Battle of Long Tan
Battle of Long Tan
'Twas a time, in the monsoon season,
In South Vietnam's rubber region,
One hundred K's south east from old Saigon;
On a hot, rainy August night,
At a carefully chosen battle site,
Australian troops engaged the Viet Cong.
Although both sides suffered heavy losses,
You'll search in vain for any crosses,
Except for one, that's simply painted white.
And around that same time, every year,
You can perhaps sometimes clearly hear,
Echoes of that awful, bitter, bloody fight.
An eerie bugle, perhaps a wispy wind,
Mortars or artillery, crashing in,
The latter with its own distinctive, chilling blast.
And there are other haunting noises,
A roll call answered, by faint young voices,
Of ghosts patrolling the dark and distant past.
Lieutenant Sharp and Kenny Gant,
Privates Maxey Wales and Ernie Grant,
Jim Houston, Davey Thomas and many more;
Images of them, also Frankie Topp,
Out on their final, fatal 'op',
Each though dead, all present and accounted for.
'Twas back in May of 1966,
As a result of faulty foreign politics,
ANZAC forces had pitched camp, about that date.
Around a little hill in Phuoc Tuy,
Units of Australian infantry,
Then outnumbered, were soon to face their fate.
In this unique guerrilla Asian war,
'Charlie' couldn't simply just ignore,
This newly planted 'thorn', amongst the rubber trees.
They'd restore their recent 'loss of face',
Destroy this make-shift military base,
A decision that would bring them to their knees.
So, from a grid reference they well knew,
They'd first mortar bomb that hill's HQ,
Just 3 kilometres distant, on the map.
A surprise attack, 'twould be their ploy,
"We'll terminate these 'Uc-dai-loi' !"
A well laid ambush in the 'rubber', 'twas their trap.
And when that deed is finally done,
Their camp we'll storm, quickly overrun,
Having first lured them from the safety of their lair!
All foreign troops will then have learned,
Deep respect for us that we've well earned,
And displaced peasants will be shown, that we care!"
Two regiments available on their side,
With Battalion D.445 allied,
Had come overland or up rivers by sampan.
Having travelled non-stop, throughout the night,
They converged upon this selected site,
On the outskirts of a village, called Xa Long Tan.
Nearly all of these were main force troops,
Arriving there in small unit groups,
In black and khaki, others dressed in greens.
And various village, sympathetic sources,
Supplied some voluntary local forces,
A few quite young and still within their teens.
Others, old veterans from '54,
Twelve years and maybe more before,
Morale maintained by victories of that kind.
A cadre also brought and taught,
A rigid doctrine of political thought,
Brainwashing and controlling each young mind.
Just like pack-mules with giant loads,
These troops used tracks well off the roads,
Officers kept checking maps and other charts.
All sorts of weapons with ammunition,
Well maintained in perfect, prime condition,
Heaped high was such equipment on ox-carts.
As standard issue to these VC,
'Twas an AK rifle or RPD,
Grenades and rockets hung from straps they wore.
And local villagers served as guides or porters,
Of food supplies and heavy mortars,
Such support widespread in this guerrilla war.
From well beyond or at least as far,
As Xuyen Moc or north of Xa Binh Ba,
Enemy troops had been advancing, it now seems.
With each new identified location claim,
Confusion arose whenever it came,
From spies or allies or our own patrolling teams.
Daily reports arrived from S.A.S.,
Yanks and ARVN, as well no less,
Suggesting similar reasons to be concerned.
And our 'Sigs' detected a few miles from base,
An approaching radio plotted trace,
A fact those other sources also confirmed.
Yet Australian 'brass', our High Command,
Couldn't grasp this data, couldn't understand,
Themselves so safe in central Task Force lines.
So was it their over-bloody-confidence?
Just ignorance or plain incompetence?
Why they remained confused sifting all these signs?
And yet, out amongst those Viet Cong,
Although they too would prove to be wrong,
Commanders had 'The Big Picture' clear in mind.
All high ground under their full control,
Each assault wave tasked with its fixed role,
Others to encircle, then attack, from behind.
So, as an enticement to this place,
They first mortar-bombed that hill-top base,
And fired mountain guns in Stage 1 of their plan.
