On August 18, 1971 then prime minister William McMahon announced the final withdrawal of Australian combat troops from Vietnam.
It was five years to the day after Australian soldiers fought a battle in a rubber plantation at Long Tan, Phuoc Tuy province South Vietnam.
That battle has become the symbolic Australian event of our 10-year involvement in that war, from the deployment of the Australian Army Training Team in 1962 to the withdrawal of the remaining elements of that unit in February 1973.
In 1971 McMahon simultaneously announced a 4000-person reduction in the Australian Army strength to 40,000.
That reduction was reflected in the numbers of Australian 20-year-olds conscripted until the newly elected Gough Whitlam totally scrapped the national service scheme in December 1972.
Just over three years later, five days after Anzac Day 1975, the last Americans ignominiously withdrew from Saigon as North Vietnamese regular forces occupied the South’s capital.
RAAF C130 aircraft, air defence guards and a Butterworth-based company of 2/4RAR were despatched to evacuate Australian diplomatic and government staff, ultimately an exercise in pure farce.
With the force already inbound, Whitlam refused to let any army Diggers land in the mayhem at Tan son Nhut, not from security concerns but in an act of pure political and personal bastardry.
Initially, RAAF ADG sent to assist evacuate Australia’s diplomatic mission were left behind when the ambassador insisted on bringing the embassy limousine.
They had to be rescued before also being evacuated.
The aircraft left with empty seats, abandoning loyal Vietnamese to re-education camps and worse When foreign minister Don Willesee requested support for some of those allies, Whitlam refused, infamously declaring he was “not having those f—ing Vietnamese Balts coming into the country with their religious and political bias against us!”
Whitlam’s perfidy to former loyal wartime allies had one more act to play before he was voted from office in December 1975.
Declaring Indonesia’s intentions to annex East Timor as “no more than an accident of Western colonial history”, he gave tacit approval to president Suharto for the invasion.
Twice in one year ADF personal watched helplessly as former allies were abandoned to fates they didn’t deserve and were powerless to prevent.
August 18, 2021, is a date that will now resonate with Australian veterans of another war, frustrated how their Afghan colleagues have been shamelessly abandoned.
Their fate seems as final as our withdrawal.
Ross Eastgate OAM is a graduate of the Royal Military College Duntroon and military historian who writes a weekly column on defence issues and blogs at Targets Down. This piece is reproduced with permission of The Townsville Bulletin, where an earlier version appeared.
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