Australia was making top-level appeals to Vietnam on Wednesday to lift a sudden ban on veterans commemorating the 50th anniversary of Australia's most costly battle of the Vietnam War.
More than 1,000 Australian veterans and their families have traveled to Vietnam to observe the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan on Thursday at a cross marking the site where 18 Australian soldiers and hundreds of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops died in a rubber plantation on Aug. 18, 1966.
But after 18 months of negotiations between Vietnamese and Australian officials over the commemoration, which has drawn some Australian veterans back to the Communist country for the first time since the war, Vietnam told Australia late Tuesday the event was canceled, Veterans' Affairs Minister Dan Tehan said Wednesday.
Tehan said Australian and Vietnamese foreign ministers would discuss the decision and Australia's prime minister had requested a telephone conversation with his Vietnamese counterpart to ask that the ceremony be allowed.
"Our heartfelt sympathies go out to the over 1,000 veterans who have traveled to Vietnam to mark this commemoration with respect and with dignity," Tehan told reporters.
"For us, to be given such short notice of the cancellation is — to put it in very frank terms — a kick in the guts," he added.
The Long Tan anniversary is Australia's official Vietnam Veterans Day and has been commemorated by Australians at the battle scene since 1989.
In the fighting, a company of 105 Australian soldiers plus three New Zealanders supported by artillery survived a rain-drenched, three-hour battle by driving off wave after wave of attacks by more than 2,000 enemy troops.
Ken Foster, president of the Vietnam Veterans' Association of Australia, said former soldiers would be "shattered" by the cancellation.
"I do have concerns for the mental welfare of not only those Vietnam veterans in Vietnam, but also those here in Australia," Foster said.
Tehan said the veto reflected "deep sensitivities" within Vietnamese and was not a response to problems in the bilateral relationship.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that despite the ban, an official party including the Australian and New Zealand ambassadors would lay a wreath Thursday and small groups would have access to the site during the day.
In Vietnam's southern seaside town of Vung Tau, where Australian veterans gathered for events including a Wednesday night banquet, Ernie Gimm was perplexed at the news. He had planned to go to the service at Long Tan, where he served for 13 months as an air controller in 1966 and 1967.
"I understand that there had been rumors circulating to indicate there is an Australian victory celebration in Vietnam, which is wrong, totally wrong. It's a get-together of the Vietnamese and the Australians after 50 years and that is very important," said Gimm, who lives in Queensland.
Ken Dann, who served as an army engineer in Vietnam for a year in 1967, said the get-together was an occasion to ponder the lessons of the past.
"There's no point in being disappointed," he said. "It's not a celebration really. We just want to think about what did happen to both sides in the war."
The planned banquet was held, but Vietnamese authorities axed an entertainment program.
Australian singer Patricia Amphlett, better known as Little Pattie, said she was "very sad" when her performance was canceled at the last minute.
The battle of Long Tan occurred just two days after Amphlett, then 17, performed for troops at Nui Dat, one of Australia's two bases during the war.
"There should not be any indication of a celebration," explained a Vietnamese diplomatic official who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Australian deployed more than 60,000 military personnel to Vietnam between 1962 and 1973, of whom 521 were killed.