Vietnam Veterans’ Day
Address by Ambassador Steven Robinson AO
18 August 2019, Clark Veterans’ Cemetery, Clark Freeport Zone, Pampanga
Australian, New Zealand and US veterans, members of the Angeles City Sub-Branch of the Returned & Services League of Australia, special guests, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
Today marks the 53st anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, which has become the day, each year, on which we remember all Australians who fought and died in the Vietnam War.
On this day in 1966, Delta Company, 6RAR, entered the Long Tan rubber plantation in search of the enemy that had fired upon the Australian patrol base at Nui Dat the day before. Following a minor skirmish at around 1530 hrs, they later came under heavy fire. As a result, several men were killed and the company was pinned down.
It quickly became apparent that the 105 Australians and 3 New Zealand artillery observers of Delta Company were facing an enemy of far greater strength than they ever anticipated. Captured intelligence would later reveal that they had stumbled upon a combined force of around 2,500 well-equipped North Vietnamese and Viet Cong from the 275th Regiment and D445 Provincial Mobile Battalion.
Hugely outnumbered, in heavy tropical rain and gathering darkness, Delta Company’s situation was dire. Daring ammunition resupply and accurate New Zealand artillery fire were critical in enabling them to hold their position against sustained enemy pressure.
Just as the enemy was forming up for a mass assault, Australian armoured cavalry arrived, along with reinforcements from 6RAR. The surprised Vietnamese withdrew and did not re-engage. Against overwhelming odds, the Australians had prevailed, even as they were about to be overrun.
Eighteen of our soldiers were killed that day, and a further 24 were wounded. 6RAR counted 245 enemy dead with evidence that others had already been removed from the battlefield.
Long Tan was neither the biggest nor the most protracted battle Australian troops took part in during the Vietnam War. It is, however, appropriate that the date of the battle of Long Tan is the date that is now recognised as Vietnam Veterans Day. I applaud the idea of a special day for Vietnam Veterans, in addition to ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day. As such, we ensure that the veterans of this conflict are, at last, afforded the recognition they deserve.
Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, began with a small commitment of 30 military advisors, known as the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, in 1962, and increased significantly over the following decade. At its peak there was upwards of 7,600 ADF personnel on the ground in Vietnam. By the time the last combat troops were withdrawn in Dec 1972, approximately 60,000 Australians had served in Vietnam, 521 were killed, more than 3000 were physically wounded. We may never fully understand or appreciate the sacrifice and cost to those Australians who suffered mental wounds or injuries, as a result of their service.
The stated reason for the Government of the day to commit to the conflict was to stop communist expansion. The commitment had wide support within the community until about 1969; by which time it had become Australia's longest war; and was only recently surpassed by Australia's long term commitment of combat forces to the War in Afghanistan. With the cost in Australian lives mounting and a clear victory not in sight, public support turned. This culminated in the deeply regrettable treatment of returning serviceman.
For the veterans, the Vietnam War was tough, but the homecoming was frequently tougher and more painful. Many veterans, their families and their children suffered vilification and abuse. Although the war had become controversial, the public treatment of the servicemen was bad. By any measure, it was wrong – leading to unnecessary pain, torment and lost opportunities for many veterans and their families.
The Australian people have, I think, learned to separate dissatisfaction with (often difficult) Government decisions from the gratitude and admiration of the nation for ADF members’ bravery, sacrifice and duty in the pursuits of our national interests. The ADF itself - while being far from perfect - has undoubtedly improved its awareness, ability and commitment to providing better long term care for older and young veterans. Additionally, the ADF take more care in the preparation of its members to build resilience for their post-deployment life.
While I have a long a deep relationship with South East Asia, in particular the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand, my experience in Vietnam started in 2012, with both a government related visit and a private visit, that took me all over the country. During the period I travelled from the delta to Ho Chi Minh, and up to Hanoi by train. I also had the chance to visit Howlong Bay. I returned officially in December 2013, November 2016, and was there last in April 2018. While remembering the sacrifices of others, I note that the members of the organisations I now represent have taken up the mantle in the region. There are committed, bright and innovative Australians all over the region, representing their nation in government service, industry or commerce. For example, I have committed most of my working life to the betterment of the people of South East Asia and their relationship with Australia. I passionately believe that the continued economic and social development of nations like Vietnam and the Philippines, with intelligent and empathetic engagement from Australia, will help to maintain the security and economic prospects for the region.
I am happy to report that the economic and societal changes in Vietnam, specifically, are staggering. The country has prospered in recent years and Australia’s relationship with Vietnam has grown stronger and broader. We are now seen as a close partner and friend. My experience from 2012 onward, very much mirrors this change – the Vietnamese were very tentative in the 2000s but have become increasingly open and downright collegiate over the last few years.
The war remains a strong point of reference, but the country, like all of us, has moved on.
On this day, now called Vietnam Veterans’ Day, we therefore pause to honour the memory of the 521 Australians killed in action in Vietnam, and the 2,398 who were wounded in action there. We also honour those who returned carrying internal scars, some of which continue to cause pain decades later.
As well as acknowledging our own experience, Vietnam Veteran’s Day is also an opportunity to reaffirm the deep bond that Australians share with the people of New Zealand, the United States, the Philippines, and the other countries whose soldiers have fought and died alongside ours in the defence of our common values.
We honour them by remembering and mourning.
We honour them by celebrating our good fortune to be citizens of countries whose way of life such people paid a personal price to help preserve.
We honour them by committing ourselves anew to defending our values at home, and promoting our national interests abroad.
And we honour them by helping to foster stability and prosperity in the region.
Lest we forget.