New memorial a stark reminder for war hero Harry Smith
AUGUST 18 is a date in Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith's life that he can't turn his back on, but neither will he celebrate it.
"It was my company of 105 soldiers that got brassed-up by over 2000 North Vietnamese and regular army, and we defeated them with massive artillery support and the gallantry of my own soldiers," Harry, now 85, said. "Sadly, I lost 17 who were killed and 24 wounded that day. It's always been the sad part of my life."
Harry remembers the 1966 battle was fought in monsoonal conditions which helped mask the location of the Australian soldiers.
"The enemy used to run telephone wires along the ground so that they could give orders as they didn't have many radios," he said.
"The artillery shrapnel cut their telephone lines so they had to send orders by runners. Consequently, they weren't as organised as they could have been. The rain, the artillery smoke and everything else limited their ability to locate us.
"But, when they did locate us, we were in a well-defended position. I had already lost about 13 or 14 soldiers by the time the major assault came in and then we lost another four. We were able to repel them.
"They took so many casualties and withdrew and went home. Basically, we can say, they were defeated."
That story rolls off the former Company Commander's lips with care and solemnity that defines why Harry sought peace for the last 35 years through spending every conceivable minute bluewater sailing.
When he returned from Vietnam Harry joined the Commandos in Sydney and headed overseas to parachute jump with British, Canadians and Americans air forces. He returned to Australia to take over the parachute school at the Williamstown air force base as the first army commanding officer. "We trained about 600 officers a year including girls," Harry said. "I was responsible for bringing the girls in," he added with pride in his voice.
His last jump forced him to retire from the army. He was test jumping the French Papilion parachute and it didn't open properly resulting in him damaging his back.
After a few years working in the corporate world for a liferaft manufacturer Harry headed to the ocean. He has clocked up a personal log of close to 150,000 miles. In later years his third wife Felicia joined Harry to cruise and race.
Harry's story of the Long Tan Battle is being retold in an Australian movie Danger Close. Production is almost completed and it is due for release around Anzac Day 2019. Harry didn't get a cameo role, leaving the equally handsome veteran actor Travis Frimmel to tell Harry's story.
Emmy Dougall plays one of Harry's favourite women, singer Little Pattie.
"On the day of the battle, when we were going out to where the enemy was, not that we expected to find that many - we were told there were probably 40 or 50 - and Little Pattie had the first concert for the Australian taskforce, with Col Joye and the Joy Boys.
"The helicopters bought them up from Vung Tau to our base," Harry said.
"They were singing and the music was playing as we were moving out. "When the guns started to fire, Little Pattie was taken back to Vung Tau by helicopter to get her out of the way."
The movie script is a bit of a sore subject for Harry. It was supposed to be as true as possible to the battle story, subject to some dramatisation. The original script wasn't accepted by a group of military experts, including Harry. Some amendments were apparently made to that script, but not shown to Harry.
He's seems willing to keep an open mind on how the movie will turn out. "From what I have heard from my guys who have been to some of the movie sites, they reckon it will turn out really well," Harry added.
The date August 18 ultimately became the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia endorsed national Vietnam Veterans Day.
Every year since the war he has attended a Long Tan Day commemorative function. This year he will be at the Australian War Memorial for a significant moment in his life and of those who fought at Long Tan. The permanent home of the Long Tan Cross will be unveiled.
The cross was originally erected on the battlefield, but then removed by the North Vietnamese at the end of the war. "It was put in a museum near Bien Hoa," Harry said. In 2016, after the 50th anniversary, the cross was given to the Australian War Memorial, but not before it a had chequered past.
"It was knocked down by the enemy after the war and a farmer took it home and put it over the grave of his father," Harry said.
"He took the brass plate which has a little sign on it, 'in memory of the soldiers lost at Long Tan', and used that as a plate to heat up his fish and chips.
"It was then taken off him buy the local council and put in a shed. One of my former soldiers was over there and found it in the shed, and he did a deal whereby they were going to send it back to Australia in exchange for medical supplies. But that didn't come to pass because the North Vietnamese had taken over Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, said no.
"They took it and put it in a museum up at Dong Nai, north of Saigon, which is where it stayed until we got it on loan back here at the War Memorial in 2012, for 12 months. Because of some noises made by the ambassadors, and by myself and others, the North Vietnamese decided it wasn't much use to them sitting in a museum, so they gave it back to us."
Proudly displayed in his home office is a simple photo frame containing shrapnel relics found on the Long Tan battlefield and underneath a photo of the Long Tan Cross when it was still in North Vietnam. Beside it is another presentation he received representing his company's theme song, These Boots Are Made For Walking and it's badged, designed by one its members, with a red triangle which is the Greek symbol for Delta and in the middle, a pair of boots.
Harry displays little else of his Vietnam War years, using the remaining space in his study for photos of his many boats.
Harry finished his last land battle in 2016.
"After the battle, a number of us were given awards," Harry said.
"The awards I recommended for my soldiers who were up eye-balling the enemy, and they were the ones most gallant and courageous, those recommendations were not approved in 1966.
"There was nothing I could do for 30 years because there is a secrecy period in the defence forces." In 1996 Harry was able to access the original awards recommendation documents and then he went back to "battle".
"And I really did have a battle because people said, 'you can't go back in time with awards, you finish going back to the Boer War and so on. It's just not possible. You just have to accept what was done'. I said no, I can't accept that. These young soldiers, most of them 20-year-old servicemen, fought outstandingly in the battle and it is normal to decorate people for outstanding gallantry and they should get their award."
Finally, he was able to take his case to the Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal. He was knocked down once, but stood up again, and won. In 2016 the Governor General presented the awards to the soldiers of D Company in the presence of their greatest supporter. "That was the biggest battle I had since Vietnam," Harry said.
Harry now reserves all his energy for battles on the water. He competitively races his little yacht twice a week on his home waters of Queensland's Sunshine Coast.
When he reflects on his life as his 11-year-old rescue dog Freddie sits faithfully by his side, Harry says, "there's not too many people who have had 25 years in the army, fought in an iconic battle and survived, jumped out of aeroplanes at 25,000 feet, sailed and raced, and married a lovely woman".
"Long Tan is on my mind almost every day," Harry added.
"Certainly, on the 18th of August I remember the sadness associated with those we lost, who were killed in that battle in order that the rest of us might live."
The Long Tan Cross
- The Vietnamese Government gifted the cross to the Australian Government in 2017.
- It is a significant new acquisition for veterans, the Australian public and the Australian War Memorial.
- August 18 is Vietnam Veterans Day. The Long Tan Cross exhibition will open that day.
- The cross will be on permanent display in the refurbished Long Tan section of the Vietnam galleries.
- The battle of Long Tan happened in August 1966.
- The 3m high concrete cross and plaque were originally erected on August 18, 1969 on the site of 11 Platoon's last stand in the Long Tan rubber plantation.
- After the communist victory in 1975 the cross was removed and recycled by local people as a memorial for a deceased Catholic parish priest, Nguyen Van Minh, whose name was engraved on the cross when they erected it over his grave.