The defining battle of the Vietnam war is now the subject of the film Danger Close. Harry Smith recalls the afternoon that changed his life
If he dwells on it, Lt Col Harry Smith can still see, vividly, the blood on the trees on the enemys escape path. There was so much blood. In the days after the three savage hours that was the battle of Long Tan, his soldiers were finding body parts, carnage and corpses spread across the battlefield. But it was that blood, the blood of all the others that were dragged away, wounded, suffering, that affects him the most. That worries me more than a dead body. In the eerie silence, in the pervasive gloom, among the smell of the dead in the Long Tan rubber plantation, latex ran down trees punctured by bullets and mingled with the blood.
Long Tan had been a battle fought against almost impossible odds. A ferocious battle, a defining action of the Vietnam war. On the afternoon of 18 August 1966, a single infantry company of 108 mostly inexperienced Australian and New Zealand soldiers engaged with a regiment of 2,500 battle-hardened Viet Cong and North Vietnam army troops. Almost surrounded, outnumbered 10 to one, they withstood Viet Cong attacks in cyclonic rain.
Now, 86, Smith is sitting on the patio of his Sunshine Coast home as he recalls that desperate day, 53 years ago, now the subject of the feature film Danger Close. A small, wiry, compact man, there is still something indomitable about him. Age has not wearied him. He was 33 when he commanded his company of early 20-year-olds from south Queensland in the battle for their lives.
The Australians had recently established a stronghold at Nui Dat, in the middle of Viet Cong supply routes in Phuoc Tuy province. But they didnt have enough troops to protect the base, says the films producer, Martin Walsh, who also made the documentary Battle of Long Tan.
Smith believes that Brigadier Oliver Jackson had intelligence that there was a regiment massing on the other side of the rubber plantation, 5km from base. And he didnt pass it on to my commanding officer, Col Townsend, he held it at the headquarters and didnt tell us. His excuse was that he didnt think it was the enemy in force, he thought it was just reconnaissance. You have to ask what he thought the reconnaissance was for. Had he known, says Smith, There is no way in the world I would have sallied forth into the rubber plantation with 100 men to face an enemy regiment with 2,000 or more soldiers.
On the afternoon of 18 August, the focus was on a concert being given by the Australian singers Col Joye and Little Pattie. To their chagrin, Delta Company 6RAR werent at the concert; they were out on patrol on the edge of the rubber plantation. Smith recalls it being deathly quiet. He believes the enemy were on their way to attack Nui Dat on the night of the concert. We just happened to get in the way.