In this rubber plantation they then laid in wait,
With that tempting lure having been set as bait,
Just outside the village of Xa Long Tan.
Lieutenant Colonel, Colin Townsend,
Commander of the Sixth Battalion,
Issued urgent orders to Major Harry Smith:
“Patrol out east to south, 5Ks or so,
From Long Tan down, towards Dat Do,
West and north is being cleared, by The Fifth!”
“Mortar sites by Bravo, have been detected,
Also 6RAR’s been directed,
For ‘Line Alpha’ to be checked out, all around.
His exact locale is in some doubt,
So I want you to take your company out,
And track down bloody ‘Charlie’, until he’s found!”
The 18th of August, ’twas that date,
When D Company left, to face its fate,
Set out full strength to resolve the truth or myth:
Small guerrilla bands or maybe more,
Perhaps a regiment of hard core?
“Well, we’ll bloody soon find out!”, said Harry Smith.
‘The Wet’ now meant that time was lost,
’Twas 1 p.m. by the time they crossed,
Suoi Da Bang, a creek, then full to the ‘T’.
Awaiting relief in expectation,
Just at the edge of that plantation,
Were thirty tired mates, from Company B.
After showing them pits, each freshly made,
And sites of recent medical aid,
(Blood-stained bandages had confirmed all that),
Bravo’s group then headed back,
In fact along ‘D’s’ just-cut jungle track,
Towards their hill-top base, at Nui Dat.
As Delta’s patrol, maintained single file,
Came a ‘smoko’ sign, a rest awhile,
And Major Smith, again, checked over his map.
Imagined thoughts of an odd cold beer,
Heat oppressing and quite severe,
Sweat pouring as it drained out, just like sap.
The artillery boys, Battery 161,
Had sent a captain, as their ‘top gun’,
To provide that expertise, held by a few.
As Forward Observing Officer then,
A nickname given by all the men,
’Twas affectionately, simply just.....‘The FOO’.
So Maurie Stanley from Kiwi ‘arty’,
Would prove quite vital, to this 6RAR party,
A specialist in his field, in every way.
Map reading prowess he professed,
Along with many other skills possessed,
All soon tested, a little later on that day.
“Saddle up, we’re movin’ out!”
Orders in silence, yet left no doubt,
Came hand signals, well known to each man.
Not a sound their footsteps made,
Slowly up that rise, still in the shade,
Between endless rows of trees, near Xa Long Tan.
In this plantation, about 5 square Ks,
Once French owned in colonial days,
Grew rubber trees, each about 5 years old;
5 metres high, 5 more apart,
A small square clearing lay at its heart,
Dark hidden secrets there would soon unfold.
Though at this stage, well out of sight,
Long Tan lay 1K, abandoned, to the right,
Residents moved south, 5Ks to Dat Do.
And one of the few, in all of Phuoc Tuy,
From a hill to the left, one could clearly see,
Into that plantation, down there below.
Silence broken, a bird’s whistling sound,
As golden streaks of light angled down,
Through breaks in the canopy, overhead.
Some discarded tappers’ pots around,
Leaf litter covered, sticky muddy ground,
A convenient carpet, on which to tread.
Conditions oppressing for everyone,
Despite this foliage block on the sun,
Humidity and tension, remaining quite high.
And sweat continued still to pour,
Into those heavy-duty greens they wore,
Water bottles nearly empty, or dry.
Perhaps 3 hours left, of any light,
Then a harbour-up for the approaching night,
’Twas 3.15 p.m., moving on up that rise.
A special hand signal’s indication,
Meant advance in arrowhead, a new formation,
Reducing the chances of sudden surprise.
Adjacent to an impenetrable jungle hedge,
Ten Platoon along that left hand edge,
Eleven to the right front, from there would steer.
CHQ, by ‘phone’ connected,
And as usual, centrally well protected,
Twelve Platoon on guard, brought up the rear.
Suddenly, a rifle crack, blasting, echoing out,
“CONTACT FRONT!” yelled the forward scout,
One VC dead, five more fled east to a shack.
Lt. Sharp’s boys quickly in pursuit,
All three sections following suit,
So committed, there was then no turning back.
