The Battle of Long Tan was the deadliest clash involving Australian troops during the Vietnam War. According to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, 18 Australians were killed in the battle with another 24 wounded. An estimated 245 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers were killed.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the battle. More than 1,000 Vietnam veterans travelled to Vietnam to attend the commemoration ceremony. For many veterans, this was their first time back on Vietnamese soil since the war.
On the eve of the anniversary, the Vietnamese government announced they would cancel the official commemoration ceremony and close the site to visitors, citing local sensitivities.
The last-minute cancellation angered many Vietnam veterans and their families.
“To be told at the last minute to sit in their hotel or sit in a bar because they can’t go where they want to go– they’ll be shattered,” Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia president Ken Foster said to the Sydney Morning Herald.
However, Vietnam veteran Walter Pearson told ABC Radio he understood the government’s decision.
“We don’t know what pressure the Vietnamese government was under from its own people – from its own veterans. Remember this was a battle in which more than 250 Vietnamese died,” he said.
“We’re there as guests of the Vietnamese under their sufferance. It’s been their generosity that’s allowed us to hold gatherings there.”
The Long Tan Cross is one of only two memorials to foreign military forces permitted in Vietnam.
Following negotiations with the Australian government, Vietnamese authorities agreed to allow restricted access to the Long Tan Cross site.
Groups of 100 people can now lay wreathes at the site and pay their respects to their fallen comrades. As is tradition, visitors to the site will not be allowed to wear medals, uniforms or carry banners. The official commemoration ceremony remains cancelled.
Throughout Australia, thousands have gathered for ceremonies to commemorate the anniversary. Hundreds of Vietnam veterans marched to Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance and small white crosses adorned with poppies were placed at the forecourt. They represented the 521 Australian lives lost during the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War divided a nation and – some would say – divided a church. In the August Crosslight feature, we explored the complexities of providing uniformed chaplains for defence forces while retaining the Church’s commitment to be a peace-making body.
Image: Stephanie Ferrier via Twitter.