18 August is Australia’s Vietnam Veterans’ Day. In 2006 it was the fortieth anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. The battle was the first significant engagement for the 1st Australian Task Force in South Vietnam, costing 18 Australian lives and many more Vietnamese lives. The Vietnam war was the Australia’s longest war, from 1962 to 1973. About 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam during the conflict. There were well over 3,000 casualties, including 520 deaths, of Australian service personnel. More have since died from war-related injuries or illnesses and many others still bear physical and mental scars.
As in America, Australia’s participation in the war caused deep social and political conflict. I was one of those obliged to register as a potential draftee, though I was not selected. I was opposed to Australia’s participation in the war but I do not criticize servicemen and women who did their duty honourably and are now represented by the Vietnam Veterans’ Association. Blame rests with the conservative government of the day which, in craven subservience to the United States, committed Australia to the war. The friendship between Australian Prime Minister Holt and US President Johnson was genuine, but many Australians still wince at the memory of Holt’s declaration, "All the way with LBJ." I did not like street demonstrations, but I sympathised with the protest slogan, "Drop Holt on Hanoi." One of the first acts of the new Australian Labor Party government elected on 2 December 1972 after 23 years of conservative rule was to abolish the conscription regulations.
The Medallion reproduced above depicts the Long Tan Cross which was raised on the third anniversary of the battle and remained while the Australians were stationed in the province. Today it is in the military museum at Bien Hoa. After long negotiation with the Australian Veterans Vietnam Reconstruction Group, in April 2002 the Vietnamese people unveiled a completely renovated memorial, giving official acceptance by the Vietnamese of the site’s importance to Australian veterans. The AVVRG, a recognised non government organisation in Vietnam, has long worked in the former Australian Task Force area of operations, with aid projects such as water filtering systems apparatus, an orphanage, microfinance programs, English language tutoring and a kindergarten.