PMB – recognition of Long Tan veterans

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Mr PITT (Hinkler) (11:23): I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) Vietnam Veterans Day is held on 18 August each year to commemorate the iconic Battle of Long Tan in 1966;

(b) on that day, 108 Australian and New Zealand soldiers in Delta Company, 6 RAR fought for hours in torrential rain to fend off a regimental assault on the Australian base by approximately 2000 regular Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army troops;

(c) 18 Australians were killed and 24 were wounded, and approximately 500 enemy soldiers were killed;

(d) despite their victory, our veterans were treated appallingly upon their return to Australia; and

(e) the number and degree of awards presented to Australian soldiers following the Battle of Long Tan is today widely regarded as ‘being little short of insulting in view of the heroism displayed’; and

(2) recognises:

(a) the tireless efforts of retired Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith, over almost half a century, to seek recognition for his soldiers;

(b) that Delta Company was awarded a Unit Citation for Gallantry in late 2009, however, two officers and ten other ranks still have not received the individual awards that were recommended in 1966, despite several reviews and inquiries naming the men; and

(c) the Delta Company Commander and four Platoon Commanders, who recommended the awards in 1966, have provided supporting material to the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal, and Part 2 of the Valour Inquiry is currently underway.

Before I begin, I acknowledge the work of authors Bob Buick and Paul Ham, whose works have provided essential information for this speech. I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of Retired Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith and the hundreds of veterans that I have spoken to over the years.

I would like to read a short extract from a radio message transmitted during the Battle of Long Tan on 18 August 1966 at 1630—Major Harry Smith to HQ: ’11 Platoon has taken heavy casualties, almost out of ammo, and the platoon commander is dead.’ His words were simple and to the point, and yet they say a great deal about the situation on the ground.

Just after 4 pm, Delta Company’s first contact was a surprise encounter with approximately eight Viet Cong, and 11 Platoon moved forward to pursue them, separating from the rest of the company by about 300 metres. The enemy’s attack, when it came, fell almost entirely on 11 Platoon. Tracer fire, rocket propelled grenades and machine gun fire tore into 11 Platoon, pinning them in a barrage that lasted about 15 minutes. Just as it was for most of the battle, artillery support was the Australians’ saviour. At 1625, Smith called Nui Dat for reinforcements. At 1650, Smith called for every gun in Nui Dat, advising of a battalion-strength assault. A monsoon was a godsend for the forward platoon, whose survivors were still pinned down. Smith called for resupply, called for air strikes and called for reinforcements between 1700 and 1720. At the forward platoon, Bob Buick did the only thing he thought he could: he called in artillery fire on his own position.

It is not my intention to provide a full description of the battle; however, during the artillery barrage, the remaining men from 11 Platoon made a run for it. As the survivors reached the line, Private Buddy Lea ran out and helped drag an injured Paddy Todd through the last few metres. Buddy would later be shot through the shoulder and badly wounded. As the company regrouped, what followed would go down in Australian military history as one of our most incredible acts of bravery.

The resupply, when it occurred, was in treacherous circumstances—some might even say it was a suicide mission. Flight Lieutenant Frank Reily insisted on flying to Delta Company’s relief, and would go on his own if necessary.

The enemy continued to attack in waves until the arrival of armoured personnel carriers around 1700. At the end of the battle, 18 Australians had been killed and 24 wounded.

On 21 August 1966, Smith recommended Military Crosses for Sabben and Kendall. He also sought Mentioned in Dispatches, or MIDs, for Buick, Moore, Akell and a range of others. Smith has long called for a Victoria Cross for Jack Kirby. The Australians were awarded the Vietnamese cross of gallantry in various forms by the Vietnamese government, only to have Canberra direct that foreign awards could not be accepted. Instead, they received tourist dolls, cigars and cigarette cases.

And so began Smith’s administrative battle—the fight for recognition of his soldiers. It is a fight with bureaucracy that has lasted almost 50 years. Smith was told he could not do anything about the lack of Australian battlefield honours, due to the Official Secrets Act, which lasts 30 years. But, after 30 years, he was told it was too long ago and there was nothing more to be done.

I assume that those involved in this decision had never before met Mr Harry Smith. He is the definition of tenacious. Words like ‘stubborn’, ‘obstinate’, ‘resolute’, ‘firm’, ‘persistent’, ‘dogged’, ‘determined’ and ‘steadfast’ are also pretty close to the mark.

Former Prime Minister John Howard and the coalition government convened a review in 2008, after agreeing that the 1998 EOWL review should have reconsidered the honours recommended in 1966. The 2008 review upgraded awards for three officers, including Harry Smith, but excluded two other officers and 10 men on the grounds that the original documentation from 1966 was absent. This is totally nonsensical, given that two of the officers’ awards were upgraded based on testimony taken as part of the 2008 review.

Given these inconsistencies, a further review was undertaken in 2009 under the Labor government, only to determine that testimony on oath was unacceptable, saying: ‘Their memories may have been dimmed by the passage of time.’ Thus the panel could not accept verbal testimony, as it might impinge on the integrity of the honours system.

Well, I can assure you that their memory has not dimmed over time. In fact, it may well be clearer. Their nightmares have not gone away. Their injuries still ache. And the damage is still done. Justice, recognition and acknowledgement are yet to be delivered. For the men of Delta Company who fought in the Battle of Long Tan, it seems like it was only yesterday.

There is no need for more inquires, reviews or investigations. Enough of administrative delays and excuses! Fifty years is ample time to do what is right. We are the government of the day, and, in my opinion, an injustice has been done that must be addressed.

During one conversation, Harry Smith said something to me that I have never forgotten, and it is this: ‘No-one has to tell me what did or didn’t happen at Long Tan. I haven’t forgotten. I was there.’

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