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Sgt Bob Buick- 'Hero', or Military 'Spin'?

Posted by booboo9001 on August 18, 2013 at 12:40 AM

Sgt Bob Buick- 'Hero' of Long Tan, or Military 'Spin'?

By

Don Tate

(warvet_69@yahoo.com)

©

 

If there is ever an opportunity to question the integrity of the so-called ‘Anzac spirit’, an examination of Sgt Bob Buick’s role in the battle of Long Tan is it.

Buick was awarded the Military Medal for bravery in which Long Tan has become synonymous with all the best traditions of the Australian fighting spirit.

But it is far from a glorious chapter in Australian military history. It is more a case of political and military spin, than truth.

Indeed, the more one ignores the military rhetoric and examines the facts- the uglier and more sordid the entire matter becomes. I am talking incompetence, cowardice, murder, medal-grabbing, and the falsification of history by self-serving army officers.

The sad part is that at its core, there is such tragedy involved- 18 Australian soldiers dead on the battlefield; and 23 wounded- making it the costliest loss of the war on any single day in that war. Such loss is too easy to gloss over by merely using statistics- these were sons, husbands, fathers, uncles.

But ‘gloss over’ is what the military establishment does best.

Pick a battle from any war that resulted in significant loss of life- and see how many ‘gongs’ were handed out afterwards. It’s a common ploy- gallantry medals are the shield that keeps prying eyes from lifting the covers off what was most likely a military stuff-up complete with incompetence and negligence.

The Battle of Long Tan was such an instance.

Yes, there was heroism- but not necessarily by those who were rewarded with gallantry medals. How many officers from that battle did not fire a shot or were distant from danger or not even present- yet now flaunt such medals?

But where there was heroism, and there was heroism galore. And certainly not from Sgt Bob Buick.

t the outset, one must ask this question: when men have been ambushed as 11Platoon was - having been lured into the ambush by superior military thinking - what alternative do they have other than to fight like tigers?

I mean, they could hardly just stand up, fly the white flag, and surrender.

What they had to do was exactly what they had trained to do- defend a position when under attack. So, as many other ex-infantrymen ask, what did those infantrymen do that differed from what others did in countless other contacts and ambushes and assaults on every other day of the war, with none of the fanfare given to the men of “D” Company, 6RAR.

It's all about 'spin'. Sgt Bob Buick is at the epicentre of it.

How it is possible for such a man to be lauded with military honour when by his own admission, he was a coward and a murderer. How could he become the ‘face of Long Tan’ when he ran from the battle and left wounded men behind? How can be called the ‘Lion of Long Tan’ when there are so many questions being asked by his former platoon members about his conduct before, during, and after the battle- and which led to him being bashed with a star picket by one of his former platoon members a day or so after the battle?

And why was he bashed recently at a reunion of the 6th Battalion, and is no longer welcome at them?

Perhaps a key lies in an email Buick sent out to other veterans in 2000. He wrote: 'Those turds in the battalion are all idiots and don't appreciate me. They are just jealous. I'm going to reveal the truth about them all, and the officer shits who led the battalion. They'll be exposed next.'

And there, in Buick's own words, is an inkling of what sort of man he really is- and a key to unlocking the truth about what happened at Long Tan. Because as we all know, there are ‘facts’, and then there is the truth. 

The fact is, Robert Buick is the darling of the Australian Defence Force. Has been ever since Long Tan, in August 1966. But the truth is, he is a despicable coward, a murderer, and a liar. 

Sadly, no one has really dared challenge him to date. He has ;protectors, within and without the military. 

***

Years after the battle of Long Tan, years after he was decorated as a ‘hero’ of the battle, Bob Buick wrote his autobiography- “All Guts and No Glory” (Allan & Unwin). Some suggest it should have been more accurately titled, “All Glory and No Guts” because he did get that Military Medal for gallantry, and the amount of ‘guts’ he displayed is questionable.

Buick’s autobiography is no masterpiece. In fact, without the assistance of author Gary McKay it would never have been published.

But it was honest, I’ll give Buick that. Honest in that he wanted so much to make himself the absolute hero of the battle that he all but hung himself with his own words.

Which brings me to his former Company Commander- the inscrutable Major Harry Smith, revered by the men of “D” Company, 6th Battalion- especially those hanging out to score one of those gallantry medals he’s been chasing down for them.

Harry Smith made Bob Buick the 'face' of Long Tan.

By awarding the platoon sergeant of 11 Platoon a gallantry medal despite most of Buick's platoon being killed or wounded, Harry Smith set a new standard for mediocrity in the awarding of gallantry medals and what was expected of men in battle.

