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Speeches

The Hon Darren Chester MP
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC

SPEECH

13 May 2018

Speech - 50th anniversary of the Battles of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral, and Unit Citation for Gallantry

Welcome,

Shadow Minister Amanda Rishworth, Former Deputy Prime Minister and Vietnam Veteran Tim Fischer, Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, and most importantly, to the Veterans and their families, thank you for your service.

To those of you who stand in uniform today – thank you for your service too. You should be proud of what you do for our nation.

Today is a special occasion as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral. But first things first and without any further delay. Today I am pleased to formally acknowledge the extraordinary gallantry displayed by members of the 1st Australia Task Force (Forward) and associated units deployed to Area of Operations SURFERS during the Battles of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral, and have the great pleasure to announce His Excellency the Governor-General’s approval to award the Unit Citation for Gallantry for these actions.

It has been a long time coming – perhaps a medal for persistence. I’d like to acknowledge my predecessor Dan Tehan and the work of the Defence Honours and Awards team and Appeals Tribunal.

Fifty years ago Australians fought their longest and most costly battle of the Vietnam War, at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral.

The Australian Task Force commander called the battles ‘some of the heaviest fighting that the task force ever undertook.’

Australian troops moved into the area of operations, known as ‘Bondi’ in Bien Hoa Province on 12 May 1968 and began setting up Fire Support Base Coral. They didn’t know how strong the enemy presence in the area was until a devastating attack fell upon them less than twelve hours later.

Nine Australians were killed. The artillery and mortar men were the hardest hit.

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong could not tolerate the Australian presence across the route they used to attack Saigon and over the next 16 days North Vietnamese troops launched another determined attack against Coral and twice attempted to drive the Australians from nearby Fire Support Base Balmoral.

A man dazed by an exploding mortar shell in the first attack on Balmoral remembered his thoughts as enemy troops launched their second assault on the base, ‘I was an innocent country boy from Australia … Now I found myself on the brink of madness … Everybody else at Balmoral must have been feeling the same terror I was feeling.’

Coral and Balmoral were too strongly defended to fall to the waves of infantry sent against them, but for the men who faced these attacks the fighting was intense, close and terrifying.

Outside the two bases infantry patrols had many contacts with North Vietnamese troops. On one day, nine such encounters left three Australian and 12 North Vietnamese soldiers dead.

Australian tanks and infantry fought several fierce battles in the midst of heavily defended enemy bunker complexes as the toll of dead on both sides rose.

By early June, after suffering devastating losses, the North Vietnamese conceded this route to Saigon. The last Australians left the area on the sixth.

Twenty-six Australians lost their lives in three and a half weeks at Coral and Balmoral. Almost 100 were wounded. At least 270 Vietnamese were killed, though we will never know the true figure.

The Battles of Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral are not widely known in Australia. Yet they were among the most important of our country’s long commitment to the war in Vietnam.

The Unit Citation for Gallantry is richly deserved. In the words of the Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal report – the citation is for “everyone who was there”.

The Battle Honour ‘Coral-Balmoral’ is shared by the 1st and 3rd Battalions, the Royal Australian Regiment, the 1st Armoured Regiment and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment. The Royal Australian Artillery’s 102 Field Battery received the Honour Title ‘Coral’ in 2008, the year of the battle’s 40th anniversary.

Today we remember all those who fell in this distant corner of South Vietnam, we honour the veterans who are here with us today and acknowledge those who could not be. All of those who served at Coral and Balmoral earned a proud place in Australia’s wartime history.

Lest we forget.

 

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) can be reached 24 hours a day across Australia for crisis support and free confidential counselling. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546). VVCS is a service founded by Vietnam veterans.