Sadly, another of the brave, gallant, Battle of Long Tan veterans has passed away this week.
20 year old Harry Esler was conscripted into the Australian Army in 1965 as part of the very first intake of Australian National Servicemen for the Vietnam War. After National Service training, Private Harry Esler was posted to 10 Platoon, D Company, 6RAR in September 1965 and he would go on and fight as a 21 year old riflemen in the incredible Battle of Long Tan.
Harry was 70 years young, and sadly he passed away on Wednesday morning, 15th April 2015 at his home in Newcastle. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and fellow Vietnam warriors this week.
UPDATE – The funeral service for the late Harry Esler will be held at:
9.30am, Wednesday 22nd April, 2015
The Chapel of Pettigrew Funeral Home,
3 Harris Street, Wallsend, NSW
I’ve pulled together some of the interesting moments during the Battle of Long Tan which included Private Harry Esler:
- Esler says, “They stuck us on a plane and flew us to Vietnam. We landed on a beach and I thought, This is it. This is going to be great. A nice little beach at Vung Tau. Then they whipped us up to Nui Dat into the middle of a rubber plantation. When we got there it was all mud. There was no machinery to help us, we had to do it all by hand.”
- Esler says of Harry Smith, “Major Smith was a very good soldier, in that everybody respected him. I certainly did. He was a bloke you trusted with your life. Nothing seemed too hard for him. He seemed calm at all times and gave a feeling of confidence. Don’t get me wrong he could be a very hard man. The look he’d give you if you were playing up was enough to drill a hole in you.”
- In the height of the battle Esler said he was surprised to find he was calm, no fear, because he could see a target.
- Just before Harry ordered Kendall’s 10 Platoon to withdraw back to the main D Coy position having unsuccessfully being able to punch through to 11 Platoon, Esler found himself out front and, “like a silly bugger’ was one of the last to get back. He said, “I’d been having a bit of fun, looked behind and the boys had gone. Peter Doyle was the guy that told me, “For Christ’s sake get down! Get back!” I nearly got left up there. I remember running back. That was the strangest feeling, because unlike marching towards them, you had a funny feeling a bullet was going to hit you in the back. You were tense and it was worse than approaching them, meantime it was pouring down rain. Pissing down and we couldn’t see much.
- Esler moved back to the D Coy position and lay down beside Doug Mitchell and his mate Jack Jewry, Buddy Lea’s section commander who would be killed attempting to bandage Lea’s wounds. Jack was a few feet away from Esler on his left.
- Esler laid next to his friend Doung Mitchell and said to him, “OK you’re supposed to be a crash-hot shot – this is true, I’m not exaggerating – I’ll bet you a can of beer you can’t hit that bloke in the stomach. He’d have a shot, then say to me, a can of beer if you can hit him in the head’… the two friends laid there firing steadily.
- Esler noticed one member of the enemy in particular, “There was this big fellow running around in a white dustcoat. He seemed taller than the rest, giving orders, shouting orders… Anyway, I had a few shots at him. I don’t know if he had a bullet proof vest on or if I’m a lousy shot, but I couldn’t get him. Corporal Green, in 11 Platoon said later that he got the bastard but he was never found among the dead. I remember his as a big, tall bloke and whether he was a medical officer or one of the big nobs, I don’t know.
- Esler’s cigarettes, in his thigh pocket were ruined from the rain and mud. He wanted a smoke looked around and saw Buddy Lea lighting up; so he casually rose, ran across the bullet swept plantation and ‘bludged a cigarette off him, lit it up, ran back and lay down. It was the sort of stupid thing you do.’
- Esler notices the company medic, Corporal Phil Dobson run up towards the front lines of our position, out of sight, bring back a wounded Australian, patch him up and away he would go again. “He was a champion, that bloke. He should have been given the Victoria Cross for what he did.”
- A short distance from Esler, in the CHQ position Pom Rencher was beside a rubber tree, calmly and busily operating his radio, passing messages to Harry Smith and Morrie Stanley. All through the battle rounds had been cracking overhead and trace flying past. For some reason Esler and Rencher looked at each other, then faced the front again – “to see huge tracers floating towards us at head height, seemingly moving in slow motion.” Esler, “The world stopped as I waited to see who it would hit. No fear, just fascinated expectancy. After an eternity it passed exactly half way between us! I knew then that I was going to come through the battle in one piece and nothing was ever going to be the same again.”
