VIETNAM WAR: by Robert BomNews Weekly
Australian heroism at Battle of Long Tan
, June 25, 2011
When Major Harry Smith, during the Battle of Long Tan (August 18, 1966), radioed for more ammunition, he was told: “Not possible”. When the vitally needed armoured personnel carrier (APC) support had not arrived, he told them not to bother, if they did not leave base within the next 10 minutes.
The ammunition problem was resolved when the RAAF pilots heard about it and decided to go, despite higher command’s objections. After some tough talking, the APCs arrived, but were not a moment too soon.
This year, the same Harry Smith (now a lieutenant-colonel) received an invitation for himself, Dave Sabben and Geoffrey Kendall, along with surviving members of D Company 6RAR, to come to Canberra for the presentation of medals and unit citations.
The Defence Department was prepared to pay only the travel expenses of Smith, Sabben and Kendall, plus one partner each. Both Smith and Sabben told them not to bother, and refused to go if the rest of the men had to pay their own expenses.
Flight-Lieutenant Clifford Dohle was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal (posthumously) on August 17, 2010. In defiance of orders, Flight-Lt Dohle was one of the pilots who had delivered the vitally required ammunition to D Company. At the time of delivery, the men were desperately low on supplies.
In the minds of many, Long Tan is one of the most significant victories in the history of the Australian Defence Forces. D Company 6RAR was outnumbered by 20 to 30 times, but still achieved victory against the North Vietnamese regulars and the Viet Cong. That could rank favourably in a list of outstanding achievements anywhere in the world’s military history.
In the end, a low-key presentation function was held at Hervey Bay, Queensland, where Harry Smith resides. Federal member for Hinkler, Paul Neville (Liberal National Party), did the honours. There were no official representatives from the Government or Labor Party. Only Smith was presented. Sabben had decided not to be invested for the time being, not until the men of his 12 Platoon were invited to be present, as Sabben believed it was their medal.
The story of Long Tan is one of heroism and a reluctance by authorities to give it due respect. Major Harry Smith had recommended that some 12 men receive imperial awards. All were rejected!
There were no recommendations for a Victoria Cross, as officially that could not be done. However, the Commonwealth Government has recently opened up the possibility of retrospective VC awards. Smith is considering at least one for Long Tan.
There are similarities between the difficulties in supplying ammunition to the men at Long Tan in 1966 and the obstacles to providing travel expenses for the same men to receive overdue recognition in Canberra 45 years on.
In all cases, unusual individual decisions were employed to break the mould, because there were men who did bother. In Vietnam it was to save D Company from almost certain annihilation.
In his contributions to the writing of this article, for instance, Dave Sabben had this to say about Cliff Dohle: “Cliff was one of the pilots in one of two choppers. The ammo re-supply certainly permitted us to fight on and possibly saved our lives, but so did the close artillery support, the rain and our tactical moves and dispersements — the ammo re-supply was certainly one of the ‘saving’ factors.”
The reluctance by Australian governments to give due credit to the men of the armed forces is a continuing one. In most budgets, the Defence Department allocation is cut back, but governments are prepared to waste large amounts of funds for travel expenses where it suits them. Take, for instance, those by present and past prime ministers.
The amount of money it would have cost to accommodate the remaining men of D Company 6RAR would have been only a fraction of the amount spent last year by some of the highest spenders.
Great sacrifices are requested of our fighting men, but when it comes to recognition, governments become very stingy. This was the case for the men of D Company 6RAR, who were told to pick up their unit citations from Canberra, but at their own cost, even though travel expenses had been recommended by the Governor-General.
Robert Bom lives in Rockhampton, Queensland.