The Battle of Long Tan on August 19, 1966, quickly achieved iconic status in Australian military history. It is commemorated in Australia in many ways. The annual Vietnam Veterans’ Day is observed on August 18; Long Tan Bursaries are awarded to assist needy children of Vietnam veterans in full-time tertiary education, and Defence Force secondary education awards for leadership and teamwork are also named for the battle.
Days before the 50th anniversary of the battle, in the latest attempt to fix what has become a saga of Long Tan medal and award blunders, 10 more awards for the battle were announced.
Group portrait taken on September 2, 1966, at Nui Dat of soldiers from D Company, 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), display the awards (dolls and cigarette cases) presented to them by the South Vietnamese government for their part in the Battle of Long Tan.
Front row, left to right: Private Noel Grimes of Stuart Town, NSW; Private Allen May of Wynnum, Qld; Private Bill (Yank) Akell of Townsville, Qld; Private Neil Bextrum of Perth, WA; Lance Corporal Bill Roche of Narrandera, NSW.
Back row: Second Lieutenant Geoff Kendall of Underdale, SA; Sergeant Bob Buick of Brisbane, Qld; Private Geoff Peters of Yagoona, Sydney, NSW; Corporal Bill “Bluey” Moore of Stafford Heights, Qld; Lance Corporal Barry Magnussen of Aspley, Qld; Private Ian Campbell of Murwillumbah, NSW.
PHOTO: William James Cunneen, Australian War Memorial
The first misstep occurred just before a scheduled parade on September 2, 1966, in which the South Vietnamese government wished to decorate Australians who fought at Long Tan. In two world wars and Korea, more than 1,500 Australians were officially allowed to accept and wear decorations awarded by allied governments. For reasons never explained, no individual Australian serving in Vietnam was allowed officially to receive or wear foreign awards until the Howard government, 30 years later, corrected the anomaly.
The embarrassed South Vietnamese were forced hurriedly to substitute the intended decorations with cigar boxes for the officers and dolls in traditional Vietnamese dress for other ranks; a gesture, sadly, often depicted in a negative light in Australia. Eight years after the Howard government approved Australians receiving foreign decorations for Vietnam, 22 Long Tan veterans finally received South Vietnamese decorations and the GovernorâÂÂÂÂ€ï¿½’General gave them approval to wear the awards.
Four months after the battle, the first nine awards for Long Tan were gazetted. Major Harry Smith, D Company commander, received the Military Cross, and Warrant Officer Jack Kirby received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. These were the two highest Army gallantry awards for officers and other ranks after the Victoria Cross, which is awarded to all ranks.
Two D Company soldiers were awarded the Military Medal, which ranks after the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and five officers and men were “Mentioned in Dispatches”, a recognition also awarded to all ranks.
Two opportunities were missed to award further decorations for Long Tan. After the battalion returned to Australia, what was known as End-of-Tour Awards were gazetted, but D Company received no further awards for Long Tan.
After the withdrawal of the Australian Task Force in March 1972, when the remaining Australian military personal were in a training rather than a combat role, the final 75 awards, about 7 per cent of all Vietnam awards, were gazetted. Vietnam did not have a formal End-of-War List, but the view was expressed in following years that there should have been such a list.
Three years after Long Tan, John “Blue” Burridge, a national serviceman from Perth, was recommended for the Military Medal for gallantry. The award was approved at the highest level in Vietnam but downgraded in Australia.
Blue Burridge, who is well known among medal enthusiasts, discovered that his recommendation was one of nearly 100 Vietnam awards downgraded after the paperwork left Vietnam. He argued that it was an anomaly that awards should have been altered in Australia and his efforts in raising the issue resulted in a promise to resolve the anomaly being included in the Liberal Party’s 1996 election policy.
Following the Howard election win, then Minister for Defence, Industry, Science and Personnel Bronwyn Bishop on September 4, 1996, spoke to the 81st National Congress of the Returned & Services League concerning the anomaly and said that “this list together with the citations has now been forwarded to the Queen for her approval”.
