Last updated: June 05, 2011

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The Ghosts of Long Tan

Long Tan

Dave Sabben, left, and Bob Buick at the Long Tan battlefield memorial. Photo by Nick Cubbin Source: The Australian

It is 40 years since Bob Buick and Dave Sabben laid eyes on the men who tried to kill them. Now, in the speckled light of a rubber plantation at Long Tan, Vietnam, the former Australian soldiers are confronting their old ghosts.

Buick and Sabben are standing among the rubber trees, their gaze firmly fixed on the two small figures walking up the red dirt track towards them. "I've got butterflies," mutters Buick as the enemy moves towards him, military medals dangling from their Viet Cong uniforms.

As the old Vietnamese soldiers approach the Australians, the tension suddenly melts and the faces of the four men break into beaming smiles.

"G'day mate, how ya goin'?" says Buick.

"Hello," replies Nguyen Minh Ninh, the former vice-commander of Viet Cong D445 Battalion. He has arrived with Nguyen Duc Thu, a vice-commander from the same battalion.

The four veterans shake hands as if they were old friends. As they do, Commander Ninh stares his former enemy straight in the eyes for the first time. "This is excellent - it is wonderful," he says. "I never expected it."


He certainly didn't. Ninh, along with his fellow Vietnamese commanders, once believed that no Australian would leave this rubber plantation alive - much less return 40 years later.

For one fleeting moment, on the afternoon of August 18, 1966, the Vietnamese assumed they were going to deliver Australia's most crushing military defeat of the war. And why wouldn't they? More than 2500 Vietnamese troops had 108 Australians and New Zealanders - most of them raw conscripts - pinned down on a battlefield that offered almost no natural protection.

The odds of annihilation were overwhelming. The battle of Long Tan should have been to Australia what Little Big Horn was to the US Cavalry's General Custer. Instead, it became one of Australia's most extraordinary and unlikely military victories.

But for those young men who survived the blood and mud of Long Tan, the victory has always been laced with bitterness. Despite the Australians killing more than 300 enemy, while losing only 18 soldiers themselves, the Vietnamese have never recognised Long Tan as an Australian victory. On the contrary, the battle has entered Vietnamese legend as a triumph for the communist forces.

Radio Hanoi reported after the battle: "The Australian mercenaries, who are no less husky and beefy than their allies, the US aggressors, have proved as good fresh targets for the South Vietnamese liberation army ... on August 18 (the VC) wiped out almost completely one battalion (around 800 men) of Australian mercenaries in an ambush in Long Tan village." The official communist history of the Long Tan area, written in 1986, describes the communists as having "eliminated 500 Australians and destroyed 21 tanks in the battle".

Now, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the battle, two of the Australian commanders at Long Tan, Buick and Sabben, have returned for the first time to challenge Vietnam's version of history. They want their former enemy to acknowledge one simple fact - that Australia won the battle of Long Tan.

"For 40 years they have lied about what happened at Long Tan," says Sabben as he stands at the spot where he and his men repulsed the Vietnamese soldiers. "They have never conceded that they had their arses licked. Instead they have lied to their own people about what happened here. I find it offensive.

"Forty years have now passed and if they cannot concede a little more of the truth, then my return to Long Tan will have been a wasted trip."

But one suspects that Buick and Sabben have also chosen to return to Long Tan on this 40th anniversary for other, more personal reasons.

Both have managed to live full lives without the post-traumatic stress experienced by so many other Vietnam vets. They are best friends but also polar opposites. Buick is a brash, loud larrikin, who laughs and swears in equal measure. As an army sergeant in Vietnam he was respected and feared by his men for his ferocious discipline and temper. Sabben is the quiet one. Thoughtful, intellectual and analytical, his men remember him as being ice cool under fire.

But for both men, the defining moment in their lives was what took place among the rubber trees of Long Tan on that August afternoon. Forty years on, as they walk across the battlefield again, they retain a photographic memory of that day. They walk among the trees, pointing out the spot where the first shots were fired, where their men fell and where they made the crucial life-and-death decisions that helped to turn the battle. Mostly they are composed, but at times when they see the place where a mate was shot or where the carnage was at its worst, they pause and fall silent. They are alone with their thoughts.

"The atmosphere is exactly the same," says Sabben, as he stands in the half-light of the plantation. "The land, the trees, the feel, the heat, the quiet. It is eerie, as if something terrible has happened here. Like we are walking on hallowed ground."

Forty years ago, there was nothing hallowed about this lonely rubber plantation. Less than five kilometres from the main Australian military base at Nui Dat, southeast of Saigon, the plantation was part of the patrol area for Australian troops responsible for neutralising Vietnamese forces in the region.

On August 18, 1966, the troops patrolling this area were not happy. The men of Delta Company, 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment had been given orders to go out on patrol at the same time as Australian singers Little Pattie and Col Joye were giving a concert for the rest of the troops at the base in Nui Dat.

