Late afternoon August 18, 1966 South Vietnam for three and a half hours, in the pouring rain, amid the mud and shattered trees of a rubber plantation called Long Tan, Major Harry Smith and his dispersed company of 108 young and mostly inexperienced Australian and New Zealand soldiers are fighting for their lives, holding off an overwhelming enemy force of 2,500 battle hardened Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers.
With their ammunition running out, their casualties mounting and the enemy massing for a final assault each man begins to search for his own answer and the strength to triumph over an uncertain future with honour, decency and courage.
The ensuing Battle of Long Tan becomes one of the most savage and decisive engagements in ANZAC history, earning both the United States and South Vietnamese Presidential Unit Citations for gallantry along with many individual awards. But sadly not before 18 Australians and more than 500 enemy are killed.
Heroism, tragedy and the sacrifice of battle, Long Tan is a gruelling and dramatic exploration of war with all its horror, that rightly takes its place alongside other legendary ANZAC battles and campaigns such as Gallipoli, Beersheba, Kokoda, Tobruk, Kapyong, Balmoral, Coral and many others.
In May 1966 the first soldiers of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) arrived in South Vietnam; the rest followed in June. Within two months elements of the battalion found themselves engaged in one of the largest battles fought by Australians in the Vietnam War.
By August 1966 the Australian task force base at Nui Dat was only three months old. Concerned at the establishment of such a strong presence in their midst, the Viet Cong determined to inflict an early defeat on the Australians. In the days before the battle, radio signals indicated the presence of strong Viet Cong forces within 5 kilometres of the base but patrols found nothing. On the night of 16-17 August Nui Dat came under fire from mortars and recoilless rifles. The defenders stood to, expecting the barrage to be followed by an assault. None came. Searches of the area the next day located some of the sites from which mortars had been fired, but nothing else.
Patrols continued the following day, 18 August. D Company left the base at 11.15 that morning bound for the Long Tan rubber plantation. As they departed Nui Dat the sounds of a concert by Little Pattie, the Australian entertainer, reached their ears. They entered the Long Tan plantation at 3.15 that afternoon. Less than an hour later the Viet Cong attacked in force, putting the Australians under mortar, machine gun and small arms fire. Only the quick response of a New Zealand artillery battery to desperate calls for support saved D Company from annihilation.
Almost as soon as the battle began a torrential downpour added to the gloom in the rubber plantation. The Australians, surrounded, short of ammunition and fighting an enemy whose strength they could only guess at, called for helicopters to drop ammunition to them. Flying at tree-top height, braving the terrible weather and heavy Viet Cong fire, two RAAF helicopters located the beleaguered Australians and dropped boxes of ammunition and blankets for the wounded.
The survivors of D Company along with accurate artillery fire from New Zealand’s 161 Field Battery as well as the Australian 103 and 105 Field batteries and a United States battery inflicted heavy losses on the Viet Cong. As the fighting continued Australian reinforcements were committed to the battle. B Company was on the way and A Company, loaded into Armoured Personnel Carriers of 3 Troop, 1 Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron, which fought its way into D Company just before 7 pm as daylight was fading. The Viet Cong had been massing for another assault but were forced to retreat into the plantation. They had suffered terrible casualties, but only when the Australians returned to the scene of battle the following morning did they realise the extent of the defeat that they had inflicted on the enemy. The Australians counted 245 enemy dead still in the plantation and surrounding jungle with evidence that others had already been removed from the battlefield. Captured documents and information from prisoners suggested that D Company had faced some 2,500 Viet Cong. Eighteen Australians were killed in the Battle of Long Tan and 24 wounded, all but one of the dead were from D Company.
Here is a 2006 story by Australia’s 60 Minutes providing a good summary of the Battle of Long Tan. It was the first time former Australian veterans of the battle had met their former enemy and the first time veterans had been back to the site of the battle in Vietnam:
And of course you can watch our critically acclaimed and award winning THE BATTLE OF LONG TAN Documentary narrated by Sam Worthington.
You can also view a Timeline of the Battle of Long Tan here.