Ambassador Bill Tweddell’s Address
Vietnam Veterans’ Day
Clark Veterans Cemetery, Angeles City, Pampanga
18 August 2013
Veterans, members of the Angeles City Returned and Services League, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Good morning.
This year we commemorate the 47th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan on 18 August 1966. We honour again today the courage of the men of D Company of the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment for their extraordinary heroism at Long Tan on that day.
The battle saw the loss of 18 Australian soldiers and another 24 wounded. It entered military history as an example of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, like the campaigns at Gallipoli, Tobruk, Kokoda and Kapyong.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the resumption of diplomatic relations between Australia and Vietnam, and today has very special significance for me.
For from 2005 to 2008, I was Australia’s Ambassador to Vietnam – and it was my great honour to preside at three 18 August commemoration events and two ANZAC Day commemorations at Long Tan.
On this day, 47 years ago, in that rubber plantation, there took place a battle so significant and intense for Australian troops in Vietnam that 18 August is now recognised as Vietnam Veterans’ Day, to remember all Australian service personnel who fought and died in the Vietnam War.
At approximately 1530 hours on 18 August 1966, soldiers from D Company of the 6RAR encountered and engaged the enemy in battle. The battle raged for some four hours, much of it in pelting rain. 18 young Australians lost their lives and a further 24 were wounded.
One New Zealander had also been killed the day before in a mortar attack on the Australian Task Force (1ATF) base some 5 kilometres away at Nui Dat. During that attack, 22 Australians were also wounded.
Of the 17 Australians from D Company who lost their lives in the Battle of Long Tan, the oldest was 22, the youngest 19. Eleven of the dead were National Servicemen, conscripts, “nashos,” who comprised some 80% of D Company.
One member of 3 Troop, 1 APC Squadron, died of wounds he received in the battle.
Many others also played their part: they included those involved in the artillery support which was so crucial throughout the battle, in the risky resupply of ammunition by helicopter at around 6 pm, and the Armoured Personnel Carriers which arrived on the scene at around nightfall.
The Battle of Long Tan was not the largest or most protracted battle Australian troops experienced in the Vietnam War. But the professionalism, bravery, resolution and resourcefulness with which our soldiers fought in the Battle of Long Tan has written it into the annals of Australian military history.
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 enemy soldiers.
It is noteworthy that at this time a Philippine contingent was serving in Vietnam. President Marcos would not permit the sending of combat forces, but instead sent a 2,000-man Civic Action Group – consisting of an engineer construction battalion, medical and rural community development teams, a security battalion, a field artillery battery, a logistics support company, and a headquarters element.
A total of 58,797 members of the Australian Army, the Royal Australian Navy, and the Royal Australian Air Force are known to have served in or visited Vietnam between 1962 and 1973. 17,424 of these were National Service conscripts. In addition, 1,850 civilians served in or visited Vietnam, including civilian medical teams, official entertainers, war correspondents and civilian aircrew, and members of the merchant marine.
Today, we honour the service and sacrifice of these Defence personnel and civilians in Vietnam between 1962 and 1973:
- 520 Australians (including 202 National Servicemen and 7 civilians) were killed-in-action; and the remains of all those Australians initially recorded as Missing-In-Action have since been recovered;
- A total of 2,398 (including 1,479 National Servicemen) were wounded.
It is also vitally important to honour the service of those who returned, many with no visible wounds, and to acknowledge the continued support provided by various veterans associations.
Not many of us can do very much to alleviate the pain which some of our veterans feel to this day. What we can do is honour the memory of those who paid with their lives, or their health, or their peace of mind – primarily in Vietnam but also in many other fields of conflict down the years. And that is what we are here today to do.
We do so by remembering and mourning.
We do so by celebrating our good fortune to be citizens of countries whose way of life men and women like these have fought to safeguard.
We do so by committing ourselves anew to work for peace where it is threatened.
We also honour the loved ones of those who fought – many of whom have borne enduring pain, of a kind few of us can hope to comprehend.
In the case of those families who have borne the sorrow of not knowing where their loved ones lay buried, the searches for the six Australian service personnel missing in action in Vietnam resulted, during my time as Ambassador, in the successful retrieval and return of the remains of three servicemen: Private Peter Gillson, Lance Corporal Richard (“Tiny”) Parker and Lance Corporal John Gillespie.
It is one of the professional and personal highlights of my life that I was able to play a role in that achievement – and to help set in train processes through which the remains of the remaining three servicemen were retrieved and returned after my tour of duty had ended.
They were Pilot Officer Robert Carver and Flying Officer Michael Herbert of No 2 Squadron RAAF, and Private David Fisher of 3 Squadron Special Air Service Regiment.
Driven by the determination of the Operation Aussies Home team, led by Jim Bourke, and supported and continued by MIA teams from the Australian and Vietnamese Governments, it was possible to provide all six families with some closure.
It has to be acknowledged that Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War provoked domestic controversy. My purpose today is not to dwell on that, but simply to suggest that history has two lessons:
- First, that voicing opposition to Australia’s involvement was and remains a democratic right. And brave young people have fought, suffered and died to secure that right.
- The second lesson is that, in exercising the right to oppose a war, one should nevertheless support and respect those whom the Government sends to fight it.
Those people whose service and sacrifice we honour today deserve to be counted alongside all those whose selfless courage has contributed to shaping our national character.
My fervent hope is that gatherings like ours today will help in the healing and reconciliation process for veterans who fought in Vietnam – and indeed veterans of all conflicts in which our troops have been called to take part.
This ceremony today provides an opportunity to reaffirm the common values and deep friendship that we Australians share with the United States, New Zealand and the Philippines, as well as the other allied countries alongside which Australians have served during wars and peacekeeping operations.
Lest we forget.