Bill Akell shares his Long Tan story with Justin Smith
When Bill Akell talks about something awful, he lets his sentences trail off, and silence fills the bits too terrible to say.
For a man who survived the Battle of Long Tan, there’s plenty of silence.
He saw his own death coming at 19.
He’d been horizontal behind the unimpressive protection of a rubber plant for hours.
The fat rain pushed down, and the mud kicked up into his face.
Bill’s luck and training had got him this far, but now there were more shots coming at him than going the other way.
Strange to himself, he wasn’t scared, and there were no frantic thoughts of jumping and running.
But he was about to die, despite every effort.
He looked over at his mate Neil Rankin. Like good comrades, there are a thousand words are in the gentle twist of a face.
Both said ‘Well this is it, mate. Good job, but I think we’re buggered here’.
In 1966, Australia increased its commitment to the war in Vietnam.
Private Bill Akell had already been in the Australian Army for a couple of years.
He was as Aussie as any, but it was decided his nickname was ‘Yank’ because of the country of his birth.
For Bill’s mates, there was still some affection in the word, even while the Americans pulled them into a sweaty war.
Bill’s dad was a savvy United States Air Force man, and gave Bill his blessing to join at 17, but wanted him to get a trade, not just give them a shoulder to sling a rifle.
He told his son computers were going to be big one day, so he should get into communications and electronics.
The Army taught him to be a signalman, and he taught himself how to smoke and act like a digger.
Two years later, he was operating radios for the 6RAR at Nui Dat base in South Vietnam.
And it would be Bill and his chunky army radio that would provide one of the great acts of courage at Long Tan.
On August 18, Major Harry Smith lead Delta Company out of the base for a three-day patrol.
The Viet Cong had put themselves within mortar range of Australia’s Nui Dat Base, and had been letting them fly.
Delta’s job was to go get them.
The bright and compact pop star, Little Pattie, was at the base with Col Joye and his band to give the regiment a show.
The Joye Boys liked their amps turned up, and D Company could hear every note as they moved away from the base.
Later, after the battle started, the entertainers were evacuated.
Little Pattie still remembers the orange flashes of the rifles while the chopper took her away.
She had a great affection for the men, and went to see the wounded in the hospital the next day.
There’d been a lot of ‘shoot an scoot’ recently – small contact with the VC before they’d scatter into the green.
It was unsatisfying for soldiers just hoping to fight and get home.
Frustrated with missing the concert for little or no action, Delta kept moving.
‘We never thought we’d come across something like Long Tan,’ says Bill.
The rubber trees of the plantation grew in an orderly, agricultural fashion – a contrast to the chaos that was about to change the life of every man there.
A company HQ was set up and Bill stayed there to work the radio, while platoons 10, 11 and 12 moved out.
When contact was made and the intensity of the first shots blasted, the reality was soon clear – there would be a ‘shoot’ but there was no ‘scoot’.
The enemy was plentiful and motivated.
And Harry Smith soon knew that whoever was commanding on the other side of the plantation had far more men than he did.
Delta’s good training made them automatic, and the leadership of Smith controlled confusion.
But it got very brutal quickly as they started to count heavy casualties.
Company Sergeant-Major Jack Kirby, found a dip in the ground to bring wounded.
Kirby was a thick-set bear of the man who was affectionately respected by his men before Long Tan, and idolised afterwards.
He spent the battle moving through his soldiers – rescuing the wounded (carrying one over each shoulder), cracking open ammo containers with his bayonet, chirping out some well-timed jokes, and rushing a machine gun crew – killing them and seizing the weapon.
At HQ, the noises of war spat in the distance.
Private Akell worked the radio for Smith and took his orders as they came, until they suddenly lost communication with 10 platoon.
It wasn’t until 10’s signalman turned up wounded – with a bullet going through his shoulder and into his radio – that they knew why.
Getting another radio to 10 became crucial.
Bill Akell, not waiting for an order, took off his own radio and fiddled to set the frequency right.
He looked out through the rubber where his comrade had just come.
He didn’t want permission, but he yelled his plan to Kirby.
‘Go, go, go,’ Kirby yelled back.
With a light Owen gun over his right shoulder and the radio in his left, Bill took off.
Bouncing on his 19-year-old legs, he was alone and running into the battle.
He didn’t know how far he’d have to go, and was guessing at the direction.
He only knew 11 was to the right and 10 was to the left. The sounds would have to guide him.