Khaki and webbing that these Cong wore,
Implying the presence of main core,
That fact hadn’t even yet started to gel.
Eleven Platoon pushed on, didn’t hesitate,
Realisation dawning all too late,
Until trapped, inside the locked gates of Hell.
An abrupt end to this crazy hunt,
Came on a 500 metre wide front,
Where a fight to the death for both sides, soon began.
A force of Aussies, just 100 strong,
Up against 2,000 odd Viet Cong,
Engaged in what they call the Battle of Long Tan.
All Eleven Platoon came under attack,
Rest of the company still well back,
A machine gunner, plus two, already dead.
The status quo, ’twould not long last,
Fire pouring in on them, hard and fast,
From the knoll on the left and from straight ahead.
Information, urgently, needing to know,
Smith yelling into his radio:
“Gordon! What in bloody blazes is all the fuss?
Seconds before he was shot and died,
“We had formed an assault line!” Sharp replied,
“And now these bastards, are assaulting us!”
His men were pinned down on the ground,
Enemy advancing all around,
‘Sharpie’, desperate, screaming into his ‘phone’.
Bullet smashing it from his face,
Sole connection to CHQ and base,
Any link now cut to a static tone.
Shorty out wide, yelled Douggy was hit,
That he’d now have to run for it,
However, ‘The Grim Reaper’ just wouldn’t wait.
A hail of lead from an RPD,
Cut short his young life’s expectancy,
Within mere seconds, he’d joined his mate.
Deadly rockets, with fiery spiral tails,
Thousands of green and red tracer trails,
An array of lights, streaking, deafening, everywhere.
With extended lines of Viet Cong,
Each often up to sixty strong,
This platoon could not hold on, for long, out there.
Only three magazines these ‘grunts’ had each,
Last rounds of which, they’d all soon reach,
And the three M.60s’ breeches finally jammed.
With all their ammunition now near gone,
Machetes and shovels unclipped and drawn,
Remaining combat could soon, be hand to hand.
Grabbing an A.K. from near his feet,
Like a scene of a brawl in a pub’s back street,
Lt. Sharp, yelling, swung it ’round, above his head.
Two fatal blasts to neck and chest,
Dropped him down, amongst all the rest,
Still holding its barrel, like a club, though dead.
‘Arty’ overhead, screaming, without a pause,
Whistled and crashed, with tremendous roars,
Deadly ally, ubiquitous, in this war.
Jagged fragments, red-hot and blue,
In all directions, flashing, at high speed flew,
Cruel and indiscriminate, as they tore.
Each confused by deafening noise,
Both the Viet Cong and the Uc-dai-lois,
A scene of bloody chaos for every man.
To Buddha or God, on that fateful day,
Many no doubt began to pray,
That they’d survive this battle, they call Long Tan.
Ten Platoon, having dropped their packs,
That extra burden now off their backs,
In extended line, headed eastwards in assault.
Relieving Eleven ’twas their clear goal,
Yet massive fire from off the knoll,
On their left, abruptly brought them to a halt.
‘In-coming’ mortars and RPGs,
Exploding bursts amongst the trees,
Spraying shrapnel, in and around CHQ.
Meanwhile, falling, was heavy rain,
Stalling aid from any bomber plane,
Or even choppers coming, to their rescue.
Annihilation likely, very soon,
So ‘Louie’ Sabben took out 12 Platoon,
Attempting to give Eleven full support.
Just one last try to avoid defeat,
Give cover-fire for their retreat,
Whilst Ten, forced back, defended CHQ like a fort.
An order from the sergeant of Eleven Platoon,
Buick left in charge to call this tune:
“Let’s get the hell out of here, while we can!”
With just survival on their mind,
And 13 dead Diggers left behind,
The remainder dropped all of their gear and ran.
Vic Grice got up to join in this race,
Keen to exit this hell-hole place,
As soon as he had heard those words: “Now, Go!”
Of all those running, he was first,
Cut down dead by a machine gun burst,
Still carrying that useless radio.
Robbins, helpless, lying in the mud,
Badly wounded, covered in blood,
Grant, a medic, stopping, undid his pack.
