All troops will be home for Christmas !

It was August 18 1971 when Australian soldiers fighting in Vietnam heard this landmark announcement by Australian Prime Minister, William McMahon, confirming an end to Australia's costly and controversial combat role in the Vietnam War. 

The Australians had been based in Nui Dat, South East of Saigon in Phuoc Tuy Province for six years when they received orders from Australia to leave Vietnam.

Some of those Soldiers would not make it home for Christmas.

They were members of the Rear Party, consisting of men from D Company, 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and a Detachment of A Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment commanded by Lieutenant Christopher Stephens.

The Rear Party was a Ready Reaction Force in case of an attack by the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Communist forces on the main body of withdrawing troops and the remaining facilities at the Port of Vung Tau, 60 kilometres from Nui Dat.

The Main Body of Australian Forces was at sea on its way home by December 8 1971, as planned, but the Rear Party remained behind for almost three more months.

Just before lunchtime on a bright, sunny Tuesday, the last day of February in 1972, the Rear Party boarded the HMAS Sydney to sail, finally, for home.

This photographic exhibition features members of the 3rd Cavalry Regiment in that "Last to Leave" combat force.

The first Australian Military Advisors were sent to Vietnam in 1962 at the request of the South Vietnamese Government, backed by the might of the United States' military to "stem the tide of Communism" from North Vietnam.

Combat troop deployments increased progressively, National Service began in Australia in 1965 and the 1st Australian Task Force was deployed in South Vietnam in early 1966.

The 3rd Cavalry Regiment was part of the Australian Task Force.  A total of 1016 Officers, Regular Soldiers and National Servicemen served in the Regiment in Phuoc Tuy Province in South Vietnam from 1965 to 1972.  They provided battlefield mobility to the 1st Australian Task Force, transported cargo and troops, carried out Reconnaissance and ambushed enemy forces.

The 3rd Cavalry Regiment distinguished itself in many battles including Long Tan (1966), Coral/Balmoral (1968) and Binh Bah (1969).  Sadly, twenty members of this Regiment died in Vietnam and 133 more were injured:  A casualty rate of one in seven.

When the Rear Party set foot on Australian soil at Sydney on March 12 1972, their arrival passed all but unnoticed.  There was no welcome home or fanfare beyond the joyful and emotional embrace of a few loved ones and friends.  Significant politicians or dignitaries were not to be seen.

The deep political and public division within Australia over our Nation's involvement in the Vietnam  meant no Government Representative would offer even an official thank you to these men who had carried out a difficult and dangerous task with honour and professionalism.

It would be another fifteen years - more than twice as long as Australia's combat time in Vietnam - before the role of these troops in fighting a foreign war on the Asian Continent under the Flag of Australia would be recognised officially by an Australian Government.

These soldiers, the "Last to Leave" Vietnam, remain bound by mateship forged through their shared combat experiences and their unique role and responsibility at the end of a war that lasted a decade and claimed 500 Australian lives.