“For more than three and a half hours, in pouring rain amid the shattered trees of a rubber plantation called Long Tan, 33 year old Major Harry Smith led and directed the 108 besieged soldiers of D Company 6RAR against an overwhelming enemy force of 2,500 battle hardened Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers.”
In early June 1966, Major Harry Smith was deployed to Vietnam after training to Special Forces standards in Enogerra in 1965. Smith’s most notable contribution in the Vietnam campaign was at Long Tan, on the 18th of August 1966, where he was commanding D Company of 6RAR.
On the 18th August 1966, D Company commenced a ‘Search and Destroy Patrol’ in Phuoc Tuy Province. During the patrol, the lead platoon contacted what seemed to be a small Viet Cong (VC) patrol in a rubber plantation. The VC patrol then seemed to expand to regimental size force and the engagement quickly developed into a Company battle. Despite the “intense and accurate” enemy fire, Major Smith formed the remainder of D Company into a defensive perimeter from which repeated but unsuccessful attempts to relieve the leading platoon were made, whilst halting numerous attacks from both flanks. Throughout the action, he directed the fire of D Company and supporting artillery batteries with “such effectiveness that the enemy finally disengaged and withdrew, leaving behind over 200 dead.” Without Major Smith’s determination and leadership, the leading platoon and the remainder of D Company may have been annihilated. 18 Australians died and 24 were wounded under Smith’s command but with over 200 enemy dead, the Australian loss was largely outweighed. Smith’s leadership of his men during the fierce fighting saw him recommended for a Distinguished Service Order (DSO), but instead he recieved the Miltary Cross. This is obviously a demotion from the recommended medal and it was not until 2008, that Smith rightfully was upgraded to the Star of Gallantry, which is the replacement for the DSO.
Some of the challenges Smith faced on the 18th of August 1966, were the lack of communication between the superior commanding officers and the D Company. Another challenge was that 48 men were sent home on leave due to the misinformation that the enemy were leaving the area, leaving the Australian platoons under strength and even more outnumbered. The fact that 10, 11 and 12 platoons had been embroiled in the battle and were now held in place, calling for support, showed the information had been incorrect in conveying to the COs details about the large VC force.
I have concluded from my readings, that due to Smith’s leadership and superior military experience, he managed to save many lives. He called for 105mm guns, 6 US Army 155mm guns, ammunition resupplied by helicopter, reinforcements by air-borne insertion, USAF combat air support and 2 RAAF helicopters. A secondary challenge for Smith was the afternoon monsoonal rain rendered combat aircraft incapable of identifying 6RAR from the enemy and turn the earth into mud which was hard to move through for the soldiers. Smith established through his leadership skills a post for casualties while still repelling enemy fire, he managed to get around and disribute ammunition and better organise machine gun attacks. B Company platoon arrived but had been delayed by an hour, Smith feels the training his men undertook created the success for survival that was needed at Long Tan. Then seven APCs arrived after ignoring orders to stop and fought through two groups of VC. Then the fighting ceased. Around midnight, casualties were flown out by helicopter. Smith showed further determination and comradeship in leading his Company who were dazed, stressed, wet and tired back into the rubber plantation the following day. What Smith and his Company saw was absolute devastation - the mud was coloured by blood. Smith found two wounded of his men among the myriad of corpses of the VC still in the area. This showed the ferocity of the battle and the VC had been badly mauled as they usually took away their dead. Smith has stated he is very proud of 6RAR who on that fateful day gave “above and beyond what would have been expected of them”. Smith’s loss had 17 killed and 21 wounded and 6 RAR was awarded the US Presidential Unit Citation and the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry Unit Citation.
He asked if he was afraid and he replied “not that I recall. We were all so busy methodically doing what we had to do we did not have time for fear - until it was over.”
Further challenges after the battle for Harry Smith emerged including needing a proper assessment of intelligence reports whereby 6RAR may have never been sent out to face the VC regiment. The fact that they saved the Task Force Base under Smith’s leadership was significant as it is seen as the icon of the war for all Vietnam veterans to commemorate. Since this time, further challenges have faced Smith in gaining the recognition for his D Company. This included two superior officers embellishing their role in the battle and receiving higher gallantry awards at the expense of the company that actually fought. It took Smith until 1996 when the 30-year Secrets Act expired for the version of events to be revealed and for Smith to understand why his men’s awards had been demoted or ignored. It took 3 reviews but Smith had a significant win in 2011 when himself and two of his officers had their decorations upgraded. He is still working on the 12 soldiers he wants decorated and recognised for their gallantry over half a century ago. Retired Major General John Cantwell has stated “there were absolutely unforgivable failures of leadership and administration” when it came to the medals for Delta Company 6RAR.
Major Cantwell also said that “D Company’s amazing feat of arms against such a vastly bigger enemy force of up to 2,500 troops was a great success that could not be compared to any other action in Australian military history.” In 2016, the Minister for Defence Personnel Dan Tehan recommended 10 soldiers who fought in the battle of Long Tan be awarded a military honour or have an upgrade to their existing honour. This is directly attributable to Major Harry Smith and his application for review in 2015.
Major Harry Smith’s book where he reveals the injustice of Long Tan and the events that followed.
“These boots are made for walking and that’s just what they’ll do. One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you”, the Nancy Sinatra song was played in 1966 which struck a chord with a group of soldiers heading to the Vietnam War. Likewise, Harry Smith now has it as his ringtone on his phone. Smith’s tenacity and leadership has not wavered over the years and still, at 85, is fighting to get the recognition his men from Long Tan deserve. “I didn’t withdraw from Long Tan and I won’t withdraw from the fight to have my men properly recognised.”