A chance to walk the Long Tan battlefield with a Long Tan veteran

Members of the RAR Association need no introduction to the Battle of Long Tan. After all, it’s a Battle Honour on their Colours and its anniversary was selected as Australia’s Vietnam Veterans’ Day. And over the years, one of the key resources in describing and explaining the battle has been Dave Sabben, the former platoon commander of 12 Platoon, Delta Company, 6RAR, at the battle.

Dave has been interviewed for all the documentaries and books on the subject including the official Military History of Australia’s involvement in South East Asia, “To Long Tan”, and the recent highly acclaimed and award winning documentary screened on The History Channel, The Battle of Long Tan narrated by Sam Worthington (Avatar, Terminator Salvation). He has even written his own “faction” book, Through Enemy Eyes, which takes the perspective of the NVA commander in Phuoc Tuy Province when the ANZACs arrived. It explains why there was a need to wipe out the Nui Dat base and the steps taken to achieve that aim. (The book demolishes the so-called ambush theory proposed by some in the late 1980s.)

If you’ve seen the animated Powerpoint presentation on Long Tan, that’s Dave’s work too, and if you haven’t seen it, then it’s available for free download from his website.

You’d wonder what else he could do in an effort to inform interested Australians about the battle. Well, last year a new idea came from an unlikely source – the Australia Vietnam Volunteers Resource Group (AVVRG).

The AVVRG is an Australian non-government organisation (NGO) – a community of volunteers registered and licensed to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Viet Nam, particularly those in what used to be known as Phuoc Tuy Province, where the Australian Task Force operated. (See the AVVRG website for details of their other activities as well as for this tour.)

As a side-result of this fine charity work, the Vietnamese government appointed AVVRG custodians of the Long Tan cross. Not widely known, the Vietnamese permit only two foreign war memorials on its territory – one being at Dien Bien Phu for the French and the other, Long Tan for the ANZACs.

In 2009, president of the NSW division of AVVRG and Viet Vet Kerry Phelan (unit, year) asked Dave if he would take a group to Long Tan and walk them through the battlefield, with the proceeds going to the AVVRG charity. Dave accepted and the tour went in October 2009. The 31 tour members included a fellow ex-6RAR Sgt (with his son), a serving officer and an NCO, several ex-service men, two serving police officers, a number of ex-CMF soldiers and a number of historians, authors and just plain interested folk, including several wives. They spent a couple of hours on the battlefield, ending their time at the cross with a short service in the company of an ex-VC Colonel.

The tour was so well accepted that the AVVRG asked Dave for a repeat in October, 2010. Dave agreed, but with one proviso – that the time spent on the battlefield walk-through be increased to four hours. This was agreed, and the tour has now been now arranged.

Dave’s intention is to take the tour members to the western edge of the rubber plantation, where D/6RAR had lunch on 18 August 1966, and to then trace the exact steps of the Company in “real time” for the next 4 hours. It was about half an hour after lunch that the first shots were fired and the last shots were fired three and a half hours after that.

In the four hours, Dave will take the group to where Bob Buick, Pl Sgt, 11 Pl, fired on a small enemy patrol, initiating the battle. They will then trace the movements of the rest of the Company as it followed the 11 Platoon pursuit. As 11 Platoon became pinned down, CHQ formed a base and sent 10 Platoon around to the north of 11 to support 11’s withdrawal. The tour group will follow 10 Platoon’s steps to the base of Nui Dat 2, and their return to CHQ.

They will then move with 12 Platoon to the south to come in behind 11 to support their withdrawal. Finally the group will close in on the 11 Platoon position, now marked by the cross.

During the four hours, Dave will stop every ten minutes and give a status report on the whole battle – thus letting the tour members understand what was happening at each platoon location and back at Task Force – the progress of the B/6RAR elements, the APCs carrying A/6RAR to the battle, the RAAF ammo resupply, USAF air support and the ever-present ANZAC and US artillery.

Says Dave: “I can think of no better way for anyone to understand the progress and development of the battle. The trees in the rubber plantation today are the same age as they were in 1966. The ground is slightly eroded in the northern parts but otherwise looks exactly as it did in 1966. And the roads and tracks are in exactly the same places. It all looks the same. It’s eerie, really.”

AVVRG’s Kerry Phelan will be on the 2010 tour. “This is something special in the way it would be special for the opportunity for someone to walk the Rorke’s Drift battlefield with Lt Chard VC, or to walk the cliffs of Gallipoli with a young officer from one of the Light Horse Brigades.”

“How else would you get to see where the opening shots were fired, advance with 10 Platoon toward known enemy forces, be where the ammo resupply was dropped, reflect on the site where thirteen 11 Platoon soldiers died as enemy assaults tried to breach their perimeter, be where 12 Platoon held the corridor open for 11 to withdraw and then to stand where no man stood for the final half-hour while human waves of NVA assaulted the final Company position?”.

Funds raised by the tour will go towards a three year project mounted by the NSW division of AVVRG to rebuild a kindergarten for 50 Vietnamese children aged six months to five years in the Nui Dat community. The program will also pay for daily meals, care, supervision and instruction on an ongoing basis. It is one of the ironies of life that it could well be that the AVVRG charity will rebuild the kindy and it may be used by the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the VC soldiers at Long Tan.

The Long Tan Trek Tour departs Australia Sunday 17 October 2010 for 6 days and 5 nights and is priced at $2699 per person, twin share, including Singapore Airlines international flights. The tour will include 2 nights in Saigon and visits to the ALSG area, the old minefield and the VC sanctuary in the Long Hai’s. If permissions are obtained, we could also visit the site of Operation Bribie and the site of FSB Coral or Balmoral.

For those with a taste for further battlefield experiences, Dave offers an extension tour of 9 days and 8 nights for $1949 extra, which will visit the sites of six more decisive battles: Hue (Tet 1968), the DMZ (1965-73), Dong Ha (Tet 1972), Khe Sanh (1968), Hamburger Hill (1969) and Dien Bien Phu (1954). The group will also visit Hanoi and end with a 2-night R&R at tourist resort Ha Long Bay.

The Extension tour can be booked separately, but international airfares must be added.

A similar but even more extensive tour of Viet Nam battlefields is planned for group bookings. Called “The 12 Decisive Battles of the 3 Indo-China Wars”, this tour will be tailored for each group. It will include Saigon and all the battlefields mentioned in the tours above, plus a visit to Da Nang, China Beach and the Ia Drang Valley near Pleiku in the Central Highlands (the “We Were Soldiers” battle). All of these are considered the most decisive battles of the three Indo-China Wars (ref: John Pilmott “Vietnam – The decisive Battles”, ISBN 1-86155-673-x).

Flyers, dates, prices, a full itinerary and booking forms are available from the website of the travel agents, National Network Travel – visit www.nntravel.com.au or email judi@nntravel.com.au or phone Judi on (03) 9654 4000. A 2-page Group flyer may be downloaded from Dave’s website.

A word of warning – none of these tours are typical “tourist” tours. They are battlefield oriented and are aimed at those who want to see and discuss matters military. However, they are not especially energetic. If you can walk 4 Kilometres in 4 hours, you’re fit enough for these tours.

If you would like any further information, please ask.

Dave Sabben.


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