The patrol members grumbled as they pushed their way through the rubber trees in search of the Vietnamese soldiers who had mortared their base the previous day. Among them was 26-year-old Sergeant Bob Buick from 11 Platoon who, like his comrades, had no idea of the horror that was about to unfold.

About half of the 29 men in 11 Platoon had crossed a dirt track in the plantation when several VC were spotted walking casually along the same track, oblivious to their presence. Buick instinctively picked up his rifle and shot one of them, causing the other VC to flee among the trees.

"We didn't expect them and they didn't expect us," says Buick, pointing to the exact spot where he took aim 40 years ago. "We both got a fright - but they got a bigger one."

The Australians decided to pursue the fleeing VC and 11 Platoon led the way, moving deeper and deeper into the rubber plantation. But unknown to them they were walking towards a large, hidden encampment of Vietnamese troops.

As they walked through the rubber trees, a Vietnamese machinegun fired from the undergrowth at the edge of the plantation, sending a hail of bullets into the left side of the Australian patrol. Buick turned around to see at least four of his men crumple to the ground. "I saw the guys fall over and I thought, 'F..king hell, what's going on? These sort of things don't happen.'"

They were in a perilous position - caught in an open plantation with no cover except for straight lines of thin rubber trees that provided minimal protection against bullets. The 25 or so surviving members of the platoon lay flat on the ground behind their packs as the Vietnamese raked machinegun fire over them. Second Lieutenant Gordon Sharp, the platoon commander, frantically radioed the base at Nui Dat asking for artillery support.

But a bad situation then became much worse when about 80 Vietnamese troops stormed out of the trees from a different direction and ran towards the Australians. "When I saw them all I thought, 'F..k me, that's not in the book,'" recalls Buick.

The men of 11 Platoon, hugely outnumbered and isolated from their supporting troops, fired frantically at the oncoming Vietnamese. Buick recalls seeing Sharp lift himself on to his hands and knees to get a better view of the situation. Buick warned him to stay low, but Sharp replied that the enemy were "not good enough" to hit him. "At that moment he was shot in the throat," says Buick. "He was wrong, unfortunately."

With Sharp dead beside him, Buick came to the horrible realisation that he was now in command of the stricken platoon. It was an unlikely role for the headstrong Buick. He had joined the army only to escape from a disastrous working life; he'd been sacked from jobs as a factory hand, a storeman and a deckhand operating ferries across Perth's Swan River. Now he had the weight of his nation on his shoulders and the lives of his men in his hands.

Buick sheltered behind Sharp's body and took stock of the situation. More than 80 Vietnamese were charging his men from the front while VC machineguns were also raking them from the side. The Australian artillery from Nui Dat had not yet found the right range to protect them, and the supporting troops from 10 and 12 Platoons were pinned down and unable to help.

An ominous silence from the four or five soldiers on Buick's extreme left suggested they had been killed by the initial burst of machinegun fire. And, to top it off, a Vietnamese bullet had shot through the antenna on the platoon's radio, leaving them completely cut off from the rest of the company.

With his options running out, Buick realised there was now "an excellent chance" that he and his entire platoon would be wiped out. "But I don't remember thinking too much about it," he says. "My training overrode my fear - there was a job to do."

Luckily for the Australians, timely help came from above when an intense monsoon downpour swept across the battlefield. The rain protected Buick's troops by cutting visibility. The downpour was so powerful that when it hit the dirt it kicked up a red haze that hovered about 30cm above the ground and was thick enough for the Australians to hide in.

Soon, however, some of the Vietnamese were as close as 30m from the Australians. Buick remembers pointing out the approaching enemy to Private Ron Meller. "As Ron was talking, a bullet passed through his open mouth and blew out his right cheek," says Buick. "If his mouth had been closed it would have taken out his jaw. But I don't remember him flinching - in fact I think he kept on talking."

With the situation now desperate, the Australians began to call out each other's names as a way to boost morale. "They were supporting themselves and their mates by calling out names," recalls Buick. "The courage, tenacity, skill and endurance displayed by those young men that day will live with me forever."

Back at Delta Company's HQ, company commander Harry Smith realised the gravity of the situation and called for urgent reinforcements from Nui Dat. He knew by now that the Australians were being attacked by a much bigger force, and that the question was whether his men could hold on until help arrived.

When Smith was told that the relief force of armoured personnel carriers would be delayed leaving Nui Dat, he grabbed the radio and screamed: "If they don't hurry up and get out here then they might as well not come at all."

As Buick and the men of 11 Platoon were fighting for their lives, both 10 Platoon, to the rear left, and 12 Platoon, to the rear right, also came under fire.

