Thomas Henry 'Buddy' Lea: Stories of Service

Running time
6 min 35 sec
Place made
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Find out about Thomas 'Buddy' Lea's heroic efforts to save his friends during the Battle of Long Tan in the Vietnam War. This story tells of the experiences of Buddy, a First Nations Australian who served in the Australian Defence Force for 35 years.

Student inquiry activities

  1. The Australian forces engaged the Vietnamese Communist guerrilla fighters, the Viet Cong, who were fighting for North Vietnam. What did the Viet Cong use to their advantage in the conflict?
  2. Buddy was involved in one of the largest battles fought by the Australians in the Vietnam War. This was the Battle of Long Tan. Research the Battle of Long Tan and describe the defining features of Long Tan that made the battle so significant in Australian military history.
  3. During the Battle of Long Tan, Buddy was shot 5 times and survived. What heroic actions did Buddy undertake during the battle? How did Buddy describe his action?
  4. The conduct of Australians at the Battle of Long Tan has been said to reflect the Anzac spirit. What does the Anzac spirit mean to you, and how was this shown in the Battle of Long Tan?
  5. How has the Battle of Long Tan been remembered and commemorated? What features and symbols would you incorporate into a commemorative service about the Battle of Long Tan?
  6. Along with being a hero, what was Buddy known for by his colleagues, friends and family?
  7. Many First Nations Australians, like Buddy, served with distinction in the Vietnam War. One example is Bill Coolburra, who served with the Tunnel Rats. Watch Bill Coolburra's story, then discuss the similarities and differences between his Vietnam War experience and those of Buddy Lea.
  8. The Australian media, particularly through television, brought the war into homes in a way that people hadn't experienced before. Imagine you are a war correspondent during the Vietnam War. Write an article to describe the experiences of the men and women who served. Use the Anzac Portal for your article to find out more about the Vietnam War.


White writing appears on a black screen 'The Department of Veterans' Affairs recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples as First Nation Peoples of Australia and acknowledges their continuing spiritual, cultural, social and economic connections to Australia's lands and waters. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this content contains images, names and voices of deceased persons."

[Music plays]

Opening credits. Four war medals shine beneath the words 'Stories of Service, Vietnam War.' Photos shuffle into view. They depict an Indigenous soldier, a naval seaman, and four women in uniform. Fade to black. An array of photos show a burly Indigenous man throughout his life, including as a solider in Vietnam. An Australian Defence Medal and a National Medal for Service sit by a photo of the older man wearing his many medals. He smiles with a younger Indigenous man.

Narrator speaks: 'Thomas Henry Lea, or 'Buddy' as he was known to his friends, was born in 1939. He was a member of the Australian Defence Force for 35 years. Buddy was an Australian of Aboriginal and South Sea Islander descent who served in Borneo, Malaya, and then during the Vietnam War, where he was a corporal and section commander in D Company with 6RAR (6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment).'

A map shows North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Text: 'Vietnam War, 1955 - 1975.' Black and white footage show Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, including children. Locals wave at passing military vehicles.

Narrator speaks: 'The Vietnam War was a conflict in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia which lasted from November 1955 until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. North Vietnamese-backed communist forces, known as the Vietcong, waged war against the South Vietnamese army. The United States began supporting the South Vietnamese government in the early 1960s.'

Helicopters approach assembled Western soldiers. Soldiers use radios, hurry from helicopters and patrol through dense jungle. Locals gather in a market. Australian soldiers come across local men in jungle. Australian soldiers use a metal detector and move warily through chest-high grass. Soldiers fire artillery and check a map.

Narrator speaks: 'Australia joined the Vietnam War in 1962 with an army training team, and by 1966 had operational authority over the province of Phuoc Tuy with a base at Nui Dat. The Vietcong used their familiarity with jungle terrain and swamps to their advantage. They were able to blend into the South Vietnamese communities, and it was difficult sometimes to detect friends from enemies. They were renowned for using guerrilla war tactics including booby traps, ambush, and closing in on small groups of Australian and American troops fast. This last tactic made it difficult for the Australians to rely on artillery support as the two forces would be too close.'

In a clearing, a small group of soldiers check a map. An Indigenous soldier talks. Animated radio waves expand over a photo of shirtless radio operators in a hut. A map is marked with the site of the Long Tan battle, and the ATF and reported VC bases. Australian soldiers move through thick jungle. Soldiers dive to the ground then open fire. An armoured personnel carrier gunner and various artillery batteries shoot.

Narrator speaks: 'Buddy, as section commander of D Company, was involved in the Battle of Long Tan. In the days leading up to the battle, the Australian radio intelligence and tracking unit picked up radio transmissions from the 275th Vietcong Regiment as they moved from their base to within 5 kilometres of the base at Nui Dat. Australian patrols were sent out daily in search of the enemy. On 18 August 1966, Major Harry Smith was leading the 108 men of D Company. They were on patrol when they encountered an enemy force of around 2,500 men. Some analysts say that D Company encountered a force preparing to attack Nui Dat, but others say this was an example of the Vietcong drawing a smaller force of Australians to them and closing in on them fast to try and limit their calls for artillery support.'

