The Vietnam War
1962 – 1975
Men awarded the Victoria Cross: 4
Australian support for South Vietnam in the early 1960s was in keeping with the policies of other nations to stem the spread of communism in Europe and Asia. In 1961 and 1962 Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s leader, repeatedly requested security assistance. Australia responded with 30 military advisers. Their arrival in South Vietnam in July 1962 was the beginning of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
In August 1964 the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) also sent a flight of Caribou transports to the port town of Vung Tau. By early 1965, when it had become clear that South Vietnam could not stave off the communist insurgents and the North Vietnamese for more than a few months, the US commenced a major escalation of the war. By the end of the year it had committed 200,000 troops to the conflict.
As part of the build-up, the US government requested support from other countries. The Australian government dispatched the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) in June 1965 to serve alongside the US 173rd Airborne Brigade in Bien Hoa province.
In March 1966 the government announced the dispatch of a taskforce to replace 1RAR, consisting of two battalions and support services (including a RAAF squadron of Iroquois helicopters), to be based at Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy province. Unlike 1RAR, the taskforce was assigned its own area of operations and included conscripts who had been called up under the National Service Scheme, introduced in 1964.
All nine RAR battalions served in the taskforce at one time or another – at the height of Australian involvement it numbered some 8,500 troops. A third RAAF squadron (of Canberra jet bombers) was also committed in 1967 and destroyers of the Royal Australian Navy joined US patrols off the North Vietnamese coast. The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) also contributed a clearance diving team and a helicopter detachment that operated with the US Army from October 1967.
In August 1966 a company of 6RAR was engaged in one of Australia’s heaviest actions of the war, near Long Tan. After three hours of fierce fighting, during which it seemed the Australian forces would be overrun by the enemy’s greater numbers, the Viet Cong withdrew, leaving behind 245 dead and carrying away many more casualties. 18 Australians were killed and 24 wounded. The battle eliminated communist dominance over the province.
1968 began with a major offensive by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, launched during the Vietnamese lunar new year holiday period, known as “Tet”. Not only the timing but the scale of the offensive came as a complete surprise, taking in cities, towns, and military installations in South Vietnam. While the “Tet Offensive” ultimately ended in military defeat for the communists, it was propaganda victory. US military planners began to question if a decisive victory could ever be achieved and the offensive stimulated the US public opposition to the war. For Australian troops, the effects of the offensive were felt around their base at Nui Dat, where a Viet Cong attack on targets around Baria, the provincial capital, was repulsed with few casualties.
By 1969 anti-war protests were gathering momentum in Australia. Opposition to conscription mounted, as more people came to believe the war could not be won. A “don’t register” campaign to dissuade young men from registering for conscription gained increasing support and some of the protests grew violent. The US government began to implement a policy of “Vietnamisation’, the term coined for a gradual withdrawal of US forces that would leave the war in the hands of the South Vietnamese.
At the end of April 1970 US and South Vietnamese troops were ordered to cross the border into Cambodia. While the invasion succeeded in capturing large quantities of North Vietnamese arms, destroying bunkers and sanctuaries, and killing enemy soldiers, it ultimately proved disastrous. By bringing combat into Cambodia, the invasion drove many people to join the underground opposition, the Khmer Rouge, irreparably weakening the Cambodian government.
When the Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975 it imposed a cruel and repressive regime that killed several million Cambodians and left the country with internal conflict that continues today. The extension of the war into a sovereign state, formally neutral, inflamed anti-war sentiment in the United States and provided the impetus for further anti-war demonstrations in Australia. In the well-known Moratoriums of 1970, more than 200,000 people gathered to protest against the war, in cities and towns throughout the country.
By late 1970 Australia had also begun to wind down its military effort in Vietnam. The 8th Battalion departed in November but, to make up for the decrease in troop numbers, strength was increased and its efforts, like those of the taskforce, became concentrated in Phuoc Tuy province. The withdrawal of troops and all air units continued throughout 1971 – the last battalion left Nui Dat on 7 November, while a handful of advisers remained in Vietnam the following year.
In December 1972 they became the last Australian troops to come home, with their unit having seen continuous service in South Vietnam for ten and a half years. Australia’s participation in the war was formally declared at an end when the Governor-General issued a proclamation on 11 January 1973. The only combat troops remaining in Vietnam were a platoon guarding the Australian embassy in Saigon, which was withdrawn in June 1973.
In early 1975 the communists launched a major offensive in the north of South Vietnam, resulting in the fall of Saigon on 30 April. In the previous month a RAAF detachment of 7-8 Hercules transports flew humanitarian missions to aid civilian refugees displaced by the fighting and carried out the evacuation of Vietnamese orphans (Operation Babylift), before finally taking out embassy staff on 25 April.
50,000 Australians, including ground troops, air force and navy personnel, served in Vietnam. 520 died as a result of the war and almost 2,400 were wounded. The war was the cause of the greatest social and political dissent in Australia since the conscription referendums of WWI. Many draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and protesters were fined or gaoled, while soldiers met a hostile reception on their return home.