Long Tan: Behind the smokescreen

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(Image by Ian Coate via iancoate.com)

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan, Vietnam Veteran, former history teacher and author Don Tate asks whether this was really a legendary battle, or just military smoke and mirrors.

BINH GIA, 1964 — a small village of about 6,000 people not far from where the Australian Army would set up its task force base in Nui Dat just a year later, was a prelude to the Battle of Long Tan, if the “red hats” of the Australian Defence Force hadn’t been asleep at the wheel.

A winter-spring offensive by the National Liberation Front had been designed to smash South Vietnamese units, destroy strategic hamlets and inflict damage on the regular units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

The 271st and 272nd Viet Cong Regiments had been trained to attack well-fortified enemy bases, and in November of that year, a devastating defeat followed for the South Vietnamese Army in a set-piece battle that should have alerted the Australian High Command as to the capacity of the enemy to move large forces quickly, and how effective they could be in a large scale operation.

If it did, they went unheeded.

As for the enemy the Australians would eventually face at Long Tan, they learned their lessons very well.

Fast forward to late July 1966, near Long Tan

The highly secretive "SigInt" group within the Australian army’s 547 Signal Troop, commanded by Captain Trevor Richards, detected radio signals from a unit of the 5th VC Division — the 274th VC Regiment. Numbering about 1500 enemy soldiers, it was moving towards the Australian base at Nui Dat at a kilometre a day. The speed of the advance horrified Richards. 

But in an extraordinary example of sheer incompetence by senior Australian officers, this information was never passed on to Lieutenant Colonel Colin Townsend, Commanding officer. 

The difference between "intelligence" that resulted from all sources other than radio and the interpretation of radio signals picked up by the Signals Troop meant that those senior officers best placed to determine the inherent danger and act on it, didn’t.

Richards considered that Major John Rowe lacked the nous of how to interpret the information and by-passed Major Rowe and passed the information to Rowe’s next-in-command, Captain Bob Keep instead, in what was later described as an act of gross insubordination.

When Lt Colonel Jackson called Major Rowe to discuss the menace on their doorstep, Rowe was unaware he had been by-passed and blustered his way through the meeting, determined only to minimise Captain Keep’s interpretations of what the signals meant.

This failure by senior Army officers to put aside personality conflicts and carry out their duties professionally was inherently responsible for the tragedy Long Tan was to become.

17 August 1966 — the eve of Long Tan 

Sergeant Bob Buick of 11 Platoon, D Company of the 6th Battalion and the man who would forever dine out on the "bravery" award he received for his actions in the battle, has a run-in with his platoon commander, 2Lt Gordon Sharp.

The night before Long Tan, Buick and Lt Sharp had had a serious altercation that resulted in Buick storming out of his tent, straight into a latrine. A furious Buick remonstrated with Sharp again and a charge of insubordination was slapped against him by the young lieutenant.

Major Smith ignored the insubordination charge — an action that emboldened Buick but didn’t endear Smith to members of Buick’s 11 Platoon.

With the tension unresolved, it was unfortunate for all concerned that the platoon found itself caught up in the Long Tan stoush the next day. Within an hour, Lt Gordon Sharp received a bullet through the neck as he organised his platoon’s defence, and was killed.

The men of 11 Platoon found themselves in an invidious position when Sharp died. Not only did they have to contend with the unfolding ambush, now they had a sergeant they resented and didn’t trust in charge, because Sergeant Bob Buick was now acting platoon commander.

The battle of Long Tan

The enemy force which had been tracked for the previous fortnight by the 547th Signal Troop was now on the very doorstep of the task force. Yet despite finding evidence of significant enemy weaponry, Major Harry Smith was not made aware that the 275th VC Regiment was awaiting them.

His Intelligence Officer Captain Bryan Wickens certainly was — and he managed to convince the 6th Battalion’s Colonel Townsend to change up a platoon-sized patrol into the Long Tan rubber plantation into a company-sized one.

Good thing he did else no one from 11 Platoon would have returned. 

And this is where military accounts which tend to overlook obvious incompetence and failure to adhere to standard operating procedures become conflicted.

First, Lt Sharp relayed information to Major Smith as to what the enemy soldiers he had encountered were wearing and it indicated a major force unit, not any local guerrilla outfit. Secondly, 11 Platoon began a pursuit of the fleeing enemy and were soon detached from the main body of the Company. And thirdly, the entire Australian force was now spread out over a wide area in the rubber plantation with little visual contact between Major Harry Smith and his his three platoon commanders.

In that manner, 11 Platoon waltzed into a deadly ambush completely isolated.

What’s more, Sergeant Buick hadn’t ensured his platoon members were carrying the stipulated 100 rounds of ammunition per man as was standard procedure but just 60 rounds.

Sharp called in artillery and as he rose to observe where the initial artillery rounds were falling, received a fatal bullet wound to the neck.

Sergeant Bob Buick was now the de facto platoon commander of the beleaguered 11 Platoon.

Corporal Phil Dobson was the medic in Delta Company. Despite the cacophony of battle and the human wave of enemy soldiers threatening to over-run his "aid post", Dobson moved around the battlefield treating men and getting them to relative safety. 

Later, Major Harry Smith would acknowledge Dobson’s great bravery and the fact that none of the wounded died once in his care.

It says a lot about the way gallantry medals are awarded in the Australian Defence Force that Dobson received just the MID for actions of demonstrable gallantry, while his Company Commander Harry Smith, who never fired a shot in the battle and was never in the thick of it, somehow managed to score the Star of Gallantry.

