Vietnam, Long Tan and all that
LABOR backbencher Graham Edwards has stepped up calls for an inquiry into medals issued to veterans of the battle of Long Tan.
Mr Edwards, who lost his legs to a mine in Vietnam, maintains the men who did the real fighting on the day have not been properly recognised, and it was officers who were miles away from the fighting who unfairly won the top citations.I know Graham well as we served in the same company in Vietnam and I know him to be committed to helping veterans when ever he can. It may come as a surpise to the unitiated but under the old Imperial system bravery medals were rationed in war in the same way that food, water and beer were rationed. If you had the bad luck to be involved in a major battle towards the end of the ration period then, simply put, there were no bravery medals left in the Staff Officers drawer at AHQ, Canberra. As well as soldiering under this anomoly regulations denied soldiers being awarded foreign decorations unless HM Queen Elizabeth herself gave approval as detailed by Bob Buick, Platoon Sergeant 11 Platoon, Delta Company 6RAR in his book “All Guts and no Glory”
On 2 September 1966 a parade was assembled near the Task Force headquarters[Nui Dat] because the Vietnamese Government intended to award honours and decorations for the battle at Long Tan. I think there was a total of 22 decorations – including a posthumous award to a member of the APC Troop who came to our rescue. The whole day turned into a fiasco and I’m ashamed to say AUstralians primarily caused it. The Commander of the Vietnamese Armed Forces and Chief of State, General Nguyen Van Thieu, effectively the Vice President, was told by the Australian government late on the previous night that he could not award Vietnamese decorations to Australians.This lead to the surreal circumstances where the General’s aids had to go to the local markets and buy gifts to replace the medals.
So, instead of military decorations and awards befitting warriors, the officers received laquered wooden cigar cases, sergeants were given similar cigarette cases and the corporals and privates received the dolls [Vietnamese dolls in national dress].When I was posted out of SASR I was replaced by Bill ‘Yank’ Akell. Then a Captain, he had been a private signaller in 1966 and was with D Company Headquarters [CHQ] at the battle. Radio operators had difficulty being heard over the maelstrom and at one stage 10 Platoon lost their radio when Private Brian Hornung was shot through the chest [and presumably through the radio as well]
Although wounded he walked back to CHQ and Bill ‘Yank’ Akell raced to 10 platoon with a new radio. ‘Yank’ was the second company signaller in CHQ and as he dashed forward to 10 Platoon through a maelstrom of enemy bullets he killed a couple of Viet Cong with his 9 mm Owen machine carbine. He received the Mention in Dispatches [MID] award for his actions.The MID was the lowest of all bravery awards and could also be awarded for just doing your job well. Clerks got MIDs for keeping their records straight so no way have I ever accepted that ‘Yank’s’ actions only warranted a MID. From the Australian editorial on 5 Aug; [scroll down]
A combination of incompetence, jealousy and the Imperial medal system led to many Long Tan veterans having their medal-worthy performance downgraded to mere mentions in dispatches. Even the commander of Delta Company, Harry Smith, saw his recommendation for a Distinguished Service Order knocked down to a Military Cross. Adding insult to injury, soon after the fight Canberra blocked an attempt by the South Vietnam government to honour the Australian troops who fought in the battle with bravery citations.My old mate Graham is right. A review is called for. Some readers may opine that us Vietnam Veterans do go on but after other wars the militay held a end-of war medal review. 20 years after Vietnam the government were embarrassed into holding a similar review for Vietnam and then every success was a long and arduous fight. My father came home from his war a hero and welcomed by all of society. I came home and was asked by an attractive young woman how many babies had I killed. Graham tells how a woman, a member of the church his mother attended, told her she hoped he died of his wounds. A male phoned up parents of one of 7RAR’s dead within days of his demise and told them he deserved to die. This morning’s news relates that ten percent of Vietnam Veterans have committed suicide and we wonder why…..and people wonder why I hate the left wing. I went to the Welcome Home march in Sydney in 1987 to see my mates, not to be welcomed home. Two years ago I wrote a tribute to a mate I lost in Vietnam headed A Letter to Ray. You might like to read it and feel the depth of our compassion. I have also written a piece headed ‘My first patrol’ No heroics, no medals, just a couple of days in the life of an infantryman. I’m taking the day off. I’ll get dressed up and go find some Infantry mates. We’ll go ANZAC Square in Brisbane and remember our absent friends and then maybe go off to a pub somewhere. No, not maybe…I will go to a pub and toast our mates and spit on the communist sympathisers. Stuff ’em. I know I did the right thing.