Out of time and out of luck,
A bullet struck like a runaway truck,
An instant death reward, shot in the back.
A stench of smoky cordite, floating, filled the air,
Broken trees lay bleeding everywhere,
White latex sap, dripping down their bark.
Monsoonal rain reducing light,
Ominous curtain, approaching night,
This Dante’s scene of death, now getting dark.
Harry Smith calling back to base,
An emotional voice, a stoical face:
“Damn well hurry up, or don’t bother to come!
’Cause we’re very low on ‘ammo’ now!
Then it won’t much matter, anyhow!
In a few minutes, we’ll be bloody overrun!”
Ten Platoon positioned, facing east,
An all round defence, having formed at least,
’Twas reminiscent of Custer’s ‘Last Stand’.
Ninety years had passed, since that eventful date,
Would they too suffer, that same fate,
Outnumbered, in this battle they call Long Tan?
Back in base camp, at Nui Dat, meanwhile,
Officers conferring, sat in usual style,
Solving a dilemma, with which they were faced;
What to dispatch as relief support?
Discussing tactics, theory taught;
A final decision, ’twas needed in haste.
Choppers thwarted by this heavy rain,
No landing zones, besides, in that terrain,
And stationed too far away, anyhow.
Even with perfect co-ordination,
Air force officials’ then rare co-operation,
’Twould take too long to fly up, from Vung Tau.
Like a western movie, set on an open plain,
Indians circling a waggon train,
Yet reality, in this case, of course.
Again the cavalry, ’twas selected,
An armoured squadron thus directed,
To spearhead a relieving infantry force.
With a possible ambush it might face,
Exposing danger to their base,
Task Force Headquarters, suspected a trap.
So, of the 40 APCs to send,
‘Top brass’ dispatched only ten,
Whilst thirty remained on guard at ‘The Dat’.
Suoi Da Bang, that creek, ’twas crossed untroubled,
Though normal water level near doubled,
Fifteen metres, approximately, wide.
Exhausted men from Company A,
Having just returned from patrol that day,
Squatting atop of the ‘tracks’, or on seats inside.
Moving well up into that rubber plantation,
In three-up-four-back line formation,
With lights blazing, ’twas getting quite dark;
Machines roaring between rows of trees,
Barely sufficient room, through which to squeeze,
Sides swaying and bumping, scraping off bark.
Ahead, a company of Viet Cong,
Of one hundred or perhaps more strong,
Observed crossing left, in from the right.
With rockets and mortars, their primary mission,
’Twas encircle Delta’s now weak position,
And finally put an end to this fight.
Disguised by the battle’s lights and noise,
VC didn’t notice these new Uc-dai-lois,
A fatal mistake! They’d ignored their backs.
This anti-tank unit of D.445,
In total surprise, didn't long survive,
Wiped out by soldiers firing, riding the ‘tracks’.
Those besieged Diggers ahead, meanwhile,
In true Anzac, stoic style,
Were preparing for their final stand;
Against all odds, still holding out,
Divine help called upon, by most no doubt,
In this raging battle, they call Long Tan.
Remaining fighting fit, 5 metres apart,
With CHQ at that circle’s heart,
All sixty prone, 100 metres across.
Smithy would show his mettle there,
And someday he would proudly wear,
Deservedly earned, his Military Cross.
Central rear of this defended space,
The company medic, set up his base,
A stormwater ditch that was man-made.
’Twas Lady Luck’s gift, a small concession,
All wounded taken to this depression,
Protected there and given essential aid.
A re-supply dropped in at 6 p.m.,
At tree-top level, at great risk to them,
Such fearless action, saved many men no doubt.
Hovering low, in fire and rain,
Those choppers’ crews must have been insane,
Jack Kirby ran ’round, handing this ‘ammo’ out.
An unwritten law, although never signed,
‘Never leave your mates behind!’
Yet no one aware of a dreadful mistake.
Two Diggers wounded and unattended,
To be left all alone, so each pretended,
To be dead, bleeding, silent, wide awake.
Both destined to lay there all that night,
Each isolated until dawn’s light,
Trying all means to stem their loss of blood.
