Vietnam VeteransEducation Team Informing the Students of Victoria, Australia
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The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) played a variety of roles during the Vietnam War. Australian naval vessels ferried troops to and from the logistics base at Vung Tau and served on the ‘gunline’ where they provided naval gunfire against ground targets in support of Australian and United States troops. RAN clearance divers carried out operations to dispose of unexploded ordnance and keep shipping safe from enemy mines and attacks by enemy frogmen. Naval personnel also served in an airborne role, the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam, attached to the United States Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company, flew combat operations and a detachment of naval aviators also served with the RAAF’s No. 9 Squadron.

HMAS Sydney and her Escorts

During the Vietnam War the task of moving, supplying and maintaining Australian forces in South Vietnam was shared between the Royal Australian Air Force, civilian aircraft – mainly Qantas – and ships from the Australian National Line (ANL). But the bulk of the task fell to the Royal Australian Navy and the vessel that carried out the majority of transport duties to and from Vietnam was the former aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney. Sydney’s first voyage to South Vietnam, escorted by HMAS Melbourne, HMAS Duchess and HMAS Parramatta, began on 27 May 1965. For Sydney’s crew, the trip meant the chance to both establish routines for a logistic task, the like of which had not been undertaken by the navy for twenty years, and to gain an understanding of the risks facing their ship in hostile waters. In the years to come, the run to Vung Tau and back became an increasingly speedy and smooth operation. Nevertheless, each voyage required a great deal of hard work, particularly during the loading and unloading phase of the operation. In its role as the ‘Vung Tau Ferry’, HMAS Sydney brought together men from two distinct cultures: the army and the navy. In the days before she sailed from Australia, would be loaded with soldiers and their equipment. Crew members would be detailed to act as ‘sea daddies’ to groups of soldiers, helping them to get their bearings on board ship, showing them where to keep their gear and how to sling their hammocks – a novel, and often unwelcome, mode of sleeping for most soldiers. Apart from the unfamiliarity with shipboard life, or indeed with the ways of the navy, the soldiers often found to be uncomfortable, particularly in tropical waters when the heat below decks was intense. During loading and unloading, when and her escort ships were anchored off Vung Tau, their crews were prepared to counter any attacks launched from shore. The ship’s divers carried out constant patrols, checking hulls and cables while armed sentries stood on deck with orders to fire on suspicious movements in the water. As it turned out, neither nor her escorts were endangered in Vietnamese waters. But she performed in her role as ‘Vung Tau ferry’ very effectively, safely transporting thousands of troops to and from Vietnam along with thousands of tonnes of cargo and equipment. By 1972, when Australia’s involvement in Vietnam ended, had carried 16,000 army and RAAF personnel to Vung Tau on 24 ferry runs and had made a 25th trip to Vietnam to deliver and pick-up military equipment. Every voyage took between 10 and 12 days in each direction, a time during which soldiers heading for Vietnam were given hours of physical training and prepared for the year that they would have to spend as combatants in a war zone. For those on the return voyage after their twelve-month tour of duty, the passage to Australia offered a chance to relax, to reflect on their experiences and to prepare themselves for the transition from war to peace. Such a period of reflection was denied to those soldiers who returned home by aircraft, leaving Vietnam and being home within 10 hours. Although many Vietnam veterans recall being ignored upon their return to Australia, this was not the case for those who returned with their battalions on board HMAS Sydney. When the ship docked, the infantry were often met by dignitaries, including the Minister for the Army, and a march through the city - Sydney, Brisbane or Townsville - usually followed within hours. Sydney’s efforts were complemented by the work of two Australian National Line vessels, MV Jeparit and MV Boonaroo After February 1967 Jeparit sailed with mixed crews, civilian seamen and naval personnel. Boonaroo made only two voyages to Vietnam and did one of these as a commissioned naval vessel. Jeparit on the other hand made 43 voyages to Vietnam, often coming up against strike action imposed by anti-war unions that delayed her loading and unloading. By 1970 authorities were sufficiently concerned at the toll that strike action was taking that in December that year she was commissioned as a Royal Australian Naval vessel, making union concerns, at least on board, irrelevant.

