Fifty years on: Cronulla to Long Tan

For those involved this is good news:

Vietnamese authorities have agreed to allow restricted access to the Long Tan site after negotiations with the Australian Government overnight.

Access to the site is being limited to groups of 100 people or fewer.

There will also be a wreath laying in the afternoon, which 1,000 people will be able to attend…

It is today fifty years since the Battle of Long Tan.

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The bravery, tenacity and sacrifice of Australian and New Zealand soldiers at Long Tan was duly celebrated. They had won a legendary victory against odds of at least ten to one. D Company 6RAR was awarded a US Presidential Unit Citation and fifteen Commonwealth decorations were awarded to individual soldiers for their actions during the battle.

The Australians had inflicted heavy losses on Viet Cong forces but the cost was high: seventeen Australian soldiers were killed in action and 25 were wounded, one of whom died nine days later. The battle left one third of the Australian company dead or wounded, making Long Tan the army’s most costly single engagement in Vietnam. Eleven of the dead were National Servicemen and seven were Regular Army soldiers: their average age was 21 years. Brigadier O.D. Jackson, commander of the 1st Australian Task Force, was impressed by the battle performance of D Company but he judged the outcome “a very close thing indeed”. The effectiveness of the artillery support had proved crucial to the survival of the company and the relief force had arrived just in time.

Many questions remained about the enemy involved, their intentions and plans, and the outcome. It appeared that the battle of Long Tan had established the Australian task force’s dominance in Phuoc Tuy province, but that dominance did not rest unchallenged. Over the following five years, aggressive Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army forces periodically threatened the peace and stability within the province and forced the task force to retaliate.

Long Tan remains a defining event in Australia’s longest war. But it was not a pivotal battle as some have claimed. It was neither a turning point in the Vietnam War, nor was it a decisive victory. The Viet Cong units involved were damaged but not destroyed. They regrouped and continued their revolutionary struggle for nine more years until the armies of North Vietnam defeated the south in 1975.

See also Long Tan: Former Viet Cong commander reflects on times of war 50 years on.

Sad to contemplate that this battle came just days after the fiftieth anniversary of Pozieres.

The 2nd Division was ordered to take Pozières heights. The attack commenced at 12.15 am on 29 July but the Germans were ready and the attack failed at a cost of 3,500 Australian casualties. The Australian commander of the 2nd Division asked that his men might attack again rather than be withdrawn after failure. Following an intense bombardment on 4 August 1916, the Australian seized Pozières heights. The exhausted 2nd Division was now rested and the 4th Division took up positions on the Pozières Heights. Attacking north along the ridge, the Australians in ten days of continuous action reached Mouquet Farm. The 4th Division was now relieved. The farm resisted capture until 26 September 1916, the day after the commenced of a major British offensive.

In less than seven weeks in the fighting at Pozières and Mouquet Farm three Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties. Of these, 6,800 men were killed or died of wounds. It was a loss comparable with the casualties sustained by the Australians over eight months at Gallipoli in 1915.

In August 1966 I was in my first year’s teaching at Cronulla High School. See my 2011 post In The Shire and living to tell the tale… and my 2015 post Random Friday memory 27: my first election 1966 – and now…

I turned 21 in 1964. The next Australian election was 26 November 1966. I voted in Cronulla, then still in the seat of Hughes. Les Johnson, who died at the age of 90 this year, was returned for Labor. Overall the election was a landslide win for the Coalition, which won twice as many seats as Labor. I had voted for the Liberal candidate, Don Dobie.  The Prime Minister after that election was Harold Holt, who famously disappeared a year later.

In 1966 I had started teaching at Cronulla High School. I have just found a wonderful item in The Canberra Times of 29 October 2011

So as you might gather at that time I was a supporter of our actions in Vietnam, but like many was reading and listening to opposed viewpoints. I was also just too old to be up for National Service when the Menzies draft lotto came in, during my final Honours BA year in fact. 1943 may have been a good year to be born.

…new laws introduced by the Menzies government [1964-5] saw 19,450 young conscripts sent to fight in Vietnam, out of a total of about 50,000 Australians who served. To decide which young men would be called up, a selection process by ballot was conducted twice a year. The so-called ‘birthday ballot’ used a lottery barrel with marbles representing dates. All males whose 20th birthday matched the dates thrown up in the ballot were called up for national service. Anti-war groups such as Save Our Sons and Youth Campaign Against Conscription reflected a groundswell of opposition to conscription and the Vietnam War. More than 1,000 conscripts applied for exemption as conscientious objectors. The government’s heavy-handed treatment of conscientious objectors like Sydney school teacher William White and television personality Simon Townsend created high-profile controversies. Conscription was abolished by the newly-elected Labor Government in December 1972.

See also The Birthday Ballot – National Service.

For an overview I commend the Australia War Museum’s Australia and the Vietnam War. See also Nick Irving’s Vietnam War Moratorium: participatory democracy.

Addendum

Interesting, as further down the track I got to know Rowan Cahill: Vietnam War: A protester and a soldier remember the anti-war movement.

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