While aspiring film producer Martin Walsh tries to get a movie of the Battle of Long Tan underway I am walking through the rubber where it all happened nearly forty years ago. The rubber is being tapped now and workers walk through the plantation where years before just over 100 men of Delta Company, 6RAR stood their ground against 2500 odd enemy soldiers.
Getting to Long Tan was an experience by itself. Anh, at the Ettamogah Pub organised the permits necessary that any tourist, veteran or otherwise, needs to visit and pay respects at the Long Tan Cross. $10.00 USD per visitor for the permit that comes with an escort and $40 USD for the vehicle and driver. The escort, a polite young man did his country proud. He treated us with respect as we did him, and only mentioned the word ‘Victory, six times over the day.
We left Vung Tau on a two lane, well lit highway north to Baria – a mobile chaotic stream of cyclos, motor bikes, taxis, large trucks, water bufffalo, kids and old ladies carrying goods to market – all travelling at different speeds and all ignoring the lane markers. The white lines marking lanes in Vietnam represent the biggest waste of white paint ever – our driver used them as a marker for the centre of his bonnet.
Baria is now a developed community several times larger than when I last visited. The driver took us to the old theatre that is well remembered by veterans for a large rocket-made hole in front facade during Tet 68. Well, he actually took us to where it used to be. ‘ Picture theatre…hole in wall’ he mutters as we look at a construction site ringed by a tall fence. All things change.
Lunch at Baria reminds me of why I was glad to get home last time but worth eating to get the feel of the town and it’s people and to confirm taste is not universal.
On to Nui Dat – the pillars of the front gate still stand but little else is left as a reminder of the thousands of men who once lived, worked and sometimes died under the rubber. Luscombe Field, once a sealed, all-weather airstrip still exists but as a main street of a very small village. Luscombe Bowl, where we watched concerts when we could, is only recognisable through contour lines.
Nui Dat in 1970
My son Stuart in the same rubber in 2004
The road up to where 7 RAR had it’s base is still there but new rubber trees have changed all and exact locations were lost to development and the never ending encroachment of vegetation.
We stop on the road to Long Tan beneath the heights of the Horseshoe. An ancient volcano with one side blown out – thus the ‘Horseshoe’, this feature had been our home base for most of the tour. They are quarrying it now.
The Horseshoe in 1970
and in 2004
We move onto the village of Long Tan stopping at the police station to collect the brass plaque associated with the Long Tan Cross. I presume it is kept locked up at the police station to stop locals flogging it and selling it for the value of brass. It comes with a piece of string that enables one to ‘hang’ it on the verticle arm of the cross.
The Long Tan Memorial
and a close-up of the brass plate
I am Infantry. I have been there and I have seen more than most – but at Long Tan I am nothing. I have done almost nothing but I do know enough to know what these guys did way back in 1966.
Major Harry Smith, the Commander of D Company says;
11 Platoon continued to advance SE, and soon ran into heavy VC MG fire, which caused casualties. 11 Platoon went into a defensive layout, and after about 20 minutes under fire were then assaulted by a large enemy force. It become obvious from radio conversations and the firing that 11 Platoon was pinned down and taking heavy casualties. Our Artillery FO called in gunfire to support 11 Platoon, and I gave orders to 10 Platoon to swing around and assault from the left (North), with the aim of taking pressure off 11 Platoon so they could withdraw back into a Company defensive position. It started to rain heavily – the usual afternoon monsoon downpour. Then radio communications with 11 Platoon ceased. My worst thoughts were that they may have been over-run.
At the battle scene, near the cross in the picture above, Bob Buick, the Platoon Sergeant is facing a bad day as his Platoon Commander 2Lt Gordon Sharpe is killed in the early salvos. In 11 Platoon alone another twelve would die and nine would be wounded in the next couple of hours.
Three Aussies are there that day. Greg Cusack – like myself an Infantry vet. Myself and my son Stuart. It is heavy going just standing there. Greg is overcome with emotion and I am almost the same but settled, I think, by the presence of my son.
We gaze at the cross deep in thought and I try to think of words to describe the events and feelings on that day. It’s not easy. Sometimes thoughts and feelings don’t translate easily into words.
But try and imagine this. You are walking alone in the bush and someone fires a rifle towards you. You hear the crack-thump associated with close shots and you feel targeted and frightened. The rifle round makes a loud noise that startles you. Now put yourself in D Company’s shoes and try and imagine a couple of hundred people firing multiple rounds all seemingly targeting yourself.
The noise is incomparable. There is no similar noise effect anywhere in the world that simulates hundreds of auto rounds coming towards you. While this crescendo tears apart your senses, friends are dying around you. The noise continues for hours, you are running out of ammo, you know the RAAF will have trouble resupplying due to the torrential rain and the talk amongst you is that this is it. You know that half the platoon is dead or wounded- the screaming is always a give away. You can see you are being attacked by assualt forces numbering in the hundreds and you only have maybe fifteen fit soldiers still able to fight.
So what do you do. Run? Roll over and adopt the feotal crouch? Just lay there and scream for your mother or father?
No. You make a stand and fight.
It’s the difference. It’s what good training sets you for.
It’s the essence of being a ‘Digger’
There are only two memorials to foreign armies in Vietnam. One at Dien Bien Phu where the French threw tactics out of the window and paid for it and the other is at Long Tan where D Coy held the thin green line and by doing so wrote themselves into history books.
Follow the link to read an article by Major Harry Smith, the commander of D Coy at the battle.
For more reading visit Bob Buick’s website. Bob was the Platoon Sergeant of 11 Platoon that took the brunt of the casualties in the battle.