Have you heard of the Battle of Long Tan? If it sounds familiar, that’s probably because of its significance in Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
On 18 August it will be 50 years since the Battle of Long Tan. There will be military commemorations around the country to mark the anniversary and remember the 18 Australian soldiers who died and 24 who were wounded in the bloody ambush.
One of the fallen was the loveable larrikin, Private Paul Large, from the New South Wales town of Coolah. ‘Largie’, as he was known to everyone in town, was the cherished baby brother to five sisters.
One of those sisters is Robin Wesley, maternal grandmother of Defence Health employee, Melissa Greenhill.
“He was such a popular boy,” Robin reminisces. “And you can imagine how much we girls spoilt him.”
Paul was conscripted to the Army and left Australia for Vietnam on his 21st birthday. “He was just a young country boy, full of life and laughter,” says Robin.
Paul was good with a rifle. He’d had plenty of practice shooting roos and rabbits in the hills behind Coolah as a teenager. So it was probably inevitable he’d be up front in the jungles of Vietnam.
On 18 August 1966, just ten weeks after arriving in Vietnam, Paul and the 108-strong D Company was attacked by a Viet Cong and North Vietnamese force of more than 2000. The battle lasted three hours, with D Company receiving an ammunition resupply from RAAF helicopters, artillery assistance and final reinforcement from another rifle company.
The Australians prevailed. But sadly, Robin’s brother Paul did not. He was killed in the final moments of the battle before the enemy retreated. His body was returned to his family for a hero’s burial in Coolah.
Every year since then, 18 August has been a dark day for the Large family. “I still remember the telegram arriving at home that day,” says Robin. “It was from Malcolm Fraser, who was the Army Minister at the time.”
“Now 50 years later there is still so much interest in Paul,” says Robin. “Hardly a month goes by without someone wanting to know more about him.”
“This year I’ll be remembering him at the Veterans Retreat on the Roper River in the Northern Territory. It’s always an emotional day for us,” she says.
Paul’s D Company became the second unit in Australian military history to be awarded a United States Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism in action. The Battle of Long Tan was the largest loss of Australian soldiers in a single battle during the Vietnam conflict.
Our military involvement in the Vietnam War was from August, 1962 until January, 1973. Fifty thousand Australians took part and 520 lost their lives. A total of 23 young men like Paul Large were conscripted from Coolah and served in the war.