A huge artillery weapon is turned, reloaded and fired. Lying behind cover, soldiers peer ahead but don't shoot. Helicopters fly over jungle and farmland. A soldier guides a helicopter that has freight dangling from its base.

Narrator speaks: 'The Australians had an advantage in the fire support of Australian, New Zealand and United States artillery. When the trapped men of D Company began to run short of ammunition, two Royal Australian Air Force helicopters took off in torrential rain and failing light. They flew to the scene of the battle, risking enemy fire, hovering just above the trees and dropping boxes of ammunition wrapped in blankets directly to the Australians below.'

In the jungle, a medic tends to the wounded. A Vietnamese prisoner stares up at the Australians standing around him. A machine-gunner shoots into jungle. Soldiers help the wounded. A stretcher is carried to a helicopter. In a photo, Buddy wears a chest bandage and a huge smile as he holds up a photo of a toddler. A colour photo shows the older Buddy.

Narrator speaks: '18 Australians were killed, and Buddy was amongst the 24 wounded. The exact number of North Vietnamese soldiers killed in the battle is unknown but estimated at 245 people. The battle raged for 3 1/2 hours, during which Buddy was shot three times while trying to drag an injured mate, Sergeant Paddy Todd, to safety through the mud and rain. Both Buddy and Paddy survived the battle, but Buddy spent the next 5 months recovering in hospital. When asked about getting shot, Buddy was quick to point out that, at the time, adrenaline often masks the pain.'

A handwritten quote appears under a photo of Buddy in the Vietnamese jungle and the words 'Thomas 'Buddy' Lea.'

Buddy speaks: 'It's not the size of the entry, it's the size of the exit. It's massive, I can tell you. It was the most... The only reason I knew I was the time, I was... One of my sergeants walked up and asked me how I ripped my shirt. Then I said, 'I didn't rip it.' And he said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Why? What are you talking about?' He said, 'You've got no bloody shirt. Half your shirt's gone.' I said, 'You're joking.' 'One, two... I can see two bullet wounds.' I said, 'Is there another one there?' I said, 'You're joking!' He told me that I'd been hit 3 times. I found the third bullet hole.'

Near the photo of Buddy in hospital, a photo of a curly-haired white man becomes a video interview. Text: 'Barry Laverty.'

Narrator speaks: 'Buddy's mate, Barry Laverty, who was in hospital at the same time, recalled Buddy's sense of humour.'

Barry speaks: 'Buddy, he got hit 3 times and he said, 'They missed my heart every bloody time.' I remember him saying to me, 'Bloody awful shots, Baz. Couldn't hit my heart.'

A handwritten quote appears above footage of soldiers moving cautiously through jungle and fields, shooting and a medic working.

Narrator speaks: 'Asked about that day, Buddy said... "The odds were against us. How we all did not get killed, I'll never know. I'm not trying to sound like I'm a hero, or like it's something out of a Hollywood war movie. The last person in the world that you think about is yourself. I had ten men under my command. If anything was going to happen to anyone, it was going to be me. You put your own life on the line to save your mates.'

Then prime minister John Gorton inspects troops, then stands to attention as troops parade past him. A document features the Seal of the President of the United States and the signature of then President Johnson. Soldiers move through jungle and gather in a clearing.

Narrator speaks: 'Delta Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, was awarded the United States Presidential Unit Citation for Gallantry for their actions at the Battle of Long Tan in August 1966. After recovering from his wounds, Buddy continued to serve in the army and maintained his signature sense of humour.'

A quote appears in handwriting over a photo of a solider.

Narrator speaks: 'Once his superior in the army, and friend for many years since, Lieutenant Colonel Smith said of Buddy: 'He was an excellent soldier. He was very brave and one of the most loyal people I've ever come across.'

Photos show the grey-haired Buddy smiling with a woman, two teenagers and friends. Small children examine his many medals. Hands over their hearts, teenagers stand at a monument with Buddy and other veterans.

Narrator speaks: 'Buddy's daughter Miesha recalls...'

Miesha speaks: 'My dad was very proud of his achievements and of his children. He was very strict as a father, but had a smile that could light up the room. You always knew where you stood with him. He had a great laugh. His friends always said that when they went out, they could always hear Dad well before they could see him. He didn't think of himself as a hero. He told us that he never thought twice before going out to save Paddy. 'That's just what you did for your mates.'

Buddy smiles from an array of coloured photos. Below his photo, a newspaper headline reads 'Farewell to a Hero and Friend'.

Narrator speaks: 'After one final battle, this time with lung cancer, Buddy died at the Hervey Bay Hospital in 2014, at the age of 75, surrounded by family.'

Fade to black. The Australian coat of arms is displayed in white. Text: 'Australian Government. Department of Veterans' Affairs.'

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