This is the second part of a series. You can read part one here.
The next day, D Company returned to the “butcher’s yard” in full (and dry) daylight. This was a bad decision: a fresh unit should have been sent so that the morale of D Company would not be affected. The day was hot and humid. Close among the trees were bodies and parts of bodies. Crouton-sized pieces — most of them belonging to the Vietnamese. The stench was unspeakable. But there was one saving grace: two wounded Aussies left behind in the chaos were still alive. The Vietnamese had not returned in the dark after the battle to recover weapons and kill or capture any wounded enemy.
“Declassified Intelligence Map” (Australian Army)
Vietnamese casualties, much like those unfortunate enough to be under the 155s’ fire were all over the map. Their command, of course, played down their losses and wildly exaggerated these of the Australians, claiming 700 “Digger” KIA and many “destroyed tanks.” Clearly, somewhere up the chain both the number of Australian assaulting forces and their casualties was jacked up a tad. It got to be like the Saigon five-o’clock follies again: Some bogus mention of “Chinese observer” reports and somebody higher up padding the numbers. Very conservative reports reliably indicate that at least 245 Vietnamese soldiers were killed and likely twice that number were seriously wounded.
The problems for D Company continued post-battle: One of the two wounded, who was recovered the day after, said that he was next to an NCO, who knew that he was wounded. But nonetheless the NCO made no attempt to get him out of danger, and when the survivors had to run shouted, “every man for himself” and scurried off.
The above took the company’s CO some time to find out. He had already put the NCO in for a modest decoration. Trying to retract his recommendation would just cause static from brass somewhere up the line, and would “taint” some of the other recommendations that he’d made. Higher brass would not want to tarnish an otherwise unexpected victory with a court-martial of an NCO for cowardice.
D Company’s CO also wrote up the Company Sergeant Major, Jack Kirby, for the Victoria Cross. And according to the ones who saw the Sergeant Major dancing between the raindrops with crates of ammo, the award was very much deserved. But the higher command said that they would not approve the VC for anybody, regardless of what they had done.
A VC consideration would generate an investigation of the whole action by a general officer from High Command in Australia — maybe somebody in the chain, a notch or two up, did not want certain problems to see the light of day. Four VCs would eventually be awarded to Australian soldiers during the Vietnam war, but not one of them to a soldier in a line outfit — only to Australian advisors serving with Vietnamese troops.
One of the (perceived at least) remnants of British Army influence was that higher awards were given to officers than to enlisted men for essentially the same actions. Also, it seems that a couple of higher brass somehow managed to get themselves included for the same award as D Company’s commander, Major Smith; an award second only to the Victoria Cross, allegedly implying that they had somehow been present where the bullets were flying.
Much later, an embarrassed Australian military official would state that the award was for their “command” of what happened. But not one of them ever gave a single order; and in any event the requirements for that award in 1966 specified that they had to be at the point of action while it was going down.
The Australians also used the British practice of a “quota” of how many awards could be given. Mindless, or worse, higher officers and later civilian officials, would therefore discard some recommendations, decline others and reduce still others for no sane reason.
“Lt. Gordon Sharp, ‘lost platoon’ KIA in the first minutes.” (Australian Army)
Meanwhile, some weeks later, the Company Sergeant Major was killed when a short round fired by an inexperienced artillery officer landed on his position. Major (later Lt. Colonel) Smith spent years trying to get justice for Kirby and others. While he was still trying to hold himself together after the nightmare, he was told that he only had 24 hours to write up any recommendations.
The question that comes to mind is why the Australian Army, an army legendary for its valor in combat, would have walked into their own Ia Drang without having learned some important lessons from the experience of the Americans who survived that “close run thing?”
The Australian military had very mixed opinions about the American military: Some bad experiences in WWII had not been forgotten, including MacArthur deriding a top Aussie general in New Guinea in front of many officers (while the Australian general was still in New Guinea). Later, MacArthur found out that he was dreadfully wrong and apologized, but only to that general and in private. Additionally, the Korean war experience had its own ups and downs and likewise affected the perceptions of the Australian military.
Since shortly after WWII, the Australians had fought counterinsurgency warfare in Malaya. They thought, quite justly, that they knew more than Westmoreland did about this particular type of warfare. The previous year the Australian 1st RAR had fought attached to an American division and was forced to employ the, mostly, conventional approach that was used by the Americans in an inappropriate setting.