Second Lieutenant Dave Sabben, a 21-year-old national serviceman with a maturity and calmness well beyond his years, was in command of 12 Platoon. Sabben decided to throw a yellow smoke grenade towards 11 Platoon in the hope that any survivors might see it.

By this stage Buick and his exhausted men were almost out of ammunition and were being shot at on three sides. With almost no options left, a desperate Buick called in the artillery fire on to his own position, gambling that it would kill more Vietnamese than Australians.

But the artillery commander, New Zealand captain Morrie Stanley, refused to shell his own men. He made a tiny adjustment to ensure that his shells hit the right spot, just metres ahead of Buick's men, creating a wall of steel between the Australians and their attackers.

When Buick saw the yellow smoke of Sabben's platoon, he ordered his men to make a run for it. They scampered back with bullets whistling past them and literally fell into the arms of the men of 12 Platoon.

Sabben recalls the sight: "They were haunted men. They were out of ammunition, carrying their wounded on their backs and completely emotionally drained." Of Buick's original 29 men, only 14 were accounted for, of which nine were wounded.

Sabben now had to get the wounded of 11 Platoon plus his own men safely back to the company headquarters, about 300m behind them. His men were coming under increasingly heavy fire. He recalls the bullets ripping into the rubber trees, causing them to bleed white sap. It was as if the whole battlefield was bleeding.

Sabben says there were surreal moments amid the deafening chaos of the rain, mist, exploding shells and flying bullets. "I can remember seeing Bob (Buick) and another injured soldier called Paddy Todd sitting calmly in the middle of our group in the pouring rain sucking on a wet cigarette," he says.

Just then, Sabben spotted about 60 Vietnamese soldiers moving through the plantation to his rear, apparently oblivious to his presence. He set up his machineguns and fired on the unsuspecting enemy, killing almost all of them. He then ordered all of his able-bodied men to pick up a wounded soldier each and race back to company HQ. Not everyone made it - and for those who did, the news was still grim.

Although most of Delta Company was now back together, they were still trapped in the plantation as the much larger Vietnamese forces prepared for their fiercest assault yet. "We saw them coming through the mist and the gloom," recalls Sabben.

The Vietnamese would charge, fall to the ground, and then get up and charge again. "It looked as if the dead men were coming to life," says Sabben. "The buggers just kept on coming and I wondered whether we were going to survive."

With night falling and with the Vietnamese continuing to attack in waves, the situation for Delta Company was becoming desperate. But then, just in time, the soldiers heard the rumble of the armoured personnel carrier relief force. "It was like the cavalry saving everyone from the Indians in a Western movie," recalls Buick. "I just yelled as soon as I saw them."

The arrival of the APCs, carrying extra Australian troops from Nui Dat, spooked the Vietnamese and their com-manders. Nguyen Duc Thu remembers his despair when he saw the Australian reinforcements arrive. "We saw the tanks (APCs) coming and we knew that we did not have the weapons to fight the tanks," he recalls during an interview in his farmhouse near Nui Dat.

Thu's battle ended soon after, when a bullet passed through his left ear and exited just under his right ear, knocking him unconscious.

Once the APCs arrived, the Vietnamese concluded that the battle could not be won. They stopped firing and melted back into the jungle. It was only then, in the silence and the gloom, that Buick, Sabben and their men grasped the enormity of what had happened. For the first time that day, Buick broke down and cried.

Recalls Sabben: "After the battle is over it hits you in the solar plexus. It only hit me as we were loading the dead and wounded onto the APCs."

Sabben and Buick were in such a state of shock that they still cannot remember if they slept that night as the company sat silently amid the rubber trees, fearing another attack. None came. When the sun finally rose over the rubber plantation, the Australians were confronted by the full horror of the battlefield. "At that time the feeling in the company was that we had done well to survive and avert a catastrophe," says Sabben. "We did not know what the VC casualties were."

But when the Australians retraced their steps through the plantation, they saw the bodies of Vietnamese soldiers everywhere, hundreds of them, lying where they fell.

"As we moved further in and we discovered more bodies it dawned on me that we had in fact achieved a victory," says Sabben. "We counted 245 bodies and we were still counting when we were told that the Australian government needed a death figure then and there. There were many more bodies left to count, but 245 is the number that went into the history books."

As others were counting the dead Vietnamese, Buick raced back to the spot where his 11 Platoon had fought. When he saw the bodies of his dead mates, still clutching their rifles, he burst into tears. He was wiping them away when he heard a voice cry out: "Sergeant Buick!"

It was Private Jim Richmond from Buick's platoon. He had been shot twice through the chest, had shrapnel in his lungs and was lying face-down in the mud. But he was alive. Buick burst into tears all over again. Richmond later said he would have happily kissed his sergeant at that moment if he weren't so ugly.

Another member of 11 Platoon, Barry Meller, who had been shot through the mouth and leg, was also found alive, leaning against a rubber tree. He chided his rescuers: "What took you so long?"

