Inverloch Major shaped Long Tan story

Major Ross Smith (L) meets Major Ralph Barrett of the US Army during the Vietnam War.

Brad Lester


THE actions of an Inverloch man helped shape the Australian public’s knowledge of the most recognised battle Australian forces fought during the Vietnam War.

Ross Smith was a major in the Australian Army and the head of its public relations unit in Vietnam.

The former journalist was just five kilometres from the Battle of Long Tan in 1966 that pitted 108 Australian and New Zealand soldiers against a massive force of 2500 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.

Despite the imbalance in size and running out of ammunition, the Australians held off the onslaught thanks to an artillery barrage that bombarded the Viet Cong from afar.

The fire of all 18 guns totalled more than 100 rounds a minute.

The battle claimed 18 Australian lives and wounded 24, and more than 245 enemy troops were killed, in pouring rain, mud and the shattered trees of a rubber plantation.

“They had our D Company blokes pinned down in the rubber. Throughout the whole of hostilities, the enemy directed its movements by the sounds of bugles and their soldiers strictly obeyed these orders, even if it meant sacrificing their own lives,” Mr Smith said.

He and journalist Geoff Murray, working for AAP Reuter, were tasked with filing official accounts of the battle.

Given Mr Murray was the only reporter on base, Mr Smith opted not to file a story back to Army HQ and instead fed Mr Murray as much information as he could.

“I felt we would be competing with each other and I wanted him to get the credit,” Mr Smith said.

“Naturally I got a big rocket from Canberra the next day for not filing but I had the satisfaction of knowing that Geoff’s story had got into all the media that took AAP Reuter back in Australia.”

The battle occurred on August 18, 1966 when the men of D Company entered the rubber plantation of Long Tan, beginning what Mr Smith termed “Australia’s four hours of hell in Vietnam”.

“Initially, I went into the taskforce ops room and heard the enemy force was overwhelming and we later learnt when the battle was over, there were about 2500 VC and North Vietnamese involved,” he said.

Within 20 minutes of the battle starting, Mr Smith said a third of the platoon of 28 Australian men had been killed or wounded.

“Soldiers went to ground and withstood repeated enemy attacks, including massed human wave assaults,” he said.

The artillery was brought in as close as possible to counteract the enemy surge.

“From 4.36pm to 5.02pm, radio messages from D Company conveyed the Company’s desperate situation, for example, ‘Being mortared, want all artillery possible, enemy on left flank, could be serious, enemy penetrating both flanks and to north and south, running out of ammo urgently, require drop through trees’.”

Ammunition was dropped from helicopters hovering at the tree-tops to delay the VC onslaught but victory was not in sight then.

“As human wave upon human wave made their way towards the besieged Aussie company HQ, the situation was becoming more perilous. Annihilation seemed imminent,” Mr Smith said.

The arrival of seven armoured personnel carriers with troops and the artillery barrage led to the enemy withdrawing.

“The main battle had ended but Murray and I were striving to get our story finished. And we, and all the base soldiers, could only think about one subject and that was what our casualties might have been. It did not look good,” Mr Smith said.

Despite the encounter and others during two tours to Vietnam, Mr Smith said the war had not affected him.

Nor at any time did he fear for his safety during the war.

“You do not have time to think, to worry about yourself,” he said.

“You have a job to do but when I got there, I thought I had had a good life even though I had a wife and two kids.”

This Remembrance Day, as with any throughout the years, was poignant, Mr Smith said.

“Anything that can get the message out about the service of our soldiers in Vietnam can only be good going forward,” he said.

Mr Smith enjoyed an Army career spanning 21 years and later become a member of the Victorian Parliament, serving the Liberal Party as the former MP for Glen Waverley, and then was a councillor with Bass Coast Shire Council.





Short URL: http://thestar.com.au/?p=30286

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