Until that moment, he’d been spared the need to kill.
After a couple of years in the army, he’d cleaned and loaded his gun many times, he’d shouldered it at drills and practiced at the range.
Now he had to use it.
Two VC, only 10 metres away rushed at him, firing shots.
Like most meetings of enemies – from all wars – we’ll never know who got the biggest surprise.
The VC missed, and he fired back dropping them both.
Their falling bodies were enough to know he killed them.
And he didn’t have time to contemplate their histories or futures, or why they didn’t kill him first.
He’d have years to think about it.
‘I just happened to be lucky enough to…’ he says now, letting the awful bit go unspoken.
When he got to 10 platoon they were truly into their battle, and he needed to find its commander Geoff Kendall.
Like a school boy bursting with the right answer, Bill called out ‘Mr Kendall! Mr Kendall!’
He was far from a boy now, there had just been an awful piece of growing up about 20 metres back.
He handed over the radio, and was now part of 10 platoon.
He covered behind a lean rubber plant and started shooting back.
The rain started, and in a situation more comedy than military, the Australian’s dark green uniforms went black with the wet – the same colour as the Viet Cong uniform.
They couldn’t see, and had two different blacks coming at them.
The black of someone trying to kill them, and the black of a wounded Australian trying to get back to safety.
They waited to make out the faces.
The wit of Jack Kirby gave them instruction – ‘if you don’t know him, shoot him son.’
Three hours into the fight, the ammunition was about to run out, a third of Delta Company had been killed or wounded, and the enemy was still fresh and vast.
The Viet Cong battle bugles started to rise and the notes faded out across the plantation.
They were lining up for victory and a final attack on Delta Company.
Bill and Neil Rankin gave each other the look.
This was how death would come for them.
Then the sound of Australian armoured personnel carriers came from behind, blasting their heavy machine guns at the VC.
‘It was crazy,’ says Bill.
‘Everybody just stood up and cheered. We still could have got shot, but we cheered ‘thank God for that!’
The Battle of Long Tan ended, and became one of our great victories.
There were wounded to get out of there, and the next morning the collected the bodies of the Australians killed.
Bill Akell had some morbid pride in the way they were found – facing forward and shot through the head.
They hadn’t moved back one inch from the fight.
The teenager radio operator was one of the heroes of the Long Tan, but he’d never got an Australian medal for what he did.
In a decision that will never be fully understood, a quota system of medals had been set – even before one soldier left for South East Asia.
No matter who risked what, only a small and set number of medals were to be handed out.
A kind judge would say the minds at the Imperial War Office were so well tuned, they knew the exact level of bravery before a battle was even fought.
At least the system was good to the top brass.
They got their medals, but it flowed down to a trickle from there.
Straight after the battle, Harry Smith recommended Bill for the Military Medal – today it’s known as the Medal for Gallantry.
He knew how vital and brave his actions were.
Without the reconnection to 10 platoon, the outcome of the battle could have been very different.
But up the line, it didn’t fit the quota, and his medal was downgraded to a Mention in Dispatches, something also given to cooks for their good work in the officers’ mess.
Jack Kirby was recommended for the Victoria Cross, but it didn’t fit the quota either.
Kirby was killed by ‘friendly fire’ in 1967. In jungles already full of unfairness, it was no way for the giant warrior to die.
50 years after Long Tan, Bill lives just outside of Ballarat.
His wife Carol puts down table-filling spread while he tells the story.
There’s no Australian medal on his chest that explains what he did.
But he doesn’t care that much. And he manages a good laugh when he talks about being presented with a cheap toy by a South Vietnamese general after Long Tan.
They’d been told to line up and receive country’s Cross of Gallantry medal, but no-one told the Queen of England, so word came at the ceremony that the Australian government would not give for them permission to get it or wear it.
In a panic, the general sent an aide to buy an armful of dolls in Vietnamese national dress from a local shop. Bill still has his.
And only a few years ago the Queen finally gave her permission, but there was no South Vietnamese government, so he had to buy the medal himself. $80.
Private Akell stayed on in the Army, and retired in 2000 as Major William Akell.
Through the memory of the bugle sounds, the sight of dead friends, and a rash from Agent Orange, he kept serving.
None of it ever left him.
The Chief of Army, Peter Cosgrove, invited himself to ‘Yank’s’ farewell at the barracks.
After they exchanged salutes, the General smiled and said ‘stand beside me, son’ – a fitting place for the brave soldier.