UPDATE: Long Tan - Gympie men recall connection to history
A WARTIME mixture of loyalty and defiance helped two Gympie men earn the gallantry medals they are still not allowed to wear, even 52 years after the decisive Battle of Long Tan, on August 18, 1966.
It is a date now commemorated as Vietnam Veterans Day and it marks the day 108 Australian troops defeated 3500 battle hardened North Vietnam Army regulars.
Australian forces were still digging in at Nui Dat, Mr Collins recalls, when the North Vietnamese closed in, their mission to wipe out all the Australians on the new base, about 5km away.
THE killing ground of Long Tan wore a white shroud when Steve Raabe flew low over it, soon after the Battle of Long Tan.
As the helicopter he was repairing made its way back to base, Mr Raabe realised what he was seeing as he looked down on the Michelin rubber plantation that will always symbolise the Vietnam War.
An RAAF airborne radio technician, Mr Raabe was soon to be called back to his base on the Malayan peninsula for compassionate reasons.
The battlefield was covered by white fragments of rubber tree timber, blown to pieces by bullets and artillery in some of the most ferocious fighting of the Vietnam War.
"It looked like it had a white sheet on,” Mr Raabe said this week.
On his return journey by Hercules air transport, there was a stop in Saigon.
"They lowered the tail ramp on the Hercules and a low loader came in.
"It hit me like a bomb. The vehicle was loaded with aluminium caskets.”
Each casket carried the body of a dead Australian soldier, killed at Long Tan.
Mr Raabe made sure they were strapped respectfully in the aircraft, with twists removed and the strapping tensioned down, neat and secure.
"Then we transported them with as much dignity as we could,” he said.
The proximity of war hit home as the plane was about to take off.
"There was a skirmish of some kind nearby,” he said.
The Hercules had to wait, all four engines running, while the base's fighter aircraft - hugely expensive and critically important - took priority, getting airborne as quickly as possible to escape any bombardment.
"They were on full afterburner, taking off two at a time, with another two about 40m behind, also taking off.”
Eventually, the Hercules was allowed runway access and took off.
His mate, David Collins, also now of Gympie, was among the helicopter airmen who helped make victory possible, delivering ammunition to the embattled heroes of Long Tan.
Without them and a certain amount of defiance, Mr Raabe would have had a lot more bodies to escort.
MUSIC stars of the 1960s, Little Pattie and Col Joy had never had percussion like it, as fighting broke out during their concert for the troops at Nui Dat.
Helicopter crewman David Collins, based at Vung Tau air base, near the coast, was part of the crew that ferried in the performers and delivered the mail.
The chopper he was on has been on display at Caloundra RSL for years but is currently on assignment to the Gold Coast, where it is a prop for a movie being made about the Battle of Long Tan, by Red Dawn Productions, the people who made Red Dog.
"We were assigned to supply the Army, especially the SAS, with everything they needed, sometimes dropping troops in to secret locations,” he said.
"We'd taken in Little Pattie and Col Joy and other performers for the show.
"We waited on the pad waiting to return the concert party to Vung Tau. We missed the concert because we had to stay with our choppers.
"We could occasionally hear some of the music. Around us were leaden monsoonal skies and heavy rain.
"Then we heard the odd 'pop' or 'pop-pop' and realised it was gunfire.
"We turned on the Army radio, we had nothing else to do.
"We learned the battle had started, 5000m away.
"The Army was involved in hand to hand fighting. The North Vietnamese were getting pretty close.
"The Army called for artillery. which was initially denied.
"Army brass thought it was a feint and that the real attack would be from elsewhere - and they wanted to keep their powder dry.
"Then Major Harry Smith, CO of the patrol, told them to "give me some artillery or kiss your troops good-bye.'
"Shortly, the guns began to fire. Then they said they were nearly out of ammunition. They were within 50m of the North Vietnamese and they were getting surrounded.
"My skipper said, 'We'll fly it in.'
"The Army said no: 'Those assets are not getting airborne, they're staying on the ground.
"Frank Riley, who was one of us from the RAAF, turned to the Army brass and said the choppers were an air force asset. 'I'm the detachment commander here and I'll decide what those aircraft do.'
"We arranged for the Army to load the ammo and they gave us a 10-minute break in the artillery.
"By the time we loaded, the monsoon was absolutely bucketing and it was such a high wind it was blowing people sideways.
"We waddled into the air. We were blown about like a leaf in a storm and you couldn't see the hand in front of your face.
"The pilot navigated by looking through the window in the floor, barely able to see the ground.”
With a smoke grenade showing the troops' location, the two chopper crews banked their machines and pushed the ammunition out.
"As we landed, the artillery started up again. They stuck to the 10 minutes.”
Then they went back again to pick up the wounded and the bodies.
It was a moment Mr Collins describes as "extremely decisive and we saved the lives of some 2000 Army personnel,.
"Frank Riley got a Distinguished Flying Cross and we were awarded the Cross of Gallantry, from the South Vietnamese Government.
"We're not allowed to wear it because the South Vietnamese Government no longer exists and we can only wear a citation medal representing it with permission from the Governor-General.”
But they will be wearing their citations when Vietnam Veterans Day is commemorated at Standown Park from 3pm and Sunday from 3pm in Memorial Park in Gympie.
Mr Collins comments:
"There seems to be a bit of heat about Arthur's story in Saturday's GT. The RSL has phoned me to voice their feelings.
While I gave Arthur all the information during our interview, he has missed out the most important part of the story.
The tenacity and bravery of the soldiers of D Company, 6 Royal Australian Regiment. Their "never surrender" attitude can never be understated.
The Air Force's role, while crucial, was not the main story.
The "double" interview with Steve Raabe might have led to some of the confusion. That was a story about two mates who had two different stories to tell.
Major (now Lt. Colonel) Harry Smith has acknowledged the role our choppers played, it's significance no where matches the heroism of those troops.
While I am proud of the part we played, it was only a part of the history that is Long Tan.
Note: the article above in no way purports to be the full story of the Battle of Long Tan. It is merely the story of two Gympie men and their connection to this important part of Australian history.
The Gympie Times apologises for any misunderstanding and has incorporated Mr Raabe's corrections in this version of the story.