All around them shells were falling,
Chilling voices of ‘people’ calling,
Viet Cong crawling wounded in the mud.
Meanwhile, relentless waves of these VC,
There seemed to be three, between each tree,
Advanced upon the Australians, in a line.
Stanley walked his ‘arty’, sideways, back and forth,
From east to west and south to north,
Whole rows of ‘Charlie’ wiped out each time.
And just as it seemed a hopeless state,
That relief would arrive, far too late,
Seven APCs at last, roared onto that site.
Frightened VC, fleeing, chased in headlight beams,
Terror in their eyes, horrific screams,
As they ran off, blindly, in search of the night.
Any chance of success had sunk to nil,
Enemy commanders upon the hill,
Reluctantly sent runners, to pass the word:
“Attacking now are armoured groups,
This battle’s over, withdraw all troops!”
To continue would’ve been suicide and absurd!
All of their efforts had ended in vain,
‘Tracks’, cannons and heavy rain,
Each combined together, to ruin their plan.
Raw guts and bad luck brought their defeat,
Time had come to beat a quick retreat,
Away from this battle, they call Long Tan.
Signs of carnage, quite widespread,
Three days to bury the enemy dead,
And collect all weapons and clear that site.
Today of course there’s little trace,
Of what occurred, of what took place,
On that awful August afternoon and night.
Eighteen killed, twenty seven with wounds,
Members mainly from three platoons,
And all of these men, on just the Australian side.
The Viet Cong’s losses, well passed that score,
Estimated more than two forty four,
Many bodies taken away to hide.
Still no sign of an end to war,
Three years on they returned once more,
To erect a giant, white concrete cross;
Paying tribute to those who died,
Even to those on the other side,
A permanent memorial to their loss.
ANZAC legends have filled our minds,
Images of war at various times,
From written stories and in film, on screen.
Although most painted some bloody sights,
In two dimensional blacks and whites,
Reality is more often, never seen.
Many claim, what a dreadful waste,
Left with a bitter, sour taste,
To them ’twas all for nothing, a war in vain.
Yet maybe not, if our anger holds,
If we introduce more strict controls,
To prevent it ever happening again.
Let’s watch ‘pollies’ whom we elect,
Extreme care let’s take, whom we select,
Examine and expose each hidden lie.
Keep such power in our own hands,
Halt this flow of young men to foreign lands,
Where most suffer for nought and sometimes die.
In August on each 18th day,
Sombre tributes to these men some pay,
At services conducted every year.
Some ponder at those vacant places,
Conjure up those ghostly faces,
And perhaps even shed a silent tear.
‘Old’ veterans standing very proud,
Hearing cheers from a growing, grateful crowd,
Their numbers increasing, as the truth is learned.
Chests held out, heads turn in line,
Saluting the dead at a sacred shrine,
Dangling medals glistening, all well earned.
Though middle-aged, wounds still hidden,
Harbouring thoughts, revealed forbidden,
Men march today with honour, when they can;
No longer blamed, no more denied,
Recalling those, who fell and died,
All those years ago, in battles like Long Tan.
Now, if we let the tape rewind and ponder,
One’s mind cannot help but wonder,
About such things as what we would have done;
Had our enemy not been held at bay,
Had the VC not been turned away,
If D Company had been defeated and overrun.
Some suspicions still remain today,
’Cause black and white, when mixed is grey,
Some high-ranking ‘brass’, never brought to task.
Instead, vested interests wrote this story,
Preferring to revel in fame and glory,
Full truth disguised and covered like a mask.
Unanswered questions still arise,
Why patrols of only moderate size,
Were sent out on such a dangerous course?
’Twas known surely in Headquarters,
Enemy units, carrying so many mortars,
Were just part of a more substantial force?
And why our base had such poor defence?
Only a token flimsy barbed-wire fence!
And especially weak, facing north and east!
Security couldn’t have been much rougher,
Mainly just a ‘grunt’ cannon fodder buffer,
There, for around the first three months at least!
Why ominous signs remained confused,
From reliable sources often used,
From ARVN, S.A.S., ‘Sigs’ and Yanks alike?
