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Long Tan veterans fight for gallantry awards as 50th anniversary approaches -

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SABRA LANE, PRESENTER: Outnumbered 20 to one, Australian troops fought against enormous odds and won against the Viet Cong in the battle of Long Tan.

Next month will be the 50th anniversary of one of the most significant battles for Australia in the Vietnam War. Despite half a century passing, the man who led those troops says his men still have not been given enough recognition. He's hoping a review by a Defence tribunal, which is about to hand down its decision, will finally give them the bravery medals they deserve.

Peter McCutcheon reports.

HARRY SMITH, LONG TAN COMPANY COMMANDER: It was the most iconic engagement in the whole of the Vietnam War. The effects of 3,500 rounds of explosives on the enemy was horrendous.

PETER MCCUTCHEON, REPORTER: The Battle of Long Tan could have been an Australian military disaster: just over 100 soldiers, isolated, low on ammunition and outnumbered 20 to one.

But against the odds, the men of D Company, with the help of heavy artillery support, won the day.

HARRY SMITH: I must admit it was only after we got out of the battlefield at midnight and were sitting in the back of an APC, I suddenly said to myself: "I'm still alive. I don't believe it."

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Fifty years later, the commander of D Company, Harry Smith, spends much of his time sailing on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

HARRY SMITH: It keeps me alive and fit and well and takes my mind away from all the sadness and the sorrows of Long Tan and the soldiers I lost.

(To boat hands) Cast off forehead. Cast off stern.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: But the highly decorated retired Army major still has unfinished business, demanding the men who fought beside him all those years ago should be honoured for their bravery.

HARRY SMITH: People said to me I should let it go. But to me... I wear a Star of Gallantry - or the equivalent of the DSO (Distinguished Service Order). I wasn't a hero. My soldiers were the heroes.

BEV KNIGHT, WAR WIDOW: I just admire that man for his continual drive that- his resilience to hang in there, when it would have been so easy to give up, just to see justice done for his men. And I will always admire him for that.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: The full extent of D Company's military achievement wasn't realised until the day after the battle.

HARRY SMITH: I couldn't believe the number of enemy bodies that were there. It was like a gigantic mixing machine that cut all their bodies up in pieces, the artillery fire landing on them. And it was, you know, in hindsight a very emotional situation to go back in there the next morning.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: In the three hours of close combat and artillery bombardment, 17 Australian soldiers lost their lives. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese lost hundreds.

ERNIE CHAMBERLAIN, WAR HISTORIAN: The victory at Long Tan was important strategically; a boost for the Americans, because it was the biggest victory to date: that is, in August of 1966.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: But in the weeks after the battle, Harry Smith felt cheated. His initial list of 20 recommendations for bravery honours, in a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular back in Australia, was cut back to eight.

I said to Colonel Townsend, "This is a ridiculous situation." He said, "There is nothing you can do about it, Smith. The awards are secret and there's a 30-year secrecy period. It was all done at higher headquarters." (Salutes) Yes, sir.

ERNIE CHAMBERLAIN: A decision was made in Canberra that the conflict in Vietnam in 1966 was not as intense as the conflict had been in Korea. So the scale, the ratio of medals was cut almost in half.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: But Harry Smith was patient. In the 1990s he began a process that led to several awards being upgraded in 2008 and culminated in a special Defence hearing last year into why 13 Long Tan soldiers had been refused gallantry awards.

(Footage of Harry Smith at Defence hearing)

HARRY SMITH (2015): Long Tan, of course, is an icon of the Vietnam War.

(Footage ends)

PETER MCCUTCHEON: One of the most contentious cases is that of Sergeant-Major Jack Kirby, who was awarded a Distinguished Conduct medal - but Harry Smith wants it upgraded to a Victoria Cross.

HARRY SMITH: When the enemy were assaulting in suicidal waves, Jack Kirby moved around the battlefield without regard for his own safety. He was a big man. How he never got hit I will never know. But his main job in action was to distribute ammunition.

BEV KNIGHT: He had huge shoulders and he was very, very strong. And that was why he probably carried the men back that were injured and - because he could just throw anybody over. He used to do it with my brothers and my young sister.

(Footage of Bev Knight and friend looking over photographs of Bev and Jack)

BEV KNIGHT: He was a sergeant then.

(Footage ends)

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Bev Knight was married to Jack Kirby five years before the Battle of Long Tan and was widowed several months later, when her husband was killed in an accident.

She appreciates Harry Smith's VC campaign.

BEV KNIGHT: Whether it's to be or not to be, I don't know. But Harry will be able to go to his grave knowing that he did the very best he could. I hope for Jack's sake that it can come through, because he was pretty special. He really was special. And you never forget it. And it never dulls.

PETER MCCUTCHEON: Also on the list of possible new honours are Ian Campbell and Bill Roach, Long Tan privates who were denied commendations for gallantry. They did receive South Vietnamese awards, but under the policy at the time they couldn't be accepted and instead they were given dolls and cigar boxes.

(To Bill Roach) So do you believe there's been an injustice?

BILL ROACH, LONG TAN VETERAN: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, there's no doubt about that. I'm not the only one who thinks that. I think there's a swell of opinion throughout the country that believes we have been very badly and hardly done by.

IAN CAMPBELL, LONG TAN VETERAN: This is the last roll of the dice, I believe. Harry said he's getting on in years now and if he can't convince the powers that be in Canberra, then I guess that's it.

HARRY SMITH: I owe it to my soldiers to follow through on what I recommended in 1966. Probably if we don't win with the current review: at age 83 next Monday, I'll probably decide to get on with my sailing and maybe let it go.

SABRA LANE: Peter McCutcheon reporting there.