The force that landed in Vietnam in 1966 got their own area of operations so that they could do things their own way. It was a good environment for their approach. The only problem was that it never occurred to them that the enemy could attempt on them what was nearly pulled off on the Cavalry at Ia Drang.
Maybe they decided that they were protected because their area was close to the sea and not up in the mountains and jungles near the Laotian or Cambodian borders. But a quick look at history would have shown that in the past the Vietnamese had attacked regular troops with large numbers in the quieter areas of the front. Thus they had savaged French units and until March 1965 were on the way to racking up a South Vietnamese battalion a week.
The Australian brass was convinced that they could handle their turf. Indeed, after the battle at Long Tan their methods worked very well in their Area of Operations. While they faced a couple of conventional attacks a few more times, these were never undertaken by the same numbers and never proved to be anything that they couldn’t handle: The near loss of D Company had caused some changes to be made.
In Malaya, one FN magazine in the rifle and two on web gear was almost certain to be plenty. But against superior forces, armed with AKs with many magazines, this had to be reconsidered. The Australians learned: Rifle ammo on web gear/rifle went up from 60 rounds to 140. Machine gun ammo would be a minimum of 500 rounds. And medics would now receive vastly more training.
While the FN was retained for some time to come, increasing numbers of M-16 pattern weapons were imported into rifle companies. In the desert a Digger might be able to drop an enemy soldier at 500 meters with an FN. He’d be lucky indeed to get a shot at 200 meters in Vietnam. At close range and in a major action the rate of fire and control-ability of full-automatic weapons could make all the difference. Colonel Hal Moore, after the battle of Ia Drang, indicated that had his troopers been armed with M-14s instead of M-16s, at such close range, his command might have joined the five troops that Custer took with him to Valhalla.
At the time, Australia was justly proud of its soldiers, but as the war dragged on, public support gradually withered. The anti-war movement was not anywhere near as potent as in the United States, but support for Australian involvement was definitely fading.
Immediately after the battle, many in Australia had problems with the high percentage of conscripts — more than half — among the dead; especially given the fact that so early in the war it was entirely possible to have sent only regular soldiers.
Unlike in Malaya, where Australians felt that they had a stake, the majority of Australians increasingly had no idea why their country was in Vietnam other than to back up America’s claim of “many flags.” By the end of the war, many Australians simply wanted to forget their participation and the men who fought in it. Leftist parties helped make the subject “toxic.”
The American government awarded the Australian unit the Presidential Unit Citation. This is the highest decoration that the U.S. Government can award to any unit, American or foreign. Australian veterans of that unit were permitted to wear the decoration. However until 2004 no Australian soldier was authorized to wear any South Vietnamese decoration, be it a personal, unit or service decoration, including the Vietnam Campaign medal. This was a spectacular affront.
Since at least WWI, governments of Western nations have passed the necessary legislation to permit acceptance of widely issued foreign decorations by Allied governments. In a very rare case (my father’s Star of Ethiopia) special arrangements need to be made. But for those widely issued it was no big deal — except in Australia where the government ignored the matter and then for decades refused to deal with it.
The survivors are now entitled to wear South Vietnamese medals, either directly issued, or qualified for by a certain amount of service in count.
A memorial to the fallen (Australian Army)
On August 18, 1969, a different Australian unit set up a memorial cross, and later a plaque, on the site of the battlefield to honor the Australian soldiers who died among the rubber trees. After the war, the cross went through various fates until the Communist government finally put it back in place, though without the plaque. Since decades have passed, Australian vets and their families have started to visit the place. They can even ask to view the plaque. The Vietnamese government forbade tourists to wear any uniform items or medals and insisted on “low key” observances. Once, a group (probably Australian tourists with no veterans in the group) tried to organize a rock show there. The Vietnamese canceled the event but relented when the tour guide promised a more subdued observance.
After many years the Viets “loaned” the cross and plaque to the Australian government and then the arrangement was made permanent. So, many years after the Golgotha of the rubber plantation, a ceremony was held at the cross and August 18th was declared “Australia Vietnam Veterans’ Day.”