How a group of Kiwi gunners prevented a massacre of Anzac soldiers in Vietnam

by Rod Vaughan / 18 August, 2016
Anzac soldiers commemorate the Battle of Long Tan in 1969 with the dedication of a memorial cross on the site. Three New Zealanders, attached to an Australian regiment, were directly involved in the 1966 battle on a rubber plantation. Photo/Noel Bell collection courtesy

Heroic stories from the war in Vietnam are little remembered, but the actions of a group of New Zealand gunners 50 years ago saved the massacre of almost 100 Anzac troops.

Pinned down by enemy fire in a Vietnamese rubber plantation, 21-year-old Willie Walker thought his number was up. Confronting his company of barely 100 soldiers was a heavily armed force of 2500 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, some just 10m away. It seemed only a matter of time before he and his New Zealand and Australian mates were overwhelmed.

The battle had been raging for almost four hours in torrential rain. Thunder and lightning added to the intensity of the fierce firefight.

“It was just nonstop bedlam,” Walker recalls. “Tracers, machine-gun fire, mortar fire and artillery fire. But we managed to put into place what we trained for.”

What became known as the Battle of Long Tan, on August 18, 1966, was the bloodiest clash involving New Zealand and Australian soldiers in the entire war – 18 were killed and 24 wounded – but the heroic actions of New Zealand gunners would be instrumental in preventing a massacre of Anzac troops.

Vietnam veterans marked the 50th anniversary of the epic encounter at gatherings in Wellington and Canberra this month. In New Zealand, where public disenchantment persists with our involvement in the war, few would have been aware of it. But for the men who survived that dreadful day and returned to a largely indifferent homeland, it was a big deal.

From left, Murray Broomhall, Morrie Stanley, Willie Walker. Photo/Supplied

There is no question that what happened at Long Tan, in Phuoc Tuy Province, southeast of Saigon, was a defining moment in the lives of the men, some barely out of their teens at the time. Many have battled the depression and despair that beset so many Vietnam veterans. Some, such as Aucklander Morrie Stanley, regarded as one of the heroes of Long Tan, have fallen to sickness or old age. The remaining members of that diminished band of brothers are in their late sixties or early seventies now, but the memories of that day and how they acquitted themselves are still as sharp as ever.

Pat Duggan was deployed to Vietnam as a signaller with 161 Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery. He was only 19, so he needed parental consent. “Mum refused point blank but Dad knew that the form only required one parent to sign, so he did just that. I don’t think Mum ever forgave him.”

He didn’t even know where Vietnam was at the time but saw the war as an adventure. “It didn’t hit home until I was on the aircraft taking me there that I might not come home.”

Another young recruit was 20-year-old Murray Broomhall, who saw it as his duty to go to Vietnam and “do what the legitimate government of New Zealand ordered me to do”. By mid-1966, the pair were in Nui Dat where 161 Battery operated alongside the Australian Task Force as well as American army and air force units.

Within a week they were in the thick of the action. Duggan was deployed as a signaller with Australian troops providing support for the Americans who were building a road near the Bien Hoa airbase when four battalions of Viet Cong attacked.

“I was scared shitless,” he says. “Flares were dropping right into our area and in the harsh white glare I felt like a sitting duck,” he remembers.

The action lasted most of the night and in the morning, his ears still ringing, Duggan got his first look at the enemy. Three Viet Cong were lying in the track no more than 10m from his position: one had been shot under the chin, another several times in the chest and “a third poor bugger had taken two bullets in the legs and had bled to death.”

Broomhall, meanwhile, attached to the Australian army contingent at Nui Dat, joined a three-man forward observation party with Walker and Stanley, an artillery captain, who was in command.

At 35, Stanley was an experienced officer, held in the highest regard and but for his skill none of the 108 troops besieged in the rubber plantation might have survived.

Walker. Photo/Supplied

Mortar attacks

The first inkling of trouble had come two nights earlier when Viet Cong troops launched mortar attacks on the base at Nui Dat. New Zealand military historian Ian McGibbon, who has written extensively on the war, told the Listener that intention was not entirely clear, but it seems they wanted to overrun the base before it was fully operational and the mortar attacks were part of the preparations.

The following day, B Company of 6 Battalion Royal Australian Regiment fanned out into the countryside east of Nui Dat to find the mortars. They were relieved by D company the next day. Many of the troops, including Stanley, Walker and Broomhall, had been looking forward to a camp concert featuring Australian singers Little Pattie and Col Joye, but found themselves out on patrol instead, listening to the strains of the concert several kilometres away. “Everyone was pissed off,” Broomhall recalls with feeling.

