On Friday Brisbane was one of many cities which remembered the 40th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan. A parade of 500 marchers stretched across two blocks and the event ended with a service at the war memorial in Anzac square. Australian soldiers, most now in their sixties, rubbed shoulders with a contingent from Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans' Association motorcycle club proudly displayed leather vests emblazoned with the image of a skull wearing a slouch hat. Vietnam Veterans Day marks a battle where 108 soldiers from Delta Company 6RAR fought about 2500 North Vietnamese troops. Nearly 300 people died, 85 percent of whom were Vietnamese.
Meanwhile in Sydney, Defence Minister Brendan Nelson said Australian Vietnam veterans should be shown the highest respect and apologised for inadequate recognition given to those who served in the campaign. This year's Long Tan event was attended by Governor-General Major-General Michael Jeffery, Prime Minister John Howard and other politicians. Some commentators and veterans are worried the commemoration was becoming a political circus as memory dims about what actually happened there.
Long Tan is a small village 40km north of the city of Vung Tau in the Phuoc Tuy province. The area was part of South Vietnam in 1966. The war between South and North Vietnam followed on from the Second World War. The Vichy French regime that ruled Vietnam in 1941 ceded power to imperial Japan. There wad a power vacuum at the end of the war that the British and Chinese rushed in to fill.
Less than a month after Hiroshima, Ho Chi Minh declared independence in a ceremony where they played the "Star-Spangled Banner" in a vain hope the US would support their anti-colonialist move. Ho's provisional government was overwhelmed a few days later by the Chinese army. The two victorious powers, China and Britain, met and settled around a demilitarised zone at the 16th parallel. The French came back to claim the Indochinese empire they had ruled for a century. The US looked the other way and the British also stood aside to protect their own interests in Singapore and Hong Kong.
That left the Chinese. The French struck a deal with Chiang Kai Shek to forfeit their Shanghai interests in return for unfettered rule of the bottom half of Vietnam around their Saigon power base. When the Chinese went home to deal with their own communist revolution, the French re-entered Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh started an insurgency which ended with the victorious battle of Dien Bien Phu. This defeat ended French interest in the region and Ho Chi Minh consolidated a communist regime north of the 17th parallel. Below that line lay South Vietnam ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem. Post the Korean war stalamate, the US was now determined to provide a buffer to non-communist states. With the French gone, they assumed lead colonial responsibility.
Diem was a dictator, a minority Catholic in a Buddhist country. He was a high ranking official of the emperor of the South whom he overthrew. His was a corrupt regime, but supported by the Americans, they refused to sign the UN-backed 1954 Geneva Accords which stipulated re-unification and free elections for all Vietnam. Diem and Ho fought viciously throughout the fifties with both sides indiscriminately arresting, imprisoning and executing political opponents.
In December 1960, southern communists established the National Liberation Front to overthrow the government of the South. The NLF, also known as the Viet Cong, was supplied by the North through a long trail that looped through parts of Laos and Cambodia called Truong Son Road. The Americans called it the Ho Chi Minh trail. American “advisers” had been in the country since 1950 renamed by Eisenhower as the Military Assistance Advisory Group. MAAG provided combat training for all branches of the South Vietnamese armed forces.
In 1964, the Tonkin Gulf incident gave the Americans the excuse to bomb North Vietnam. It was also the year MAAG disbanded. The American army was officially fighting the North Vietnamese. The conflict escalated through the actions of the Kennedy and McNamara administration in supporting Diem. The two Catholic leaders Diem and Kennedy were assassinated within three weeks of each other. Less than a year later, the US senate approved the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to giving broad support to President Lyndon Baines Johnson to escalate U.S. involvement "as the President shall determine" without actually declaring war.
With the US decision to escalate its involvement, its ANZUS Pact allies Australia and New Zealand agreed to contribute troops and material to the war effort. These countries' ground troops had gained valuable experience in counterinsurgency and jungle warfare in the long-running war quaintly known as the Malaya Emergency. Australia initially sent “advisers” of its own to Vietnam.
After a Cabinet meeting on 20 January 1966 the Anglophile Robert Gordon Menzies, who was reluctant to involve Australia more deeply in Vietnam, resigned after 17 years as Prime Minister of Australia. He nominated Treasurer Harold Holt as his successor. Holt announced Australia was to go ‘all the way with LBJ’ into the Vietnam War.
At its peak in 1969, the Australian Army in Vietnam totalled more than 7,000 personnel. Over the ten years of the war, more than 50,000 Army, Air Force and Navy personnel served in Vietnam and 500 died.
Long Tan was one of its earliest major engagements. On 18 August 1966 an Australian fighting patrol sent to clear suspected rifle and mortar sites ran into heavy Viet Cong fire. The battle was closely fought in the thick vegetation and trees of the rubber plantation. It took place during a fierce tropical rain storm. The Vietnamese sustained heavy casualties from artillery fire as it attempted to over-run the patrol. The patrol was re-armed by helicopter supply and the Australians were eventually released by a relief force in armoured personnel carriers with machine guns. The VC melted into the distance on the twilight of the second day and the battle was over. 18 Australians died. Some 245 Vietnamese bodies were found on the battlefield, doubtless more were buried by debris and others were carried away.
Gough Whitlam ended Australian involvement in 1972