The last thing L/Cpl Barry Magnussen recalls is the sight of Sgt Bob Buick running past him screaming out,

‘Every man for himself!’

Reluctantly, Magnussen roused his men from their positions and followed Buick, as did the rest of the platoon.

One Private Barry Mellor had been shot in the mouth during the battle, right next to Buick – and again as they ran – but Buick made no attempt to assist him.

While Private Jim Richmond, severely wounded in the stomach, watched Buick running for his life and leaving him behind — something he would forever despise Buick for.

It is an indication of the manner in which the army’s public relations machine works, that a picture of Sgt Bob Buick tending to the stricken Private Richmond the day after the battle gives Buick a semblance of the humanity he lacked the evening before.


Back at Nui Dat

Back at Nui Dat, Captain Charles Mollison of the 6th Battalion was aware of what was transpiring at Long Tan and awaiting orders to go to the assistance of Delta Company.

Unfortunately, the commander Brigadier Jackson was sitting on his hands, hesitant to make a decision. Eventually, he told Mollison to go. 

But not all the APCs were in good condition so Mollison had to pack his Company into just 10 APCs. This meant platoons and sections and officers were all mixed up a potential disaster if the column was ambushed or the infantry forced to dismount and engage the enemy.

Secondly, when they finally got under way the APCs weren’t allowed to go faster than 41/2 kilometres per hour.

And thirdly, Lt Adrian Roberts wasn’t all that eager to get involved in the battle. It took Major Mollison’s pistol nudging into his back to keep him moving!

But the final act of bastardly occurred when Lt Roberts wanted that APC to return to the Task Force but Mollison wanted it to proceed. Roberts ignored that direct order and weakened Mollison’s force.

Later, Major Mollison said he should have had Lt Roberts court-martialled. Instead, they gave Roberts a Mention in Dispatches and in the recent review into Long Tan awards, there is talk that his MID might well be updated to something grander.

Private Trevor Atkinson was one of the A Company members of the 6th Battalion who helped in the recovery.

They found the spot where 11 Platoon had come to grief. Most of the dead were lying on a mound as if at a rifle range. 

He says,

‘I can still see those 11 Platoon soldiers lyingin a staright row, their weapons at the ready. Most had been shot in the back. After a while, a Delta Company officer came up and asked me what the hell I was doing. I could see he was in shock so I just quietly moved away.’

So long Tan came and went, and with 18 dead Australian soldiers to explain away to an incredulous nation, the military PR went into overdrive.

Of course, this has always been the way of the military. The best way of shielding officers from accusations of stupidity and incompetence in the field is to disguise it with heroism — and indeed, heroism was in great display by some on the day but not enough to gloss over the inadequacies of suspect Intelligence and obvious blunders by leadership at all levels.

Instead, the focus became one of turning what had been a tragedy into a military victory.

What happened after

But it’s what happened after Long Tan that has forever stained the reputation of the 6th Battalion — and the reputations of so many.

In 2015, Major Harry Smith released a book in which he claimed that the battalion commander, Colonel Townsend had falsified military accounts in order to obtain a significant military award for himself. It wasn’t the only falsified account that resulted in awards being bandied about. 

There were two matters that the military was keen on keeping under wraps and would have succeeded in doing so except for Bob Buick’s actions in civilian life which resulted in his actions at Long Tan coming under intense scrutiny.

The first related to Corporal Jeff Duroux. Immediately after the battle, Duroux went to Major Harry Smith and reported Buick for desertion. Smith, already smarting from the loss of life under his command, had already written Buick up for a gallantry award and forwarded that up the chain of command, so if he had to withdraw it because Buick had a cloud hanging over him, his own reputation would have suffered.

Smith called Buick to his tent and in the presence of the Company Sergeant Major, Jock Kirby, evaluated the assertion by Duroux. Buick, sensing that his reputation was in question, countered by accusing Duroux of desertion.

Smith, as he had done earlier when Lt Sharp had charged Buick with insubordination, came down in favour of Buick.

Duroux went back to Vietnam a year later with the 9th Battalion as a much-respected sergeant and was subsequently killed in action. Some say Duroux died attempting to erase any question about his bravery that Smith’s decision had left him with.

Image via battleoflongtan.com

As for Buick, anecdotal reports are that he was bashed with a star picket a day or so after the battle, after Duroux had been forced to leave.

The other matter related to the execution of wounded prisoners-of-war the day after Long Tan.

Survivors of the battle of Long Tan report that as many as 17 enemy soldiers were executed, contrary to the Geneva Convention of 1949.

In his autobiography, Bob Buick freely admits that he murdered one of those enemy soldiers, putting the man out of his misery. Buick had no medical training or expertise, but twenty minutes after locating the wounded soldier, Buick put two bullets through the man’s heart, even as Australian medivac choppers were on the way to pick up the two Australians abandoned during the battle.

In 2000, barrister James Fergusson Thomson (who had been a legal officer in the war the same year as Long Tan) wrote a letter to the editor of The Weekend Australian expressing his disgust at Buick’s revelations which he considered stained the reputation of both the 6th Battalion, and that of Sergeant Bob Buick.

He said if he had been aware of Buick’s actions at the time, he would have had Buick court-martialled for murder.

The fact that charges were never pursued against Buick afterwards is altogether another story — just as is the fact that Buick somehow also managed to be awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal for which he had never qualified.

Being a medal cheat further tarnished Buick’s reputation and took the gloss off Long Tan once and for all.

Thursday, 18 August is Vietnam Vets Day and this week is the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. 


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