Long Tan Day

Long Tan Day, also called Vietnam Veterans’ Day is celebrated in Australia on August 18th of each year.

The Battle of Long Tan (18 August 1966) took place in a rubber plantation near the village of Long Tan, 27 kilometres (17 mi) north east of Vung Tau, in Phuoc Tuy Province, South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The action was fought between Australian forces and Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army units after the 108-man D Company, 6 RAR clashed with a force of over 2,000 men from the Viet Cong 275th Regiment, reinforced by at least one North Vietnamese battalion and elements of D445 Provincial Mobile Battalion. The 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) had arrived in South Vietnam between April and June 1966, constructing a base at Nui Dat. After two months on operations 1 ATF had moved beyond the initial requirements of establishing a base and securing its immediate approaches, beginning operations to open the province. Meanwhile, in response to the growing threat posed by the Australians the commander of the Viet Cong 5th Division ordered the 275th Regiment to move against Nui Dat. For several weeks prior Australian signals intelligence (SIGINT) had tracked a radio transmitter from the headquarters of the 275th Regiment moving south to a position just north of Long Tan; however, aggressive patrolling failed to find the unit. At 02:43 on the night of 16/17 August Nui Dat was heavily bombarded by Viet Cong mortars, artillery and recoilless rifles (RCLs) fired from a position 2,000 metres (2,200 yd) to the east, wounding 24 Australian soldiers, one of whom later died. While the Australians expected the Viet Cong to have withdrawn, a number of company-sized patrols would be dispatched to search the area. The following morning B Company, 6 RAR departed to locate the firing points and the direction of the Viet Cong withdrawal. A number of weapon pits were subsequently found, as were the firing positions of the mortars and RCLs. Around midday on 18 August, D Company under Major Harry Smith took over the pursuit, sweeping the abandoned village of Long Tan, with 11 Platoon in the lead.

At 15:40, 11 Platoon clashed briefly with a six to eight-man Viet Cong squad, before forcing them to withdraw. Yet shortly after resuming their advance, at 16:08 the platoon came under heavy small-arms and rocket propelled grenade fire from their front and both flanks and was isolated. 11 Platoon called for artillery support as a heavy monsoon rain began, reducing visibility and turning the ground into mud. Beginning as an encounter battle, heavy fighting ensued as the advancing Viet Cong force attempted to encircle and destroy the Australians. Less than twenty minutes after the initial contact more than a third of 11 Platoon had become casualties, while shortly afterwards the platoon commander was also killed. 10 Platoon moved up on the left to assist them but also came under heavy fire and was forced to withdraw. By 16:50 it was apparent that D Company was facing a force of at least battalion-strength. 12 Platoon then attempted to move up on the right in an effort to retrieve the cut-off platoon, stepping off at 17:15. As they advanced they fought off an attack on their right before pushing forward another 100 metres (110 yd). Suffering increasing casualties, they then clashed with a number of Viet Cong groups moving around their western flank in an attempt to form a cut-off force prior to mounting a frontal assault. In so doing 12 Platoon opened a path to 11 Platoon, yet after 45 minutes under fire they too were unable to advance any further and with visibility reduced to just 70 metres (77 yd) smoke was thrown to mark their location. With D Company down to their last 100 rounds, two UH-1B Iroquois helicopters from No. 9 Squadron RAAF arrived overhead at 18:00, dropping ammunition and blankets for the wounded. Meanwhile, the survivors from 11 Platoon took advantage of a temporary lull in the fighting to withdraw back to 12 Platoon’s position, suffering a number of casualties as they did so. Still finding themselves heavily engaged, the two platoons then moved back to the company position under the cover of the artillery.

By 18:10 D Company had reformed and Smith moved to re-organise it into a position of all round defence. With D Company in danger of being overrun B Company, which was still on its way back to Nui Dat, was subsequently ordered to return on foot to assist it. Meanwhile, A Company had just returned to Nui Dat following a three day patrol of its own and was dispatched mounted in M113 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) from 3 Troop, 1st APC Squadron. Departing Nui Dat amid the torrential rain at 17:55, the relief force moved east, crossing the swollen Suoi Da Bang creek before encountering a large Viet Cong force from D445 Battalion forming up to outflank D Company and assault it from the rear. The Viet Cong were caught by surprise as the Australian cavalry crashed into their flank firing their .50 calibre machine-guns and with darkness beginning to fall the cavalry broke through to D Company at 19:00, while B Company arrived at the same time. The APCs continued to assault a further 500 metres (550 yd) before they were ordered to return to the company location at 19:10. Arriving at a crucial point in the fighting, the relief force turned the tide of the battle. The Viet Cong had been massing for another assault which would have likely destroyed D Company, yet the additional firepower and mobility of the armoured force broke the Viet Cong’s will to fight, forcing them to withdraw as night approached. The artillery fire had been almost constant throughout the battle and it proved critical in ensuring the survival of D Company. By 19:15 the firing had ceased and the Australians prepared for the Viet Cong to mount another attack. After it became clear that the Viet Cong were not going to counter-attack, they were ordered to withdraw to a position 750 metres (820 yd) to the west from which their casualties could be evacuated. Handling the dead and wounded proved a slow process but with the casualties finally loaded on to the carriers D Company left at 22:45, while B and A Company departed on foot 45 minutes later. A landing zone was subsequently established by the cavalry and the evacuation of the casualties commenced by helicopter; although slow, the operation went smoothly and was finally completed after midnight. Forming a defensive position ready to repulse an expected attack that night, the Australians remained overnight, enduring the cold and the heavy rain.

The Australians returned to the battlefield in strength the next day, with 6 RAR sweeping the area and locating a large number of Viet Cong casualties. Although initially believing they had suffered a defeat, as the scale of the losses suffered by the Viet Cong were revealed it became clear to them that they had in fact won a significant victory. As the clearance continued two wounded Viet Cong soldiers that were still bearing arms were shot and killed after they moved to engage the Australians, while three were captured. The missing men from 11 Platoon were also recovered; their bodies found lying in a straight line where they had fallen, largely undisturbed. Two of the men were found to have survived despite their wounds, having spent the night on the battlefield in close proximity to the Viet Cong as they attempted to evacuate their own casualties. Due to the likely presence of a significant communist force nearby the Australians remained cautious as they searched for the Viet Cong following the battle. Over the next two days they continued to clear the battlefield, uncovering more Viet Cong dead as they did so. Yet with 1 ATF lacking the resources to mount a pursuit of the withdrawing Viet Cong, the operation ended on 21 August. Despite being heavily outnumbered, D Company had fought off a large Viet Cong assault of regimental strength supported by heavy artillery fire, before a relief force consisting of cavalry and infantry fought their way through and finally forced the Viet Cong to withdraw. Eighteen Australians were killed and 24 wounded, while the Viet Cong lost at least 245 dead which were found on the battlefield over the days that followed. A decisive Australian victory, Long Tan proved to be a major local set back for the Viet Cong, indefinitely forestalling an imminent movement against the Australian base at Nui Dat and challenging their previous domination of Phuoc Tuy Province. Although there were a number of other large-scale encounters between the Australians and Viet Cong in later years, 1 ATF was not fundamentally challenged again. The best known of the Australian Army’s actions in Vietnam, in the years since it was fought the battle has assumed a similar symbolic significance as battles such as Gallipoli, Kokoda and Kapyong.