LtCol Alexander Smyth representing Australian Defence Force's Basic Flight Training School, Tamworth, delivered the commemoration speech and acknowledged and welcomed the Honourable Barnaby Joyce, MP - Deputy Prime Minister and Federal Member for New England, as well as the representative of Mr Kevin Anderson MP, Member for Tamworth - Mr Michael Hanson, Councillor Col Murray Mayor of Tamworth Regional Council, Vietnam Veterans, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Today the 18th August 2016 it is a privilege to share with you the 50th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan and to acknowledge the valiant efforts of those service personnel who were involved in this particular action which, in a lot of ways, defined Australian involvement in the Vietnam conflict.
Before I relate the story of a young man from Tamworth who fought and died at Long Tan we should recognise that this is also Vietnam Veteran’s Day. As such we acknowledge that between 1962 and 1972 approximately 60,000 service personnel (both regular and National Servicemen) served in Vietnam. Amongst these 172 were born in Tamworth, and 50 were born in Quirindi.
Of those who served 521 died and over 3000 were injured.
These figures do not include those Service personnel who, since their involvement, and in many cases to this day, continue to suffer as a result of their service in this conflict.
In this context we should also recognise the impact veteran’s health issues have had on their families and those that care for them – this day is also for them.
On the memorial in front of me are the names of seven servicemen from the Tamworth area who died in Vietnam, and on the walls surrounding me are the names of Vietnam Veterans who have subsequently passed away.
The second name commemorated on the memorial is that of 2LT Gordon Sharp who died at Long Tan on 18 August 1966 and I shall shortly relate a little of his story. You would be interested to know that this story is also being related this afternoon at the Australian War Memorial Last Post Ceremony in Canberra by Corporal Mark Donaldson V.C.
Attending this Service in Canberra, will I understand, be John O’Halloran another Tamworth boy who was a school class mate and fellow platoon commander of Gordon’s from 6RAR. In addition 12 more of Gordon’s class mates from school here in Tamworth are attending this service, and Gordon’s nephew Andrew will be laying a wreath to honour his uncle and his comrades.
Gordon Cameron Sharp was born on the 17th of March 1945 in Tamworth, to Eric and Roma Sharp. He was the second of two sons born to the couple. He was named after his uncle, a Spitfire pilot killed in Italy during the Second World War.
Gordon Sharp grew up in Tamworth and attended Saint Nicholas Primary School and later the Christian Brothers College. He was an excellent sportsman, representing his school in swimming, rugby and tennis. He was even selected to play doubles with the legendary Tony Roche in an exhibition tennis match. A wayward serve by Sharp hit Roche in the back of the head, much to the crowd’s delight.
Sharp served for four years in the school cadets, attaining the rank of corporal. He was also briefly school prefect until a minor misdemeanour saw him lose his badge. After obtaining his leaving certificate in 1962 he moved to Sydney and went to work as a cameraman for Channel 7.
In 1965 Australia’s commitment to the Vietnam War was increasing. Sharp was among the first National Service draft called up on the 10th of March 1965. After three weeks’ training at Kapooka he was selected to attend the Officer Training Unit at Scheyville. Towards the end he was badly injured in a fall from the top of a scramble net during an obstacle course crossing. He broke both wrists and suffered concussion, but after a brief spell in hospital returned to training with both wrists in plaster.
Sharp managed to complete his training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was posted to the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, and became platoon commander of 11 Platoon, D Company.
Following several training exercises, 6RAR deployed to Vietnam in mid-1966. The main Australian base at Nui Dat had just been established for the 1st Australian Task Force, to which 6RAR was attached. Immediately after arriving 6RAR deployed on a search-and-clearance operation in a nearby village, followed by a five-day search-and-destroy mission. During the second operation 6RAR first came into contact with the local Viet Cong D445 Provincial Mobile Battalion.
In the early hours of the 17th of August the task force base was hit by mortar and recoilless rifle-fire. The Australians suffered 24 casualties. Patrols were sent out and located the enemy firing positions, but the Viet Cong had withdrawn. The following day 108 men of D Company (including a three man New Zealand Army Artillery Forward Observation Party) moved its search into the Long Tan area, and shortly after 3 pm came into contact with the enemy in the Long Tan rubber plantation. Sharp’s platoon followed up the enemy, and around 4 pm met heavy opposition and began taking casualties.
Engaged on three sides, 11 Platoon was in danger of being wiped out entirely. Sharp called for artillery support, but the initial rounds landed wide of the target. As he raised himself up to redirect the fire, he was shot in the neck and killed instantly. He was 21 years old.
In the hours that followed, the larger Vietnamese force attempted to overrun D Company. Close artillery support was crucial in breaking up several enemy attacks and allowing the beleaguered Australians to form a cohesive perimeter. As D Company ran low on ammunition, UH-I helicopters from 9 Squadron RAAF flew through monsoonal conditions to deliver much-needed supplies.
At 7 pm a relief column of armoured personnel carriers from 3 Troop, 1 Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron, arrived with A Company, 6RAR, on board. As they entered the rubber plantation they encountered members of the Viet Cong’s D445 Battalion, forming up for another attack. The APCs attacked quickly, stopping the enemy advance. They linked up with D Company and, as night fell, the enemy withdrew.
Next morning the men of D Company returned to the battle site. They recovered two of their badly wounded comrades. Sharp and many of the fallen were found still lying at their weapons, as if defending their positions. It was a sight that chilled the blood of those who witnessed it.
The Australians also recovered three wounded Vietnamese soldiers and buried more than 245 enemy dead. Second Lieutenant Gordon Sharp’s remains were returned to Australia and he was laid to rest in the Lincoln Grove Cemetery on the Gunnedah Road.
Gordon was one of 17 Australians who died on that day. A further 25 were injured one of whom later died from his wounds. Gordon was one of 210 National Servicemen who were killed in this conflict. Many of you here will be aware of the post-script announced by the Minister for Defence Personnel last week. 10 of the Servicemen who fought in the battle are being recommended to either have their existing awards upgraded, or be made an award – In Gordon Sharp’s case it has been recommended that he be awarded a Commendation for Gallantry.
Thus on the 50th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan we thank all that fought in this battle, and all the Veterans who served their country in the Vietnam conflict. To use the words of MAJGEN Michael Jeffrey our former Governor General and Vietnam Veteran when speaking at the 40th anniversary of the battle in 2006 ‘We honour those who did not return and those who returned hurt in body or mind. None should be forgotten, none will be forgotten nor the families and loved ones who supported or continue to support them’.
LEST WE FORGET
LTCOL Alexander Smyth, representing Australian Defence Force's Basic Flight Training School, Tamworth.