Think Piece: Caring for the Long Tan wounded

Jean Matthews_edited2South Australia is believed to have just one Long Tan survivor; Alan Fraser, of Salisbury. The other survivor, Barry Magnussen, passed away in Port Augusta last year, never to know that he was commended for the Medal of Gallantry in the Long Tan honours announced last week. I am the only Australian woman alive who cared for the men who fought at the Battle of Long Tan on this day 50 years ago.

In 1966, Alan was a private in Delta Company’s 12th Platoon, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. Today he will lay a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans’ War Memorial at Torrens Parade Ground in Adelaide as part of the service commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. His daughter Heather will read the United States Presidential Unit Citation awarded to Delta Company after the battle, as well as the Honour Roll containing the names of the 18 Australians who were killed that day.

I have travelled to Vietnam to take my place alongside (then) Major Harry Smith (Delta Company’s Officer Commanding at the time), Dave Sabben, Geoff Kendall, and other Long Tan heroes whose lives were forever altered by events that unfolded that day. The Long Tan wounded whom I saw were recognisably different from any others I had previously seen or ever saw again. Thoughts of the men from Delta Company have never left me.

The Battle of Long Tan has become legendary in the annals of Australian war history. Although other important battles were fought in Vietnam, never did so small an Australian force engage so large and formidable an enemy, so fiercely and for so long. I understand there still are no official figures on the size of the Vietnamese force the Diggers accidentally encountered at Long Tan, although it is believed there were at least 2,000 enemy within small arms range, with possibly another battalion of 600 or so men, deeper in reserve. The Australians, 105 relatively inexperienced but highly trained men, more than half of whom were National Servicemen (men barely out of their teens and conscripted by the Australian government to give a year of their lives in what was then South Vietnam), and three Kiwis, were on a routine search in familiar terrain when they encountered Viet Cong troops in a rubber plantation, just before blinding, torrential rain fell.

The Australians had swept the area the day before without meeting opposition and were not expecting to be vastly outnumbered. Suddenly, a determined enemy attacked. Despite the Australians disciplined and gallant retaliation, after four hours our vastly outnumbered soldiers were down to their last rounds of ammunition.

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Jean Matthews (nee Debelle) going about her duties at 2 Field Ambulance hospital, Vung Tau, Vietnam, probably early 1967.

In the darkness and rain, the courageous RAAF crewmen – flying helicopters not yet bullet-proofed – were facing enormous difficulties attempting to drop ammunition to the stranded troops. Through the chaotic noise of battle the Diggers heard the thunder of the approaching Aussie cavalry – Armoured Personnel Carriers bringing troops and ammunition. The APCs crashed towards them through the dark jungle and torrential rain to rout the enemy. The embattled Aussies had inflicted huge casualties on the enemy (at least 245 Viet Cong were buried by the Aussies) for the loss of 18 Diggers.

The Battle’s 23 wounded were brought by RAAF helicopters late that night into the American 36th Evacuation Hospital at nearby Vung Tau where they were devotedly nursed by dedicated, highly professional American doctors and nurses. Those admitted were silent. There were none of the usual relieved-to-be-safe smiles of the wounded. As I looked along the rows of casualties in the unnatural quiet, the stunned and wounded eyes, as much as the damaged bodies, identified those in the ward who had survived the battle in the rubber plantation. I heard no moans or crying. I was mentally prepared for tears from the men. I saw none. Some men avoided meeting my eyes, perhaps afraid to reveal their emotions. A soldier might give way to grief in front of his mates, but not in front of an outsider. The only sound in the ward was the clump of army boots on the concrete floor as the medical staff hurried about their work of healing.

Earlier, in the rubber plantation, there had been tears as the Diggers saw how many of their mates lay dead. They were not afraid to show their deepest emotions there, for they loved one another like brothers and shared life’s most intimate details. They knew the names of each one’s family or pets; who had trouble getting a girlfriend and whose girlfriend dyed her hair. They knew each other’s dreams and aspirations. But in the bustle of the hospital ward the Diggers held back their emotions until they could be alone. I felt helplessly inadequate. I had no soothing words of comfort.

