50TH ANNIVERSARY OF BATTLE OF LONG TAN
GREAT HALL, PARLIAMENT HOUSE
WEDNESDAY, 17 AUGUST 2016
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I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, and I pay my respects to elders past and present.
In particular, let us acknowledge men like “Buddy” Lea of 10 Platoon, risking their lives in Vietnam for a country which at that time didn't even count them in the official Census.
Your Excellency, Prime Minister, distinguished guests, most importantly veterans and the families of veterans.
I wish you could see what we see up here – this audience. It is a very impressive gathering of people, and all of you and those who can't be here, make us all feel even more proud to be Australian.
Tonight at the going down of the sun – and tomorrow, in the morning – Australia marks a powerful milestone.
This is a moment for the brothers-in-arms and the loved ones of the 521 Australians who made the supreme sacrifice in Vietnam, to cast their minds back and remember the fallen.
Tomorrow is a time for people to say a prayer at the Long Tan Cross and extend the respect of history to our Vietnam veterans.
And like the Prime Minister I am disappointed, that more than one thousand Australians who've travelled to that ground made sacred by bravery and loss – will be unable to attend a commemoration ceremony.
One of the Australians over there, Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Smith, told me prior to his trip of a very interesting dinner that I hope will still take place tomorrow night in Vietnam.
A dinner between former foes, Australian and Vietnamese veterans.
Anecdotally, I’m advised that one former North Vietnamese General has said that they were looking forward to talking to the Australian diggers, because as he said:
‘They didn’t have time to talk in August 1966’
That spirit, that mutual respect for courage, should be honoured in Vietnam tomorrow, and I hope that there's a redoubling of the honour of that sacrifice across Australia, especially in the light of the disappointing developments.
Long Tan was a victory won against overwhelming odds and a battle like no other that our troops had known in that conflict.
In that initial firefight, as you know, 11 Platoon of Delta Company sustained severe casualties.
But, subsequently, when the North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong units mounted their attack, it was in the face of heavy fields of fire and a professional and determined defence.
Yet the enemy kept coming, wave after wave, crashing against our steadfast forces.
The final count still remains unknown still, but it's reckoned that at least a thousand enemy casualties were sustained in that conflict.
Removed by time and distance from the fear and danger of combat, Australians can now only marvel at the bravery and fortitude of all the Australian and New Zealand forces engaged in that battle.
And I want to acknowledge the long and – at last – successful campaign for these men to gain some overdue recognition for their courage under fire.
For the Australians and the Kiwis who fought and fell in the monsoonal rain and the red mud of that iconic battle were so very young.
Most of the Nashos, as you know, were barely 20, fresh from training at Kapooka.
The regulars, as you know, often enlisted 19.
The Officer commanding Delta Company, Harry Smith amongst the oldest, just 33.
In the immediate aftermath, it probably didn’t occur to any of these me – and we are proud, like the Prime Minister said, so many of you are here tonight – that they were heroes, in the finest traditions of our first Anzacs at Gallipoli and Pozieres.
After all, how could what they had achieved possibly sink in?
How could you feel like ‘heroes’ with half the company either dead, wounded or in hospital?
And in the bare weeks and months after these young Australians had fought for their lives amongst the straight lines of unfamiliar rubber trees, many found themselves back here, back in Brisbane.
To a country and a people shamefully – and in too many cases deliberately – ignorant of service and sacrifice.
Coming back to Australia, days later, Nashos demobilised at Enoggera handing back their rifle and their pay-book, and put back straight into civilian life.
There was no subsequent counselling, no rehabilitation, no attempt to help reconcile what you had endured with the realities of life back in Australia.
The hard truth of those times is that far too many Australians sent into the jungle dark of Vietnam were shunned on their return.
In the words of one returned serviceman, inscribed on the Vietnam Memorial not very far from where we gather tonight. It says:
“I don’t seem to have many friends since I came home…If you weren’t there, then you can’t understand”.
But not only then did we fail to understand, with a few noble exceptions, we failed to try.
For too long Australia closed its eyes, and its heart.
Tonight, as his Excellency the Governor General has said, it's another occasion to show these days are long behind us.
I thank the Prime Minister for his words, his commitment to better support the services for our returned service men and women and their families.
I guarantee the bipartisan support and co-operation.
Because the men and women who've worn the uniform of this nation – and the people who love them – have earned a respect that goes far beyond politics.
I take nothing away from any of the other battles, the contacts, the engagements – including the heroism of our diggers at Coral-Balmoral – but I think it can be argued justly that Long Tan is the right anniversary on which we commemorate all of our Australian Vietnam Veterans.
So tonight, we say with special emphasis and great national pride, Australia’s oldest promise:
We will remember them. Lest We Forget.