The Battle of Long Tan on August 18, 1966 that cost the lives of 18 Australians and hundreds of Vietnamese troops has joined the roll call of against-all-odds military clashes. Today is also Vietnam Veterans Day that honours the 60,000 Australian service men and women who served in the conflict. Fought over a rubber plantation in torrential rain, 105 soldiers from D Company 6th Royal Australian Regiment and three attached New Zealanders beat off a force of Viet Cong fighters and North Vietnamese troops estimated to be up to 2,500 strong.

Mr Drinkwater, who lives on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, had served in the Australian Army for nine years, including a stint serving in the Malayan Emergency, when he was posted to Vietnam. "When you go to war you expect to come into contact with the enemy," he told nine.com.au.

VASTLY OUTNUMBERED

But when the soldiers of D company walked from their base to search for reported Viet Cong forces, they had no idea they would be so outnumbered. "When we set out we still did not know how many were out there. We thought there might by a platoon (of about 30 soldiers). But no one was expecting we would come into contact with such a large force."

The Battle of Long Tan started about 4pm and although the main enemy attack lasted just four hours, it was fiercely intense for both sides. Abandoning their regular tactics of using trees and jungle for cover, the Viet Cong thrust forward in human waves, signalled by a bugle call. "When we heard the bugle, then we knew it was a big force," Mr Drinkwater recalled.

DARING HELICOPTER MISSION

But D Company was ready for the battle, falling back on their extensive training and close team work. "We moved into the roles we had been trained to do. Every man knew what each other was doing," Mr Drinkwater said.

Veterans later said they were at times firing blindly in the soaking wet darkness for hours at the Vietnamese attackers. Military experts estimated about 400,000 rounds of ammunition were fired by both sides.

The unrelenting fighting meant the small Australasian force began to run out of munitions. To stop it being over-run, Royal Australian Air Force helicopters made a perilous resupply mission to the battle zone. "The choppers had to fly in and drop the ammunition right on to us. Those pilots did a great job. They were flying through torrential rain and heavy cloud."

Those fresh supplies, accurate artillery fire from a nearby Australian base and the arrival of reinforcements in armoured personnel carriers helped drive the enemy off and stop D Company being overrun.

HIGH COST TO BOTH SIDES

The bodies of 245 enemy soldiers were discovered, but there was evidence that many more bodies had been carried back to Viet Cong lines.

The bravery, tenacity and sacrifice of the Australian and New Zealand soldiers at Long Tan has seen it celebrated as a legendary against-all-odds victory. But the cost was high: 17 Australian soldiers were killed in action and 25 were wounded, one of whom died a few days later.

The Battle of Long Tan is the subject of the recently released film 'Danger Close', starring Australian actor Travis Fimmel. Mr Drinkwater has watched the movie and gives it "eight out of 10".

"It's pretty well done. They've taken a few artistic liberties but they've stuck to the storyline very well."

It wasn't until 1987 that Vietnam Veterans Day was officially established, a reflection of the controversy surrounding the conflict that claimed 521 Australian lives. Mr Drinkwater says he "didn't think about the politics" while serving there. "I was a professional soldier, I was just doing my job."

By Richard Wood - 9 News (.au) / Nine Digital Pty Ltd - August 18, 2019