As they made their way through a rubber plantation, they were assailed by heavy fire from Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers, who outnumbered them more than 20 to one.

Before he died, at the age of 79, in 2010, Stanley described the scene: “It was like an exceptionally violent thunderstorm, supplemented by the crack of the rifles and machine-gun fire and the noise of detonating shells. Rain and the intense gunfire caused the area to be shrouded in smoke, steam and fog. It really was bedlam.”

Amid the chaos and confusion, it fell largely to Stanley to direct artillery fire from the 18 New Zealand, Australian and American guns at Nui Dat, five kilometres away, onto the attackers, who were so close to the embattled Anzacs that one misdirected shot would have hit the men he was trying to save.

“I realised how important it was that my communications remained effective and that the guns were able to maintain … constant and accurate fire,” Stanley was later to write. “I needed the comfort of knowing that my battery commander Harry Honnor, an experienced gunner, was on the end of a radio and could provide constant support for me.

“I had to overcome my dread that I would make a mistake.”

Stanley praised Walker, his radio operator, for keeping the set operational “under the most trying conditions”.

For his part, Walker has nothing but the highest praise for Stanley’s actions that day.

“He had a hell of a job trying to gauge where the shells were falling in the rain and the bloody bullets whistling around.

“You couldn’t keep your head up too long looking to see where the artillery fell, but he was pretty calm, I thought.”

Walker has three vivid memories of the battle: of tracer fire “about three or four feet above ground level, so it was a matter of keeping the head down as much as you could”; of bugles that told you “another bloody banzai charge” was coming, and of the weather conditions – the rain, the lightning and the mud.

Ken Ford, left, and Graeme Williams with an American M60 tank.

A prayer or two

As the afternoon wore on, Walker says, things were looking pretty grim.

“I got the feeling that we were not going to make it out of this and I was getting really pissed off, so I think I said a prayer or two and I thought of my family especially. Then moments later the Company Sergeant Major came around asking if we had any spare ammunition and I thought, ‘Christ, this is it. We are down to our last few rounds.’

“So we gave him what we had and we were left with just one magazine each.”

The gravity of the situation was not lost on Stanley, who outwardly, at least, remained as stoic as ever.

“I think many of us were uncertain whether we would [get out] or not,” he later recalled. “I was concentrating on what I was doing and really had no time to think about that.

Back at Nui Dat, Duggan was also in the thick of the action, as 161 Battery gunners fired some 1100 rounds of 105mm high explosive at the enemy over nearly four hours using a procedure called “danger close”, which required every bubble on the gun sights to be exactly right.

The monsoon weather was playing havoc at the base. Lightning strikes took out vital communications systems and the gunners sometimes lost contact with their command post. Lightning also struck two soldiers, leaving them dazed.

“The noise was intense,” recalls Duggan. “To the untrained eye it would probably have looked like hell on earth and total confusion, but that was certainly not the case. We were all pitching in to help and the fire support we were providing was done in a very professional manner.

“Even the cooks were on the position, ladling out soup to the guys, and the Commander of V Force in Saigon, Colonel Smith, who had come down to visit the battery, found himself rolling his sleeves up and helping.”

Ford on patrol in a rubber plantation.

Tough decisions

As the casualties mounted, Stanley had to make some hard decisions, including disregarding a request from a desperate Australian platoon commander. Sergeant Bob Buick, who had taken command of 11 Platoon after his commander was killed, asked him to bring down fire on top of his own position. With only 12 men left out of 28 and under attack on three sides, Buick was gambling that an artillery barrage would kill more Vietnamese than the remnants of his platoon.

Stanley thought otherwise. With pinpoint accuracy, he directed the shells to land almost on top of the Vietnamese, allowing Buick and his troops to beat a hasty retreat.

The scene was witnessed by Second Lieutenant Dave Sabben, the Australian commander of 12 Platoon, which was also attempting to rescue them.

“They were haunted men,” he recalls. “They were out of ammunition, carrying their wounded on their backs and completely emotionally drained.”

Sabben eventually managed to get the walking wounded of 11 Platoon plus his own men back to their Company HQ, which itself was still trapped in the rubber plantation and about to face a fierce enemy onslaught.

“We saw them coming through the mist and the gloom. They would charge, fall to the ground, and then get up and charge again. It looked as if the dead men were coming to life. The buggers just kept on coming and I wondered whether we were going to survive.”

Broomhall, who at this stage was acting as the section commander of the Company HQ machine-gun section, had similar misgivings. As enemy figures appeared in the murk just 40-90m away, he stood up to direct the fire of his machine gunner.