However, the list was for imperial awards and no account had been taken of the fact that Australia had agreed in 1992 not to make further recommendations for imperial awards. The good thing about this delay was it avoided the threshold issue of late awards which have never been part of the imperial system.
In 1997, the Inter-Departmental Committee (IDC) on Defence Honours and Awards recommended awards from the Australian Honours System, which were announced on June 3 that year. The anomaly was being called an End-of-War List, but only the downgraded recommendations were considered.
The awards were a dramatic break with previous practice not to approve awards years after the end of a war. What should have been a Howard government triumph was quickly sullied when it was observed that there were no awards for Long Tan and all Medals for Gallantry went to officers.
In 1998, Noel Tanzer, a retired department secretary, chaired a review with terms of reference so restrictive that it only considered the case of six soldiers whose Military Medal recommendations had been downgraded in Australia. The previous year all six men had rejected the Commendation for Gallantry offered to them.
Both the Imperial Military Medal and the Australian Medal for Gallantry are the third-highest gallantry awards in the respective honours systems, so the Tanzer Review concluded that this was a “better way to equate imperial and contemporary Australian awards, instead of relative positioning in the Order of Wearing Australian Honours and Awards”. Eighteen months after the first late awards were announced, the six soldiers were gazetted with Medals for Gallantry.
Ten years later three Long Tan veterans received late awards as a result of the Review of Recognition for the Battle of Long Tan, a Howard government initiative confirmed by the incoming Rudd government and released in March 2008. The review found that the processes for handling honours and awards during 1966 were “immature”; the quota was too low; there was military and ministerial pressure following what was deemed “over-scale” submissions by 1RAR for their 1965–66 tour; and the nature and significance of the Battle of Long Tan was not appreciated at the time.
The review concluded that awards granted “did not conform to the level of recognition which might otherwise have been expected from a military engagement of the type and scale of the Battle of Long Tan”.
The review, following the example of the 1997 End-of-War List, only considered awards which had been downgraded, in this case at the highest level in Vietnam. The result was similar to 1997 in that only officers were awarded medals.
The review found that the Commander Australian Forces Vietnam downgraded awards to Harry Smith, recommended for the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) but awarded the Military Cross; and to the two surviving platoon commanders, Geoff Kendall and David Sabben, recommended for the Military Cross and awarded Mentions in Dispatches.
The Military Cross to Harry Smith was the appropriate award since the DSO had ceased to be awarded to company commanders after World War II. By Vietnam, both British and Australia awarded the DSO only to unit commanding officers, usually at the lieutenant-colonel level or above.
Harry Smith had recommended his platoon commanders for the Military Cross, but the recommendations submitted for both Kendall and Sabben by the CO 6RAR and supported by the Commander 1ATF were for Mentions in Dispatches. The Commander, Australian Forces Vietnam, endorsed but did not downgrade these recommendations. Thankfully the review in error suggested that there had been a downgrade and Kendall and Sabben received well-deserved Medals for Gallantry 42 years after the battle
Harry Smith received the Star of Gallantry as a result of the 2008 review, but he continued to campaign for the men the 2008 review overlooked. In April 2015, Harry Smith applied to the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal for review of a decision by the Chief of Army to refuse to recommend gallantry awards to 13 members of the Australian Army who fought at Long Tan. The Tribunal held hearings on the matter in March 2016 and recommended that three Medals for Gallantry and seven Commendations for Gallantry be awarded. The Minister for Defence Personnel, Dan Tehan, announced a few days before the 50th anniversary of the battle that the awards would be approved.
In 1968, D Company 6 RAR was awarded a United States Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) for its actions at Long Tan. The PUC is the most prestigious U.S. unit award. The most prestigious Australian unit award, the Unit Citation for Gallantry, was awarded on March 31, 2010, to D Company, 6RAR for Long Tan.