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Monday, 14 August 2006
Page: 144

Senator BERNARDI (10:19 PM) —One of Australia’s most significant military events will be commemorated on 18 August—that being the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. The Battle of Long Tan is arguably the most famous battle fought by Australians during the Vietnam War. It is certainly the most notable single incident of Australian involvement in Vietnam. It was also the first engagement for soldiers of the 1st Australian Task Force in South Vietnam. In terms of casualties it was the most costly battle of the war. It was an epic battle in which just over 100 diggers fought off an entire Vietcong regiment. The Battle of Long Tan remains of great significance to all Vietnam veterans. Its importance is highlighted by the fact that the anniversary was selected by the Vietnam veterans community to mark Vietnam Veterans Day in Australia.

Much has been written about the Battle of Long Tan in recent days. However, in a few moments let me recap what occurred in this battle and in the lead-up to it. On 17 August 1966 the Australian base at Nui Dat came under attack from Vietnamese forces. Twenty-two Australians were injured as a result of this attack. One later died as a result of his wounds. The 6th Royal Australian Regiment, or 6RAR, patrols were then sent out to sweep the surrounding area. The next day, 18 August 1966, D Company 6RAR, led by Major Harry Smith, were out patrolling. There were three platoons in the company: 10, 11 and 12 platoons. Many of the men in D Company were national serviceman, conscripts who had been called upon by their country to serve. They were, perhaps understandably, not impressed about having to patrol the rubber plantation because, back at the Nui Dat base, Australian singers Little Patty and Cole Joye were staging a concert for the rest of the troops.

Our soldiers came across a few Vietcong walking along a track, and during the brief engagement one Vietcong was killed and the others ran off. What the Australians did not know was that those Vietcong were on their way back to a much larger force that was camped within the rubber plantation. The large Vietcong force was now aware that there were Australian soldiers nearby. At 4.08 pm D Company came under attack from the Vietcong regiment. The Australians were caught in a perilous situation. Outnumbered and with minimal protection, a number of our diggers were dead or wounded in the first few minutes of battle.

The attacking Vietnamese regiment contained at least 1,500—and some reports say there were up to 2,500 troops—compared with just over 100 Australians. A fierce gun battle ensued. The Australians were in an incredibly vulnerable position and fighting for their lives. Amazingly, the Australian troops were afforded some relief in the form of a monsoonal downpour that swept across the battlefield and provided some cover for the Australians by reducing visibility.

The Vietnamese continued to advance and the battle continued on into the evening. The soldiers in D Company, in a defensive position, held their ground with heroism, courage and determination. At one stage, two RAAF helicopter crews flew over the beleaguered Australian soldiers. They flew in very low, just above the rubber trees, and risked being shot down, in order to deliver some desperately needed ammunition to their mates.

The remainder of the 6RAR battalion, including armoured personnel carriers carrying more troops, were deployed from the Nui Dat base to assist their fellow soldiers. They discovered more Vietcong who were preparing to assault D Company on another front. Without hesitation, our soldiers attacked the Vietcong and forced the enemy to retreat back into the jungle. The Australian troops stayed at their positions throughout the night fearing further attacks. Fortunately, none came. The Vietnamese had retreated from the battle permanently after suffering heavy losses. Daylight revealed that 18 Australians had lost their lives compared with at least 245 Vietcong soldiers. The Australian soldiers bravely withstood a calculated and powerful attack and emerged victorious, a fact which has only recently been acknowledged by the Vietnamese.

The 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan provides all Australians with the opportunity to reflect on the immense personal sacrifice and brave service that was given to us by all the men and women who went to Vietnam. We had a very long involvement in the Vietnam War. Approximately 50,000 Australians served between 1962 and 1973. Over 500 died and more than 3,000 were wounded. Sadly, for those who served there, some wounds continued to be inflicted upon their return home.

The Vietnam War was a major conflict that polarised the country during the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike the veterans of the two Great Wars and other earlier conflicts, our Vietnam veterans were not shown the respect that they deserved, nor were they afforded the full recognition for their sacrifice, their bravery and their honour. There were no ticker-tape parades, and many were shunned, expected to just get on with their lives as if nothing had happened. Due to this shameful treatment by some in the community, many of our Vietnam veterans bear deep emotional scars, in addition to any physical wounds as a result of their wartime service.

As a nation, we must honour those who gave their lives in service of this country—not only those who died at Long Tan but also all those who served and all those who lost their lives during the Vietnam War. We owe them.

I recall reading last year of an account of a Liberal colleague in the other place, the Hon. Bruce Billson MP, now Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, in which he recalled some words of a veteran named Dave Sabben, who was a platoon leader during the Battle of Long Tan. While I will not repeat it verbatim here tonight, one quote struck me at the time:

Please remember us with truth, honesty, accuracy ... We weren’t superheroes, but nor were we scoundrels. We were just men who did our job.

And that, Mr President, they did. Our soldiers performed their duty and fought for democracy as was demanded of them by their country—both regular Army troops and national conscripts alike. We owe a great deal to these people. We must continue to educate our future generations as to their service and bravery. We must remember what they sacrificed for us.

While the Australian involvement in the Vietnam War lasted 10 years, the consequences of the war were the most enduring and difficult for those who served there. It is time we adequately recognised these men and women for their contribution not only to the war itself but also to our nation that we as Australians enjoy today.

Tonight I want to record my gratitude to those who fought in Vietnam. The Vietnam veterans’ sacrifice and bravery in battle is every bit as significant as the bravery of our World War I and World War II diggers. We owe them at least that. May I conclude by acknowledging all Vietnam veterans and their families. I trust that this coming anniversary will be a day of reflection and remembrance, and a day of peace and respect. I hope you can all feel pride in yourselves, as all Australians should be proud of you.