And having done so, and despite the whisperings of outrage growing louder, year after year about that decision, Smith was forced into the position of being a public defender for Buick.

So it was that not long after I read Buick’s book, and having asked a few pertinent questions of Buick publicly, that Harry Smith deigned to write to me personally and express his opinions.

Bad mistake, Mr Smith.

Because what I was able to do then, was compare and contrast the accounts by Buick as set out in his book with those of his company commander, Harry Smith- and the citation accompanying the Military Medal Buick received.

It was an enlightening exercise.

There were so many contentions:

 

The death of Lt Gordon Sharp

Lt Sharp was the platoon commander of 11 Platoon. He doesn’t last long in Bob Buick’s autobiography. In fact, Buick dismisses him from the action very early on, and pays scant attention to his efforts.

This was far from the case. In fact, Lt Gordon Sharp lasted almost an hour, and while he was alive, led his platoon with calm authority and sound tactical decisions. He was killed while organizing artillery fire around the platoon’s position.

But there is much conjecture about how he died.

Accusations have swirled around Buick's involvement for decades.

The fact is, like sergeants the world over, Buick considered he was a superior soldier to Lt Sharp and resented the young lieutenant’s authority over him. According to Buick, what Lt Sharp didn’t know was that Buick had been put into Sharp’s platoon by the Company commander, Harry Smith, to "improve the platoon’s performance."

Or that’s what Buick says, anyway. He does have a high opinion of himself.

None of the soldiers in Lt Sharp’s platoon were thrilled about it. No one who knew Buick had any time for him- except Maj Harry Smith, that is.

The fuse for a confrontation between Buick and his platoon commander erupted just the day prior to the battle of Long Tan when the Task Force came under mortar attack. It didn’t actually involve Lt Sharp’s platoon, but Buick thought Lt Sharp should have been doing something at the time, other than playing cards with his men.

Buick writes: “…the enemy fire hitting the Task Force was of no interest to them as they were playing cards. Not one of them took any notice or seemed to care……”

Buick was enraged at the young lieutenant’s recalcitrance to act. He walked outside the tent and fell into a hole. It didn’t improve his mood.

“I was already pissed off because of the lack of interest or urgency shown by Sharp,” says Buick. “Falling into the hole topped me up but the volcano eruption would have to wait…..Sharp and the boys continued to play cards. I confronted him about his actions and he replied that it was ‘nothing to do with us’ …..I just did not believe that an officer would say such a thing and the pent up volcano within me blew….I went off like a free keg of beer at a wharfie party….”

Buick berated Lt Sharp publicly in front of other men- clear insubordination by any measure. Any other soldier would have been up on charges. But not Buick. He was a law unto himself.

Lt Sharp complained to Capt Harry Smith; Buick went running to the Company RSM- Jock Kirby.

Buick won.

In fact, Buick always won. For some reason, Bob Buick could do no wrong in Harry Smith’s eyes.

But the animosity between Sgt Buick and Lt Sharp was palpable.

Buick describes Lt Sharp’s death the next day, simply: “The enemy attacked using fire and movement while we were hugging the ground…..It was about this time that 2Lt Gordon Sharp died instantly from a bullet to the throat…..he was on his knees……”

In the years that followed, Buick was dogged by accusations that it had been he who killed Lt Sharp- using the noise and confusion as the opportunity to do so.

There is a lot of talk among veterans about what happened, and since I wasn’t there, I won’t further that conjecture on that point. 

Who can be certain of anything in war?

 

The war crime?

Behind the glitz and glamour of the wonderful military victory at Long Tan have been the revelations of enemy soldiers being murdered on the battlefield the day afterwards.

Sgt Bob Buick not only admits to having murdered one himself, but was aware of at least four that day. Some say as many as seventeen enemy wounded were put to death. In 1986, Terry Burstall (a military historian- and a member of 6RAR, present at the battle) says about 17 enemy soldiers were killed on the battlefield that next day or so. That is a terrible revelation.

 

It’s a damn sight more than thefour that Bob Buick admits to- and if true, this question needs to be asked: where was the Company Commander, Major Harry Smith at the time, and what did he know of it?

But back to Buick's murder of that enemy soldier which was self-admitted, and evidenced. Let him tell it:

 

“I aimed my rifle and shot him twice through the heart……….it was something I just had to do….Another two very badly wounded Viet Cong were shot that morning. ..if they had had their hands over their heads they would not have been killed.”

Sounds clear enough. No wriggle-room there.

So what it was, was sheer, unadulterated murder by a man prone to violence.

