Military awards – 50 years in the making

Memorial Cross commemorating Australians who died.

Memorial Cross commemorating Australians who died.

By Penny Mulvey

A lifetime of battling the military bureaucracy has finally brought the acknowledgement that Harry Smith had sought for his men who put their lives on the line in the defining battle of the Vietnam War, the Battle of Long Tan.

Lieutenant Colonel (Rtd) Harry Smith was like a ‘dog with a bone’. Despite repeated knockbacks by numerous tribunals and military reviews, he would not let go of his belief that his men were deserving of military awards for bravery during the battle against the Viet Cong in the rubber plantation near Nui Dat on 18 August 1966.

His fight for proper recognition for 6RAR’s D Company, who repelled wave after wave of attack by the enemy in heavy rain and poor visibility until armoured personnel carriers brought relief, had even been raised in Federal Parliament.

Eighteen of 105 Australians died on that day, the highest casualty figures for the Australian contingent in a single battle during the Vietnam War. Offically, 245 Vietnamese soldiers were killed, although many more were thought to have died in the surrounding jungle. Vietnam Veterans Day is commemorated on the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan.

The Minister for Defence, Dan Tehan announced the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal has recommended Medals of Gallantry for three members of D Company. A further seven will receive Commendations for Gallantry.

One week prior to the 50th anniversary commemorations, Mr Smith’s tenacity has finally brought the dividends he had sought. When asked, he simply said that “justice has been done”.

Mr Smith will be among a group of Australian and Vietnamese veterans of the Battle of Long Tan at a gala dinner on 18 August at Vung Tau, a coastal town in southern Vietnam near Nui Dat (Australia’s base during the war).

More than 50 years have passed since Australia’s young men were conscripted to fight in a war that was one of the most controversial in modern times, eclipsed only by the war in Iraq, started over non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Crosslight’s August feature looks at the lasting legacy of the Vietnam War, and discusses the Uniting Church’s discomfort with its commitment to peace-making while continuing to provide uniformed chaplains for Australia’s defence forces.

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