy of the Queensland Art Gallery.

Dinh Q L documents the process of how ordinary Vietnamese people deal with the mass of abandoned US helicopters in the video installation, The farmers and the helicopters. An accompanying sculpture, Lotusland, deals with questions of accountability from the conflict, by deifying the great numbers of Siamese twins that were born as a result of the effects of 'Agent Orange' (The 5th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Queensland Art Gallery, Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, March to May 2007).

Posters, photographs and visual arts

Promotional photographs formed the majority of visual images during the War. Photographs taken on the Australian bases were 'often imbued with a typically Australian ethos of mateship and camaraderie', as well as some of the incongruities - such as those experienced by the military musicians in Vietnam.

Mass-produced posters, mostly silk-screened, incorporating traditional symbols of conflict, became a popular form of protest art especially from 1969 to 1970. The Powerhouse Museum holds a significant collection of these works.

In Australia, artists were as divided as the rest of the Australian community over Australia's commitment to the War. Noel Counihan and Clifton Pugh are among the most notable artists who produced important works. Other artists such as David Boyd, Dick Watkins, Gareth Sansom, Robert Grieve, Udo Sellbach and George Browning, who had been an official war artist during the Second World War, also produced work influenced by or protesting against the Vietnam War.

The Australian War Memorial did not appoint official war artists to go to Vietnam until 1967, due to the difficulty in drawing up a shortlist of artists and the fact that the artists would have to undergo the same rigorous training as the combat soldiers.

The works have an emotional detachment to them. It has been suggested that...they needed to shut out emotion in a psychological war, or that they saw themselves as observers for whom it was inappropriate to make personal comments about the Vietnam War.
Anne Gray, 'Artists' visions of Vietnam', in Peter Pierce, Jeffrey Grey and Jeff Doyle (eds), Vietnam days: Australia and the impact of Vietnam, 1991, cited by Australian War Memorial.

Dennis Trew, Names from the Book of the Dead : page 1.

Dennis Trew, Names from the Book of the Dead : page 1. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: ART90255.001.

At the end of the Vietnam War, different expressions emerged. Dennis Trew, a crewman aboard the HMAS Sydney during the Vietnam War made 'Names from the Book of the Dead' in 1992 as a commissioned piece, made up of 108 toned laser prints. The work is based on the Australians who died in Vietnam and Trew's own role in the War - likened to the ferryman, Charon, of ancient Greek myth who took the souls of the dead across the River Styx into Hades (Simon Forrester, AWM 90255).

Books

Books about Australia's involvement in Vietnam number over a hundred and range from songs and photographic essays through analysis of individual battles and morbidity records to histories of the War. Robert A Hall's Combat Battalion (2000) aims to portray 'an understanding of the human factor in combat', to tell a story of 'the ways in which a generation of young Australian men dealt with that experience, and the effects that experience would have on those young men'.

Australian Army Nursing Corps and Vietnamese villagers, Hoa Long, June 1967.

Australian Army Nursing Corps and Vietnamese villagers, Hoa Long, June 1967 (left to right: Lieutenants Margaret Ahern and Colleen Mealy, Captain Amy Pittendriegh and Lieutenant Terry Roche, 8th Field Ambulance [Major Barry Gillman] (GIL/67/0484/VN)

Siobhan McHugh's Minefields and Miniskirts (1993) tells the stories of 35 women who went to Vietnam as nurses, journalists, entertainers, volunteers and consular staff.

The question of Australia's involvement in Vietnam is examined in a range of titles. These include Jim Cairns's Is It Truth We Want? (1965), Michael Sexton's War for the asking: Australia's Vietnam secrets (1981), Jock McCulloch's The politics of Agent Orange: the Australian experience (1984), Scott Brodie's Tilting at dominoes: Australia and the Vietnam War (1987) and C Langley's A decade of dissent: Vietnam and the conflict on the Australian homefront (1992).

Memorials

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.

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Last updated: 8th January 2009

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