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Long Tan – Book Review

October 12, 2015

There have been numerous writings covering the Battle of Long Tan in South Vietnam. Now the story is told by the commander of Delta Company 6 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) that withstood extraordinary odds on the afternoon of 18 July 1966.

Harry Smith’s autobiography is a ‘warts and all’ account of his life from his youth in the Australian Army Cadets in Hobart, early working life, National Service, service in the Australian Regular Army, his life-long love of sailing and his obsession for recognition of those who served under him at Long Tan. With almost 50 years since the event that has driven him since, considerable informationfrom the Viet Cong point of view relating to the battle has become available, and Smith has used this to present a reasonably comprehensive account of the politics and military events of the period.

After completing National Service and returning to find his employer had not keep his job for him, Smith opted to join the Army, and very soon became commissioned after completing the second course run at the Officer Cadet School at Portsea.Posted back to Hobart, he then worked for two years with National Service trainees. In 1954 he became a qualified parachutist at RAAF Williamtown,married at 21 and started a family. Smith saw service as a platoon commander with 2RAR in the Malayan Emergency, before returning to postings in Australia which included being Adjutant at 2 Commando Company before being promoted to command Delta Company in 6RAR in July 1965. Earmarked to embark for Vietnam in mid-1966, Smith was determined his soldiers would have the optimum chance of success and survival by training them to a level beyond what his CO (Battalion Commander) expected.

6RAR departed Eagle Farm on 8 June 1966 bound for Phuoc Tuy Province in South Vietnam. Warnings from Army of the Republic of Vietnam of Viet Cong intentions to attack the poorly manned and defended base at Nui Dat that the Australian Task Force (1ATF) was in the throes of establishing.It had no protective minefields and few barbed wire obstacles, and this saw 6RAR called forward to Nui Dat by 14 June. On 19 July Delta Company saw its first enemy contact since arrival.

In subsequent days signals intelligence indicated the approach of the Viet Cong 275 Regiment (equivalent to three battalions of Australian troops) approaching Nui Dat from the east. Only four officers in HQ 1ATF were aware of this information and neither CO of 5RAR or 6RAR were informed. The ‘big event’ on everyone’s mind was a concert to be given on the evening of 18 August by Col Joye and Little Pattie despite the mortaring of the base on the previous night.

Bravo Company 6RAR commenced looking for enemy west of Long Tan early on the morning of the 17th. They found vacated mortar positions west of the rubber plantation and next morning found recoilless rifle sites and an artillery gun position, while there were blood trails heading in an easterly direction. Smith was briefed at 8am to relieve Bravo Company and Delta Company (D Coy) arrived in their position just after noon. Having approached the Long Tan rubber from the west, Smith was eager to move through the plantation and hence spend the night in a more secure jungle base to its east. It was toward the eastern side that 11 Platoon at 3:40pm fired on a small group of Viet Cong. D Coy held its position before 11 Platoon took follow-up action for a small contact and were soon 300m from the slower moving remainder of D Coy. About 4pm 11 Platoon spotted an apparent enemy company and were then immediately hit with extremely heavy enemy fire, suffering very heavy losses.

The remainder of the battle is described in detail and covers the reluctance of higher commands toimmediately provide vital artillery support, aerial resupply of ammunition, and the delaying of APC-mounted reinforcements. The manoeuvre of DCoy troops on the ground whilst under fire is comprehensively covered, but unfortunately the only battle map provided is the timeline of the APC movement from Nui Dat to Long Tan and its actions on arriving there. At 3:30 pm the D Coy group numbered 105 (with at least half being National Servicemen) and three NZ artillery personnel. By 7:10 pm, when the battle was over, there had been seventeen killed (mainly National Servicemen from 11 Platoon) and 23 wounded.

CO 6RAR gave Smith a window of less than 24 hours to submit a list of those recommended for awards for the Long Tan action.Smith, naturally,was not happy about those overlooked or whose awards were downgraded or those not involved in the action receiving awards.A farcical occasion resulted when the visiting South Korean Deputy Prime Minister had to present soldiers with dolls and other local products because there was not approval for them to receive foreign awards. D Coy left Vietnam in May 1967 with its 127 men suffering 23 deaths and 47 wounded in its year tour.

Soon after his return to Australia Smith divorced. Whilst posted to 1 Commando Company at Georges Heights, Sydney he qualified on a free-fall course and was then able to be involved in overseas visits, before being posted to the SAS Regiment and then Staff College at Queenscliff. A staff posting to Perth followed beforepromotion in 1972 to lieutenant colonel and a marriage that proceeded a thirteen months posting to the United Kingdom. Smith returned to become Chief Instructor and CO of the first Army Parachute Training School. It was here in 1975 on his 497th jump that he suffered a severe back injury that rendered him medically unfit to fulfill his dream of commanding a battalion. He discharged from the Army in May 1976 and then fought to gain a suitable pension for loss of potential income. Having ‘drifted apart’ from his second wife, Smith married for a third time in 2003.The following yearSmith was diagnosed with prostate cancerin 2008(with ‘Agent Orange’ named as the probable cause) and then internal bleeding in 2014. He is still plagued with numerous skin cancers as a result of overexposure to the sun as a child.

After patiently waiting the enforced 30 years for documentation to be come accessible, Smith has vigorously taken up the cause to seek appropriate recognition for those who were under his command at Long Tan. He has been partially successful in obtaining foreign awards for his men. Despite being given sympathetic hearing by politicians of all persuasions, he has been unsuccessful in a number of Reviews, and is currently (July 2015) awaiting another review.

This account of Harry Smith’s struggles with his relationships, medical problems and ‘unfinished business’ from his military career,indicates to the reader that this man has ‘tenacity in spades’. He is well recognised by his local community, and has worked tirelessly within the community to remind people that those who have served their country in whatever theatre of war, should be remembered for their contribution to the Australian fabric. Despite being somewhat repetitive, and at times the narrative straying from its line, this well-illustrated book shoots from the shoulder in the manner its author would wish to be remembered.

The Royal United Services Institute of Victoria Library wishes to thank the publisher for providing a copy for review.

Harry Smith’s autobiography includes in detail how he, (as the commander on the ground), saw the Battle of Long Tan on 18th August 1966.

It traces his life from his days as a school army cadet, through Officer Cadet School and his service as an officer prior to and post-Vietnam, and his life on retirement from the Army. With a determination to do the best by those under his command, he sometimes ruffled the feathers of his superiors, and put strains on his personal life. A parachuting accident put paid to his Army career and other medical problems have not made his life an easy one.

After waiting for 30 years for access to necessary documentation, he has ‘gone to bat’ for his men at Long Tan in pursuit of what he sees as just recognition for their valour and efforts in the four-hour action in 1966. He is a well-known identity in Southern Queensland, and his on-going tenacity is to be admired in an octogenarian.

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