I guess he wasn’t aware that there is no statute of limitations applying to war crimes. I mean, who was Buick to make decisions as to the relative seriousness of a man's wounds? What;s more, there is no evidence that Buick or anyone else endeavoured to ascertain whether or not the wounded enemy ssoldiers were even capable of raising their hands?

In a second letter to me, Harry Smith refers to the “shooting of mortally wounded” enemy as if the phrase justified it. But the obvious question arises- did he or anyone else have a medical degree by which they could make such a judgment call? And why wasn’t the same criteria applied to the two Australian soldiers also found wounded on the battlefield, and who were urgently taken to a Field Hospital by helicopter?

There is validating evidence of these shootings- Signals relayed to Australia about what was happening. (I have a copy of one myself which was forwarded to the Australian Federal Police who are investigating Buick's conduct- but apparently the other Signals have mysteriously ‘disappeared’ from the Australian War Museum archives).

One thing is certain- no officer from 6RAR sued Burstall for defamation after his revelation.

I raised this particular matter with Harry Smith personally. He declined to respond.

But simply, Buick was subject to the Army Act of 1881 and as such should have been tried under Military Law for murder- exactly as he would have been if he’d done the same thing in civvy street.

I’m not alone in asserting this. I am in good company. 

Prominent Australian barrister, James Fergusson Thomson made his opinion loud and clear. In a letter to The Weekend Australian on the 19th August 2000, Thomson wrote: “Buick says this was a ‘mercy killing’. It was not. It was murder, pure and simple. If it happened, it is a disgraceful stain on Buick’s battalion, on the soldiers who fought so valiantly at Long Tan and on the Australian army. …If I had known of Buick’s claimed action he would have been prosecuted for murder and tried by court martial...”

But they didn’t charge Buick with murder. They gave him a gallantry medal instead.

Then- his political and military masters ensured that a damn lot of records about the whole matter were discretely ‘disappeared’ from the AWM.

In 1971, a ‘sanitisation’ of any records was carried out within the Australian War Memorial to destroy any document that could harm the reputation of the military. They were carried out by Robert O'Neill of the AWM, by Bruce White- Secretary to Army in 1971, and Thea Exley- the Chief Archivist. They proposed and consented to the disposal of all historical and evidentiary Vietnam War records that compromised Defence. A second 'sanitisation' was carried out by Brigadier Alf Grland in the 1980's as insurance.

Buick’s cowardice

In the eyes of many veterans, Bob Buick stands accused of cowardice- not bravery.

There are two contentious points- that, at an opportune time, he ran for the safety of Lt Dave Sabben’s 12 Platoon without ensuring all his remaining soldiers knew exactly what he was doing; and of leaving wounded men from his platoon behind when he ran.

In respect of the first aspect, Buick himself writes: “I yelled out to the men that when the word was given everyone was to pull back about 150 metres and regroup. About five minutes later, I called out that everybody was to go.”

Sounds reasonable.

But earlier, Buick makes it quite clear that the noise was so cacophonous, it was virtually impossible to hear anything said by even the closest man- ‘unbelievably deafening’, he described it. And adds, “To be heard only five metres away required shouting at the top of your voice.”

Yet Buick would maintain that he called out loudly enough so that over the noise of the battle, all his men heard it?

(As an infantryman myself, I was involved in three bunker assaults- and Buick is correct, the roar of machine-guns is deafening).

Which leads into yet another contention- was it an orderly ‘withdrawal’ as 6RAR officers like to present it? Was it a case of Buick ' fighting his way through enemy lines as his citation says? Or was it a mad scramble?

And have we uncovered yet another example of the military’s capacity to deceive in order to cover-up stupidity and incompetence?

Buick himself makes no bones about what happened.

He writes: “This was no planned withdrawal, no fire and movement covering each other, this was a ‘run like hell’ move for about 150 metres.”

Got it? “…no planned withdrawal…”- right from the horse’s mouth. It was a disorderly, disgraceful shemozzle as Buick admits- and unlike what was normally expected of the Australian infantryman. Buick says, “I ran back, ducking and weaving. I zigged and rifleman, Private Ron Carne zagged, and we crashed into each other, falling over into a tangle of arms and legs and sliding about five metres in the mud……..Gasping for breath we leapt up and ran to catch up to four or five others ahead of us. ….during the withdrawal our radio operator Vic Grice was killed and another couple of men were wounded.”

 

Leaving the dead and wounded behind

Some armies- and sometimes it even applies to the Australian army- have a general rule: we don’t leave a man behind.

Not in Sgt Bob Buick’s army.

No sir, because when Buick ordered the 'withdrawal', the dead and wounded were left where they lay. No attempt whatsoever was taken to take them out. Buick himself made no attempt to ascertain the welfare of any man- they were simply left behind on the battlefield when the decision to run for his life was made.