- For the young Australians, prone by their trees, semi-hidden in the water, the falling rain and the mud, the lines of enemy presented good targets. Esler, “It was just like a kangaroo shoot. They were coming in waves. They were blowing bugles off to the left, in front and across to the right. I remember thinking, by Christ I wish I had a set of bagpipes here. I’d put the fear of Christ up these blokes! The bugles did get on your nerves and have an effect on you when you heard them blowing.”
- A long standing joke in D Coy was Jack Kirby’s insistence that Esler was in fact a Private Ralph who had last been heard of on patrol in Malaya. You remind me of that bludger, Kirby would say and on his journey around the perimeter during the battle to keep spirits up and distribute ammunition Kirby would remark to Esler: How are you today Private Ralph? And you’re not going to get back if you don’t watch out! Undismayed, Esler would reply I will! You make sure you do.
- Near the time the APC’s arrived, Kirby came around doling out the meagre ammunition available and asking Esler, you all right Private Ralph? Doing a good job? He dropped twelve rounds of ammunition by Esler’s side.
- In D Coy HQ peering through the trees, Harry Smith saw a mass of dark figures forming to one side and called, “Righto, Private Esler and you others had better turn around and look behind you.” “What Sir?” asked Esler. “Can’t you see them? Said Harry Smith. But Esler could not see what it was Smith was indicating. “They’re forming up to hit us from behind.” Then they saw the enemy flitting from tree to tree moving into a patch of thick scrub behind the Australians. The bugles sounded again. “Christ”, said Esler. Every shot had to count and Esler only had around ten rounds left. Esler heard Smith say on the radio, “If you don’t come for us in half an hour, don’t bother to come at all.”
- Esler and others watched the APC’s jerking and swerving as they rolled through the mass of enemy crushing some underneath. A VC stood up to throw a grenade at an APC. The commander of the APC tried to get the .50 machinegun barrel depressed far enough to hit the VC but could not. Esler and Mitchell saw this, aimed and fired. “I think I got him first”, claimed Esler as the VC was flung backwards and the grenade went off next to him.
- Esler heard one of the nearby diggers yelling and screaming so he called out to him. “I think my leg is gone”, came the reply. Esler crawled the 20-odd metres between them. “Well why don’t you have a bloody look? Esler said to him. “It’s still there as far as I can see.” Esler examined the wound. What had happened was that a bit of mortar shrapnel had cut through his boot, the ridge around the sole edge, the laces and the top and even put a hole in his sock – that’s how lucky he was. He must have thought his leg was gone. But I got up him and said, “I crawled all the bloody way up here for you and you didn’t even have a look!”
- The day after the battle, Esler and the others from D Coy rode in the back of the APC’s towards the vicinity of the battle from the day before. As soon as they let that back door down we bolted out. We looked around and didn’t know what to expect. As I got down I accidently stood on a bit of an arm – half an arm of a VC. I picked it up and said, “How would this go hanging up in the canteen?” And whoever it was nearby said, “Put that bloody thing down!”
- Esler and the others walked through the scene of the battle and saw bodies everywhere. Bits of bodies, full bodies. I came across this little dugout and there’s this fellow lying in there, a VC with not a mark on him. He was dead alright but unmarked. Maybe the concussion got him?
- Esler, Doolan, Deller and Doyle were together clearing the area and collecting ammunition and checking the dead when General William Westmoreland walked up to them and said, “You’ve done a good job fellows but this is the dirty part.” Doolan replied, “She’ll be right mate, we can handle it.” This classic digger’s response created newspaper headlines!
- The same group now with Kendall, Smith and Westmoreland came across a small group of bodies, big in build compared to the VC: six foot, chubby faced fellows. Esler said they looked like Chinese. A South Vietnamese interpreter arrived and after some discussion decided that the bodies were North Vietnamese regulars.
- Esler was dragging a noticeably young VC. As he bent over and pulled on the body his faced just caved in. He was full of maggots. I got a whiff of the smell and that was the only time I came close to being sick the whole time I was over there, except at the end when I was really sick.
- Esler, Doyle and a few others were searching a group of corpses. When one body was pulled over onto its back, they found underneath it two pearl handled Colt .45 pistols. The diggers assumed that these had been taken by the VC from a dead American. Esler said, “Look at these. This would be a good souvenir to take home.” Behind them a voice said, “Aren’t they beautiful? They turned and it was Harry Smith. “We spotted them first”, Esler said. Smith pointed to his rank badges. “They’re mine”, he said.
Rest in Peace Harry Esler.