“A few seconds later some of the branches above me started to disappear so I promptly gave that stupid idea up and lay down beside him.”

As night fell and wave after wave of Viet Cong continued to press home the attack, a relief force in armoured personnel carriers finally arrived. The attackers retreated into the night.

“It was like the cavalry saving everyone from the Indians in a western movie,” Buick said afterwards. “I just yelled as soon as I saw them.”

As morning dawned it soon became clear that the Battle of Long Tan was over. “An eerie silence pervaded a scene of utmost devastation,” Stanley wrote, and Broomhall’s recollection is much the same.

“No tree was unmarked, most of them looked as if someone had hit them with a giant flail; there were no leaves, no twigs, just shattered stumps, fallen branches and whole trees toppled over.

“Bodies and parts of bodies were strewn everywhere and we spent the next two days burying the dead and collecting the weapons and equipment that had been left by the Viet Cong.

“After that, the shock set in and we were all zombies, so a couple of days later we went to the beach at Vung Tau and had a massive piss-up.”

Patrick Duggan and his M16.

How many more?

Australian soldiers were no less traumatised by the experience. “After the battle is over, it hits you in the solar plexus and when it hit, it was devastating,” Sabben recollects. “And worse, despite the huge battle and to us enormous losses, the referee hadn’t blown the whistle.

“It was still a match and there was no guarantee that this was the last battle. We were only 72 days into a 365-day tour, so at the back of my mind was, ‘How many more Long Tans will there be for us?’”

As the survivors recovered, others took stock of the human cost and just what had been achieved. Despite being grossly outnumbered, the Anzacs emerged from the battle with the loss of 18 lives and 24 wounded; their antagonists lost at least 245 men, half of them victims of shellfire.

At the time both sides claimed victory: US General William Westmoreland described it as “one of the most spectacular in Vietnam to date”. Members of D Company, which included Stanley, Walker and Broomhall, received gallantry citations from the American and Australian governments, and two of the New Zealanders received individual awards for their role in the action.

Some felt Stanley deserved a Victoria Cross, but he received instead an MBE (military division); Walker was mentioned in despatches.

Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese put a totally different spin on the battle. Radio Hanoi reported afterwards that “the Australian mercenaries, who are no less husky and beefy than their allies, the US aggressors, have proved good fresh targets for the South Vietnamese liberation army”.

“On August 18, it wiped out almost completely one battalion [around 800 men] of Australian mercenaries in an ambush in Long Tan village.”

US President Barack Obama dabs his brow before laying a wreath to mark the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary in Washington in 2012. Photo/Getty Images

Winner and losers

Half a century later the military historian McGibbon is in no doubt who the winners and losers were, He is full of praise for the New Zealand, Australian and American gunners who undoubtedly saved the day.

“New Zealanders Morrie Stanley and Harry Honnor certainly played a major part in the action because they directed the fire of the 18 105mm guns. Their skill in using this firepower by bringing in fire very close to the defenders’ position played a major part in the successful extrication of the company from its predicament.

“Overall, it is certain that D Company would have been overrun without the artillery support.”

But what did the battle achieve from a strategic point of view? McGibbon does not mince his words.

“From a strategic point of view, the battle had no significance as it had no bearing on the progress or outcome of the wider conflict in South Vietnam. But in terms of the situation in Phuoc Tuy province, Long Tan ensured that the Australian Task Force [ATF] was not subjected to a major assault.

“The action prevented the communists from perhaps inflicting an embarrassing defeat on these newly arrived troops. The battle was therefore a tactical victory for the ATF of limited long-term significance.”

McGibbon’s assessment is shared by two Viet Cong veterans who survived the carnage in the rubber plantation.

The men, Nguyen Minh Ninh and Nguyen Duc Thu, made their views known to Dave Sabben and Bob Buick when the Australians returned to Long Tan 10 years ago.

Asked who won the battle, Ninh replied: “It is a very good question. You won, but we won also. Tactically and militarily you won but politically, we won.”

In Ninh’s eyes it was a political victory because the bloody encounter helped fuel the anti-war movement that led to Australian and New Zealand troops being withdrawn from Vietnam.

And for many Kiwis, such as Pat Duggan, who did two tours of duty in Vietnam, coming home proved almost as traumatic as anything he had witnessed in the Battle of Long Tan.

“The Viet Cong were welcomed home as heroes. We were told to go away and be quiet and not tell anybody,” he says. “That played on people’s minds a lot and it tipped a few over. We were told not to wear our uniforms in public and not tell anybody we were Vietnam veterans.

“That said, I would do it all again in a heartbeat and I stand by that. My military service made me the person I am today and for that I am ever thankful.”

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