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Thursday 10 May, 2018
Premier of South Australia
The Hon. S.S. MARSHALL (Dunstan—Premier) (14:01): I seek leave to make a ministerial statement.
The Hon. S.S. MARSHALL: This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, a significant event in the Vietnam War. This Saturday morning, 12 May 2018, the members for Gibson, Light and Florey will be joining me at 10am on the Torrens Parade Ground, in front of our Vietnam War Memorial, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battles for Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral. I believe it is important that this house understands why this commemoration is significant, and I will now refer to the official record of what happened.
Fire support bases were used in the Vietnam War to provide flexible defended locations for artillery and mortars to support infantry, armoured and cavalry units. During the Tet Offensive launched by North Vietnamese forces in 1968, the 1st Australian Task Force deployed two infantry battalions, three artillery batteries and support units 45 kilometres north of Saigon and 60 kilometres north-west of the Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat, to establish fire support bases astride enemy infiltration routes to Saigon.
On 12 May 1968, Australian forces landed to establish Fire Support Base Coral. An ominous warning was given to several Australians by the commander of the American company providing initial protection at the landing zone: ‘You won’t need to find Charlie,’ the commander said before departing, ‘They’ll come looking for you.’
The Australian forces established their positions during the day, but by nightfall Fire Support Base Coral’s defences were only partially completed, leaving the troops dangerously exposed to attack. At the same time, hundreds of enemy soldiers had formed up to the north-east of the base and launched a series of battalion-sized assaults at 3am on 13 May following a heavy artillery bombardment.
The battle was fierce, with genuine close-quarter fighting and guns firing Splintex rounds over open sights. At one point, an infantry commander ordered his company to fix bayonets. The North Vietnamese managed to penetrate the Australian perimeter, temporarily capturing a forward-gun position and overrunning the mortar position before being repulsed by Australian forces. The Australians held their position, but it was a near-run thing. The North Vietnamese attack on Fire Support Base Coral had been the most sustained ground attack on an Australian position since the Second World War.
Operations continued in the area for almost four weeks as the Australians fought some of the most sustained battles of the Vietnam War. Further actions around Coral and the nearby Fire Support Base Balmoral accounted for over 300 enemy soldiers killed. A total of 26 Australian soldiers died and over 100 were wounded. The units involved were later awarded one of the five battle honours approved for the Vietnam War. The honour title ‘Coral’ was also awarded to 102nd Field Battery and 34 decorations were awarded to individual soldiers for their actions.
Our Governor, His Excellency the Hon. Hieu Van Le AC, was a 14-year-old boy during the battle and has previously described the efforts of our troops, saying:
The Battle of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral, in 1968, has gone down in history as one of the most significant battles Australian servicemen fought in the Vietnam War…
While I was barely 14, many of the Australian diggers who fought in this battle were not much older. Many of them were only 19 and 20.
No words can adequately express the sorrow I feel for those Australian heroes who never returned home.
Those brave young men may be gone forever. But they will never be gone from our hearts and memories.
A predecessor of His Excellency was the then Colonel Donald Dunstan. Lieutenant General Sir Donald Dunstan AC KBE CB, as he later became, remained South Australia’s longest serving governor, having held the office for more than eight years, between April 1982 and February 1991.
During the Battle for Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral, Colonel Dunstan took over as Commander of the 1st Australian Task Force. It is said that when he took charge at Fire Support Base Coral he commanded with few words and a winning smile. He quickly endeared himself to his troops by abandoning the dry policy and ordering crates of beer. Colonel Dunstan drew on his World War II experience in the Bougainville campaign against the Japanese in 1945 to utilise Centurion tanks at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral. For his service in the battle, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1969.
I commend the Vietnam Veterans Federation for arranging this Saturday’s service of commemoration, and I encourage South Australians to attend. The Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson AO, will give the keynote address on what will be a moving day for our Vietnam veterans, their South Vietnamese comrades who have settled in South Australia and their families. On Saturday, we will pause to reflect again on the service of our Vietnam veterans, in particular, the 26 young men who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Battles for Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral.
Three of these men are buried at the Centennial Park Cemetery. Sergeant Peter Lewis, from Poochera, Streaky Bay; Private Allan Cooper from Rose Park; and Private William Thomas, a national serviceman from Adelaide, served with the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment that was barracked at Woodside before deployment. Their service and their sacrifice will never be forgotten. More than 60,000 Australian served in Vietnam; 520 died and more than 3,000 were wounded. We honour all who served in this conflict—those who did not return, those who returned wounded and those who have since died. We will remember them.