And then, he compounded his cowardice during the run for safety, when, as he described above, other men died or fell wounded alongside him and he just kept running. Lifted not one finger to assist one man- just put his head down and arse up, and kept running.

The next day, two of those men he had left behind were found alive- Pte Barry Mellor and Pte Jim Richmond, and they were not at all happy with having been abandoned.

Buick writes: “Barry Meller was shot twice during the battle at Long Tan. Barry and I were spotting and shooting at the Viet Cong who were now only about 30 metres away. Barry was shot through the mouth while talking to me. ……He was also hit in the leg when we were withdrawing……”

Even this extract tells us something about Buick.

First, that he is talking nonsense about ‘talking’ with Meller during that battle.

As every man who has endured jungle warfare will attest, the only ‘talking’ being done in any contact with the enemy is the screaming out of orders or questions or the cries of men- not idle chatter. Not only is the noise deafening, but the senses must be on full alert.

No- Buick’s attempt at self-aggrandisement here makes him look stupid.

But worse- and this has confounded all infantrymen who are aware of it- Buick has seen Pte Mellor shot twice, close up the first time, and once again, again during the 'withdrawal'. Yet, he left Mellor behind.

It begs the question- how many other Australian infantrymen would run for their life and not assist a fellow digger he knew to be wounded? How many infantrymen would have just kept running to save their own skin, and not reach down to help another mate he'd seen fall down wounded?

Where was the Anzac tradition in that?

And yet, they gave this man a gallantry medal?

How is that possible?

No wonder Pte Mellor and Pte Jim Richmond had every reason to be “as dirty as hell” (as Buick admits) with Buick about being left behind, when Buick turned up back at the battlefield the next day!

Strangely, Harry Smith- Buick’s chief apologist- writes: “Bob’s accusers are happy to accuse Bob of leaving two wounded, but why did they, and the other survivors, twelve others, not drag or carry the two wounded men back to 12 Platoon?”

This is a curious statement- Smith doesn't defend Buick here, but spreads the blame for leaving wounded mates behind around, rather than placing it fair and squarely on Sgt Bob Buick’s shoulders.

But then, Harry Smith has a lot to explain.

 

The awarding of a gallantry medal to Bob Buick

I asked Harry Smith how he could possibly have nominated a demonstrable coward for one of the nation’s top gallantry medals. After all, Harry Smith was in another location and witnessed none of Buick’s actions.

Smith replied that bravery didn't necessarily have to be observed. In this case, he determined Buick's 'bravery' via radio communications: “I was the officer, his Commander, who was in constant radio contact with Bob and recommended him for MM for his gallant command of the isolated 11 Platoon for over an hour…”

Hmmmm! "Constant radio contact" did he say? Not even Buick believes that. 

Buick says, “....radio communications within the company were all but hopeless. ……the enemy began to interfere with and jam our radio frequencies. Radio operators found themselves having to repeat messages constantly to be understood. ….our radio battle antenna was shot off, eliminating all transmissions and any reception.”

There is clear contradiction there, although Buick did manage to call in artillery fire at some point- but for Smith to maintain that he and Buick were in 'constant' radio communications is nonsense. 

What is certain from listening to the radio transmissions is that Buick spent more time on the radio crying out: "I must withdraw! I must withdraw!" than anything else.

Regardless, even if Buick did manage to call in some artillery, was there enough evidence of ‘gallantry’ there for Smith to justify nominating Buick for a MM, or to suggest (as he did in a letter to me) that in retrospect he should have nominated Buick for a greater award- the DCM?

To this day- no one knows how many of those men killed at the battle of Long Tan actually died during the night after being abandoned by Buick. How many were killed by the Viet Cong crawling into the platoon position and finishing them off? here can be no hard ans fast answer.

Certainly, it is something that Buick must always live with.

It is a sickening sight to witness Bob Buick on film footage with the stricken Pte Jim Richmond who he’d left behind, pretending to administer some solace or medical assistance to him the next day. It was clearly designed for posterity- the gallant platoon sergeant of 11 Platoon giving solace to one of the men he had left behind when he'd run for his life the day before.

If nothing else, it gave Buick some semblance of humanity to augment his Military Medal.

 

Corporal Jeff Duroux

I cannot conclude this dissertation without mentioning Corporal Jeff Duroux- a section-commander under Buick at Long Tan-, and man who was a witness to all that transpired.

After the murder that occurred on August 19th, Sgt Bob Buick was attacked with a sttel picket because of his cowrdice. Duroux also made a formal complaint against Buick and others for their actions during the battle.

He was immediately transferred to another Company.

 

 

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