Next morning I just touched the arm of each man as I moved around, handing each one toiletry articles and cigarettes. “Would you like me to send a message home? What can I do for you? I tried to be a calm, steady presence at the side of those who were suffering. I sent 40 army signals to the wounded’s next of kin and other special loved ones that day. The non-physically wounded men of Delta Company, men such as Alan Fraser, forever changed, went to the Rest and Convalescent centre in Vung Tau for a few days to unwind. Few of us saw them. They kept very much to themselves. The events of August 18 were so appalling the men didn’t want to talk about them to anyone but their mates. They knew that for each of them the war would continue.  Again and again they would see their mates die. As Alan Fraser, a thoughtful and reserved man, confided: “Every time we were in another action there was the concern in the back of your mind that this may be another like Long Tan. These thoughts never leave you.” Yet he says he never gave a thought to the fact he could be killed in any action, as he was there to follow orders and get on with the job. At the 36th, when they thought no one was looking, some patients cried into their pillows for days, some for as long as three weeks. Yet these ordinary men who had acted extraordinarily bravely in the face of overwhelming adversity, never lost their hope and humour that so help a person survive.

There is a well-known story of the Long Tan wounded – in pyjamas, on crutches or in wheelchairs, some with IV bottles attached to their arms – absconding from the 36th to a nearby American club to get on the grog. The plan was temporarily derailed when the patients were asked to leave the club, as they were not properly dressed. With the scavenging resourcefulness of the Aussie Digger, they soon returned carrying enough pieces of uniform to secure everyone admission. The men proceeded to put away as many drinks as possible until they were forcibly returned to the 36th under Military Police escort.

What did those men of Long Tan, and in fact all those brave soldiers who did their year in Vietnam, teach me?  That Vietnam never leaves those who were there.  I discovered the depths and heights in the human soul; the richness of love of my fellow man; and I was given the opportunity to witness countless acts of ultimate human decency that have enriched, ennobled and enlivened me for the rest of my life.

At age 76, I have lived a full life, yet so many of the handsome, fit, in the prime of their lives Diggers I knew in Vietnam, never had the chance to marry, have children and grandchildren. At the Long Tan Cross I will remember and pray, with a heart full of love and deep sadness, for ALL the men of Delta Company 6RAR, and the countless ranks of men and women who still today defend the freedom that so many Australians ignorantly take as their right. At Long Tan also, I will not forget the many young wounded who returned from Vietnam to a lifetime of pain. Their constant lot is to go the extra mile to live a normal life. They inspirationally battle on bravely as they did so heroically at Long Tan, one moment at a time.

Lest We Forget.

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With Major Harry Smith MC and Win at 6 RAR Delta Company’s party on its last night in Vietnam. Photo courtesy Denis Gibbons.

 


 

Jean Debelle was born in Port Pirie, South Australia in 1940. After completing her schooling in 1957 Jean trained and worked as a young journalist at the Advertiser before making the decision to volunteer for the Australian Red Cross so she could see the war in Vietnam for herself. This decision took her to Phuoc Toy Province in 1966. Jean was on the ground at the Australian Logistic Support Group at Vung Tau during the Battle of Long Tan. There were no Australian Army nurses present at the time and Jean helped care for the sick and wounded involved in the battle.The experience never left her, and ultimately led Jean to write her book “Write Home for Me” (2006), which continues to be a top seller. After her year in Vietnam, Jean travelled to the United States where she lived and worked in journalism in Manhattan, New York for thirty years. There she met and married Jack Lamensdorf before deciding to return to Adelaide following his death. In Adelaide Jean met Colin Matthews whom she later married. Jean marches with 2nd Field Ambulance each Anzac Day and volunteers to help Vietnam Veterans. Jean is attending the 50th Anniversary Commemorations of the Battle of Long Tan in Vietnam today.