Vietnam’s Aussie battlefields …

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A memorial service at the Long Tan battlefield with Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours. Pics Sarah Nicholson

NEVER have the notes of the Last Post seemed more significant than at this moment.

I’m standing in a nondescript corner of southern Vietnam, deep inside a rubber plantation that looks like all the others carpeting this region of Southeast Asia. The bugle call that marks the end of day and commemorates Australia’s fallen servicemen and women echoes across the land where 18 soldiers died on an August day in 1966.

This is Long Tan, a plot that is as much a part of Australian military history as Anzac Cove and the Kokoda Track, and there is nothing special about this day other than the fact 100 Australian and New Zealand travellers have ventured into what was our soldiers’ area of operations during the Vietnam war.

With an affable group of veterans, their families, retired military men and women, and people simply interested in this chapter of history, I am visiting the places where another generation of Anzacs served between July 1966 and December 1972.

It’s day five of our Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours’ pilgrimage and, after starting our morning visiting the former Australian base at Nui Dat, where regiments of soldiers lived during their time “in country”, we drift into the rubber plantation near the hamlet of Long Tan for an informal service at the Long Tan Cross.

We have more than two dozen veterans in the group and a gaggle take part in the service by reading prayers, sharing memories and laying wreaths before the ceremony concludes with the Last Post filling the air on this humid afternoon.

I studied Australian history at university and have been to battlefields across the globe, from Turkey and northern France to the Solomon Islands and South Korea, but this is the first time I’ve stood with veterans while the military’s ode to the fallen plays in the spot diggers fought and died far from home. My eyes begin to fill and, embarrassed by the unexpected emotion, I turn my back on the group gathered around the lonely white cross and peer across this battleground, roughly the size of a football field.

This is the place where 18 young men died — many with fingers on triggers still facing the enemy — and dozens of others from infantry, aviation, cavalry and artillery units fought furiously for hours to bring those still breathing back to base. Long Tan doesn’t look like it did in 1966; the old rubber trees were recently removed and new plants set in long lines with tapioca growing until the crop is mature enough to produce the valuable white liquid. This means we get a better picture of the battle when guide Gary McKay provides a briefing.

The author and Vietnam vet describes events before, during and after the August 18 “contact” by pointing out landmarks. Then a member of the group who was in the bush that day shares his account of the hours leading up to the exchange of fire. This collaboration between tour guide and travelling veterans is typical of the trip, with Gary providing an orientation at every location before someone who served at that spot — doctor, nurse, infantryman, support soldier — shares priceless memories.

We visit the site of the Australian support facility at nearby Vung Tau on day four, after making the voyage from Ho Chi Minh City by hydrofoil. While standing on a hill above the slight rise where the Australian hospital once stood, we listen to a pathologist and ward nurse who were part of the medical unit caring for sick and wounded soldiers.

When we walk into the village of Binh Ba, site of Australia’s most significant tank battle in Vietnam, we hear from a digger about the day he was wounded nearby. On the afternoon we visit Courtenay Rubber Plantation, an officer and his sergeant talk about a terrifying night endured near where we are standing.

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The Courtenay Rubber Plantation. Pic Sarah Nicholson

I share meals with veterans and hear stories about their war, recollections that include details that can’t be gleaned from history books. Gary is always on hand to fill in the blanks or explain finer points that put a memory into perspective.

But our itinerary is about more than Vung Tau, Nui Dat, Long Tan, Binh Ba, the Courtenay Rubber Plantation, the Long Hai hills, the Long Green, and the Horseshoe. Outings include meals in local restaurants and day trips from Ho Chi Minh City.

The Long Green. Pic Sarah Nicholson

On our first day, Gary leads a tour around central Ho Chi Minh City, visiting Reunification Palace and Notre Dame Cathedral before the War Remnants Museum, while our second day is an expedition to rural Cu Chi to see the subterranean complex of tunnels Viet Cong soldiers occupied for years during the conflict.

A jaunt to the Mekong Delta comes on our last full day and we explore canals by sampan, visit a farm where coconut candy and rice paper are made, and snack on fruit grown in this food bowl.

While my tour marks the 50th anniversary of Australia committing militarily to Vietnam in large numbers, the trip planned this year marks 50 years since the Battle of Long Tan with a visit to the site scheduled around the time the fighting took place. The next time I hear the Last Post I will remember that moment in a rubber plantation 85km from Ho Chi Minh City and no doubt feel goose bumps rise as I remember how the bugle notes echoed around a place stained with Australian blood.

Sarah Nicholson was a guest of Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours.

Checklist:

Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours has a 10-day Long Tan 50th Anniversary Commemoration Tour ex Ho Chi Minh City on August 15; included are stops in Vung Tau, Hoi An, Ha Long Bay and Hanoi. More: battlefields.com.au.

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THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AUSTRALIAN ON SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 2016

Click here to see the story online

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