Whilst Intelligence sifted through all that,
Mere pawns were others at Nui Dat,
‘Sitting ducks’ awaiting a certain strike!
If you should ever visit South Viet-nam,
You’ll come to a cross, on a local’s farm,
6 Ks north of a town, called Xa Dat Do.
And on this gently sloping elevation,
Once a shattered rubber plantation,
Is today a peaceful place, where new trees grow.
On the ground there are in scattered places,
Some, occasionally seen as traces,
Fragmented bones and shells, exposed by time;
Ignored by people and passing cattle,
Unclaimed relics of that mighty battle,
Which long ago were buried and left behind.
In respect, veterans sometimes come,
Even the occasional local one,
To this place that witnessed war, so long before.
Where they now stand, solemnly gazing,
Once D Company’s guns were blazing,
And artillery shells were crashing by the score.
As minds go back so many years,
All eyes soon fill with saddened tears,
And they salute each and every man.
And at that cross they simply stare,
Then bow their heads in silent prayer,
For all of those who died there.....at Long Tan.
From Bruce Fletcher's oil painting of the Long Tan battle (hanging in the Canberra War Memorial)
This ballad is a tribute to the men who participated in that battle, overcoming impossible odds to achieve victory. It was just one of the three major battles (apart from the many minor ones) in which Australian troops fought during the Vietnam War. In essence, it was a microcosmic representation of what the ‘Anzac Spirit’ is all about, in that both Australian and New Zealand forces participated. They were up against superior numbers and atrocious conditions and still they not only survived but persevered and finally prevailed. Yet, was the Battle of Long Tan a result of a failed ambush by the Viet Cong or was it a result of a protracted enemy contact initiated by good patrolling tactics from the Australians? The latter explanation (a conventional contact with the enemy) would absolve any responsibility for poor planning and negligence by those in authority and therefore is much favoured by some. This topic, unfortunately, has remained a long running controversy, simmering unresolved due to the interests of vested groups (see extended discussion on this topic in Appendix F).
Any reasonable, balanced, unbiased analysis of all the evidence that is currently available, would lead an historical researcher to conclude that indeed the Viet Cong had planned an ambush by first mortaring the base. This was a tried and true tactic, repeated many times by the VC and their predecessors, the Viet Minh. There is some evidence they also planned an attack on the base camp, but only after they had lured out one or more separate company patrols to be eliminated.
However, due to a combination of circumstances, the plan had gone horribly wrong. A most likely scenario is that an Australian patrol fortuitously encountered a small unprepared enemy patrol, possibly returning from a recce or guard/observation duty. This contact then fast-forwarded the enemy’s original plan in such a manner, that the ensuing battle favoured the Australians. The planned ambush was incomplete in its final stages of preparation, or had been stood down after the 36-hour delay, since the mortar attack and the return to base of (seemingly) all the Australian search patrols.
The final Australian/NZ victory was a result of a combination of factors involving bravery, determination, resourcefulness and good leadership on the part of all members of D Company and to a lesser extent A Company, all aided by the superb back-up of artillery, armour and ‘chopper’ re-supply of ammunition. ‘Lady Luck’, darkness and the weather all contributed to the final outcome. When apportioning credit, one shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that had any one of the contributing elements above been absent, defeat would have been inevitable. Instead of 18 Australians dead the number could have been in excess of 100 and the base camp would have been attacked, leading to more casualties, military inquiries, political turmoil and an early, if not immediate, Australian/NZ withdrawal from the war. In lieu of medals for some of the hierarchy, it is more likely that a few heads would have rolled. See Appendix [F] for a full assessment of the available evidence.
“Make a noise in the East, then attack in the West!” - Mao Zedong (Mao Tse Tung).
“ ’Tis true that we are in great danger. The greater therefore should our courage be! ” - King Henry V
“No plan survives the first contact of war!” - Von Clausewitz
“It is never possible to revive ‘history’ to everyone’s satisfaction!”
- David Sabben (Commander of 12 Platoon D Company 6RAR).
“… Nor is it possible to simply ‘write’ history to everyone’s satisfaction!” - Author.
“The only lesson we learn from history … is that we do not learn from history!”
- Robert Fisk in The Great War for Civilisation.