Vietnam War hero passes away at 90

August 22, 2023 11:33 am in by

One of the leading figures in Australian military history and Vietnam War hero has died two days after commemorations for the battle he fought in.

Lieutenant-Colonel Harry Smith, from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, passed away last Sunday aged 90.

Lt-Col Smith was the commander of the 105 Australian soldiers in Delta Company, 6th Royal Australian Regiment and three New Zealanders who fought in the Battle of Long Tan on August 18, 1966.

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Lt Col Harry Smith with an enemy machine gun captured at Long Tan. (AWM)

Vastly outnumbered by North Vietnamese regular army units, D-Company fought for four hours in monsoon rain in the Long Tan rubber plantation before finally defeating the enemy.

18 Australians died in the battle, many of them young National Servicemen who were conscripted into the army.

To this day Lt-Colonel Smith’s men credit him for their survival in what has become the iconic Australian engagement of the Vietnam War.

Lt-Col Smith had previously been in charge of the Commandos in Sydney and before leaving for Vietnam he pushed his D-Company soldiers to be the best in the regiment.

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His men still believe without his leadership and skills they would have likely all been wiped out in the rubber plantation 57 years ago.

Bob Buick, who lives on the Sunshine Coast, fought at Long Tan and said Lt-Col Smith trained his men to be the best.

Lt-Col Harry Smith followed by Warrant Officer Jack Kirby and Sergeant Bob Buick. (AWM)

Mr Buick doesn’t believe any other Australian unit would have been able to win the battle as they were not trained as well as D-Company and didn’t have a leader like Lt-Col Smith.

Mr Buick was a Sergeant in 1966 and when 11 Platoon Commander Gordon Sharp was killed during the battle he took charge.

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He said Lt-Col Smith was the “only commander I really trusted” during his 16 years in the army.

“He was a wonderful man,” Mr Buick said.

Harry Smith said there should have been at least six Victoria Crosses awarded for gallantry for his men’s actions at Long Tan but not one was handed out.

Lt-Col Harry Smith with fellow Long Tan veteran Bill “Yank” Akel

This was despite his recommendation that Warrant Officer Jack Kirby receive one for his action in redistributing ammunition dropped by two helicopters during the battle.

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He also recommended awards for a number of his men but few were handed out, infuriating him.

When the Secrecy Act surrounding Long Tan expired in 1996, it turned out Lt-Col Smith’s superior officers, who didn’t take part in the action, awarded themselves the highest honours while downgrading the medals he’d asked be given to his men.

This began a two decade fight by him, with the help of some of his men, to have the correct medals reinstated.

In 2008, after years of campaigning, Lt Col Smith’s Military Cross was upgraded to a Star of Gallantry and several of his soldiers also received upgrades.

It wasn’t until a review in 2016 that the last of his men received the medals he had recommended 50 years earlier.

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His work on their behalf further endeared him to his Long Tan soldiers.

Lt-Col Harry Smith (c) with (l-r) fellow Long Tan veterans Barry Vasella, Bill Akel, Laurie Drinkwater & Bill Roche.

Bob Buick worked with Lt-Col Smith in campaigning for the medals and he said his former commander was egotistical and if he didn’t get what he wanted he would fight for 50 years to get it.

In his book published in 2015, titled “Long Tan: The Start of a Lifelong Battle” Lt-Col Smith reflected on his time battling to get the medals.

Mr Buick said “He was a no frills man, he knew exactly what he wanted, he had excellent leadership and his enthusiasm and his fairness was his trademark and that was proven over the years when he kept on fighting for the guys over the years with the honours and awards.”

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“It’s the most awarded company in modern military history and is due down to Harry and his leadership and I suppose to put it not too badly and the love of his men for him and that’s the way you have got to think of Harry you know,” Mr Buick said.

Lt-Col Smith’s public funeral is on Wednesday August 30 at Gregson and Weight on Wises Road in North Buderim.

(l-r) Bill Roche, Bruce Atkinson & Lt-Col Harry Smith on the set of the 2019 movie Long Tan: Danger Close.