Forty years on, Buick recalls the surreal nature of that morning. "I especially remember one soldier," he says. "He was leaning over a dead VC who had a hole in his head the size of a 50c piece and the flap of bone was still hanging from his skull. The soldier was pushing the bone back into the hole. It would fall out and he would push it in again. He just kept doing it over and over. I think it was a huge moment in this bloke's life. He was thinking, 'F..k, war's not real good.'"

Later that day an exhausted and drained Buick returned to the main camp, where he was confronted by an Australian reporter who wanted to find out about the battle. "He starts asking me all these dumb questions so I stuck my rifle in his gut and said, 'If you don't f..k off and leave me alone I'll f..king kill you.'"

One of Buick's mates then picked up the reporter and left him hanging off the branches of a broken rubber tree, arms swirling in the wind.

IN THE YEARS SINCE, IT HAS BEEN THE state-run Vietnamese media, rather than the Australian press, which has angered the survivors of Long Tan. In particular, our vets bristle at Vietnamese claims that the Australian troops were ambushed. They point out that the encounter was accidental, with neither side expecting to find the other in that location. They are also angry at Vietnam's reluctance to admit that the battle involved the crack troops of the 275 Regiment as well as the guerilla fighters of the D445 Battalion.

Sabben and Buick believe this is because the Vietnamese government has never wanted to admit that it had massed troops in the region for one specific purpose - an assault on the Australian base at Nui Dat.

Long Tan veterans, and most historians, are convinced the battle of Long Tan prevented a major assault on Nui Dat which, if successful, could have claimed hundreds of Australian lives. As it turned out, Long Tan made the Vietnamese wary of encounters with Australian troops. The Australians were never seriously challenged in Phuoc Tuy province for the remainder of the war.

"The Australian soldiers were better fighters than the Americans," says 52-year-old Tran Trung, as he boils tar in the Long Tan rubber plantation. "The Australians adopted the same guerilla tactics (as the VC)."

But the issue that has upset Australian vets most is Vietnam's claim that it won the battle of Long Tan. The lie has been well spread. Ask anyone in the Nui Dat region about Long Tan and they will tell you that Australia lost.

Doan Thi Thu, a 60-year-old grandmother, recalls hearing the heavy shelling of Long Tan and seeing Australian helicopters in the air. But she, like everyone else, only knows about the battle from what others have told her.

"I was told that it was a fierce fight," she says as a chicken walks across the dining room table in her mud-brick farmhouse. "Many Australians and VC were killed, but the VC won."

Sabben and Buick both want the Vietnamese to finally admit the truth - so when they discover they will be meeting two commanders from Long Tan, they decide to confront them.

They greet the VC veterans Nguyen Minh Ninh and Nguyen Duc Thu with warm handshakes under the rubber trees. But after some brief small talk, the crucial question is posed: Who won the battle of Long Tan?

Ninh, the most senior commander, recognises the ambush. He smiles and considers his answer carefully.
"It is a very good question," he says finally.

Then he drops his own bombshell.

"You won," he says.

"But we won also. Tactically and militarily you won - but politically, we won." Ninh continues his assessment, admitting that the Australians in effect defeated the Vietnamese on the battlefield: "In this battle you acted out of our control - you (escaped) from our trap."

But Ninh argues that Long Tan was a political victory for Vietnam because it helped fuel the anti-war movement in Australia - a movement which he says eventually led to Australian troops being withdrawn from Vietnam.

But for Sabben and Buick, it is all about the battle. They are both stunned and delighted that a senior Vietnamese battlefield commander has finally admitted that Australia won the battle of Long Tan. "That was a very big statement from them," a jubilant Sabben says after the meeting. "This is the first time I have ever heard them admit that they were outclassed in battle. We have finally got a flash of truth. This is not coming from some drunken VC soldier, it is coming from a senior officer. This concession that they did not win the battle of Long Tan is worth 40 years of waiting."

That night, in the Grand Hotel in Vung Tau, where the exhausted soldiers of Delta Company once drowned their sorrows after the battle, Buick and Sabben enjoy a celebratory drink.

"What got up the nose of those Australians at Long Tan over the years was that these were lying bastards," says Buick. "They have rewritten history and claimed they wiped out our whole battalion and all this rubbish. But this is the very, very, very first time they have admitted that we won the battle.

"For the guys who fought the battle, this will vindicate them. They have been recognised by the enemy at last. The enemy have finally admitted that we did actually kick their arse."

Buick reflects on it all and smiles. For these two old soldiers this has been the sweetest of victories. Forty years on, their war is finally over. The battle of Long Tan has been won.

Staff writer Cameron Stewart's previous article was "Straight shooter" (May 6-7), a profile of AFP commissioner Mick Keelty.

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