CANBERRA, Australia — The Vietnamese government has lent Australia a white concrete crucifix built by Australian soldiers during the Vietnam War in memory of their fallen countrymen, a gesture that is a milestone in the former enemies’ warming relations.
The 6-foot-tall steel-reinforced cross was erected as a memorial to the 18 Australian soldiers killed in the Battle of Long Tan, the largest loss of Australian life in a single engagement during the country’s decade-long war in Vietnam. At least 245 Vietnamese were confirmed dead.
The Long Tan Cross that was unpacked at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra on Thursday is the first museum relic of the war that ended in 1975 to be shared between Vietnam and Australia, memorial assistant director Peter Pedersen said.
It was erected by victorious Australian troops in 1969 at the Long Tan rubber plantation in Phuoc Tuy province, now Ba Ria-Vung Tau province, where the intense battle had been fought in what was then South Vietnam.
A company of 108 Australian and New Zealand soldiers drove off 2,000 Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese Army troops on Aug. 18, 1966, stamping the Australian task force’s dominance over the province. U.S. President Lyndon Johnson awarded Delta Company of the Australian 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation for their effort.
Pedersen said the loan of the 234-pound monument was realized after two years of negotiations with its home since 1984, the Dong Nai Museum in Bien Hoa City, and the Vietnamese Ministry of Culture.
“Our relations are quite warm and I think this is a significant step in that process” of improving bilateral relations, Pedersen said.
The cross will go on public display in Canberra from Aug. 17 until April 2013.
Ben Kerkvliet, an Australian National University expert on Vietnamese politics based in Hawaii, saw the loan as part of a pattern of Vietnam building better relations with Australia and the United States since the 1980s.
“The war is not forgotten in Vietnam by any means, but it’s not a high priority thing in people’s consciousness,” Kerkvliet said.
“Since the mid-1990s, the Vietnamese government and the military have been trying to build bridges and good relations with Americans as well as Australians,” he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vietnam Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh last month exchanged long-held artifacts collected during the war and Vietnam is helping U.S. teams search for the remains of 1,200 U.S. service personnel troops that are still missing.
A replica of the cross has stood at Long Tan since 1989 and is a popular attraction among Australian tourists and returning veterans.