Clearance Divers CDT3

Australian naval clearance divers had been operating under various titles since the Second World War. The Clearance Diving Branch of the navy was formally established in 1951. In 1966 during a tour of South-East Asia, a team of Australian clearance divers spent a week on an unscheduled operational attachment to a United States Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal team based near Saigon. Brief and unofficial though their sojourn was, they became the first Australian clearance divers to serve in Vietnam. The task that faced the eight Australian Naval Clearance Diving teams in Vietnam was complex and dangerous. The country’s long coast and many rivers, and the large Mekong Delta near Saigon gave the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong many opportunities to attack and disrupt shipping with mines and underwater obstacles, often planted by sappers known as swimmers. The attempts to combat these threats to shipping were collectively labelled ‘Stable Door’ operations and these were the primary task of the Australian clearance divers. Large merchant ships, often carrying military supplies, were a particularly valuable target as were military vessels, especially those that operated in Vietnam’s rivers. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese used a range of mine types against shipping including moored and floating mines as well as those placed on the bottom of a watercourse. In the north of the country Soviet-manufactured limpet mines were employed. The mines were also transported and placed in a variety of ways. In some instances they were tethered beneath a sampan by cables that could be cut if the vessel was approached. The most common method, however, was to have the mines placed by swimmers who had been trained in North Vietnam and who then came south to carry out anti-shipping operations. In addition to combating attacks on shipping, Australian Naval Clearance Divers were engaged in disposing of ordnance that had become unsafe, and in salvage operations. These included diving around downed aircraft to remove classified material and render any explosive material safe. After mid-1968 the Australians were also involved in operations with the South Vietnamese armed forces during which they cleared barriers along the approaches to suspected enemy positions. All eight clearance diving contingents performed difficult, dangerous tasks, often in very unpleasant conditions. The waters in which they generally operated carried swift currents, were murky – reducing visibility considerably – and choppy. The materials with which the divers worked were unstable and, if handled incorrectly, lethal. Their work did not have the same profile as that carried out by Australian naval vessels or aviators, but it was vital to the safety of shipping, both military and civilian, in South Vietnam.

Helicopter Flights

IThe Royal Australian Navy (RAN) did not confine its effort in Vietnam to seaborne activity; the Fleet Air Arm provided an additional Australian aerial presence during the war. In December 1966, the United States Government requested Australian assistance to meet the need for additional air crew and maintenance personnel. Australia, recognising the heavy toll that the war was taking on US air crew, offered a detachment of RAN airmen and support personnel. Named the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV), the Vietnam-bound naval personnel had to replace training in anti-submarine warfare with new skills. Now they learnt how to drop troops into, or extract them from, dangerous landing zones as well as methods of escape and evasion if they were shot down – an increasingly common occurrence for helicopter crews on combat operations in Vietnam. The first RANHFV contingent reached Vietnam on 16 October 1967. The Flight, having to integrate with the United States 135th Assault Helicopter Company, was designated an Experimental Military Unit and became known by the acronym EMU. Initially based at Vung Tau, the 135th Assault Helicopter Company flew Iroquois and provided the tactical movement of combat troops, supplies and equipment in what, during the Vietnam War, were known as air-mobile operations. Two months after their arrival in Vietnam, the 135th, including the RANHFV, moved from Vung Tau to the American base at Black Horse in Long Khanh province, thirty-five miles away. Amidst rubber plantations and jungle, Black Horse was far more vulnerable to enemy attack than Vung Tau. The facilities too were more primitive and the ever-present dust made helicopter maintenance more difficult. During the Tet offensive conditions at Black Horse became more precarious, fighting on the camp’s boundaries became more frequent and enemy mines made the supply route to the camp increasingly dangerous. Even after the fighting associated with Tet subsided helicopter crews continued to fly daily missions and combat assaults that left crews and maintenance personnel exhausted. For aircrew, the routine meant rising at 4.30 in the morning, eating breakfast and collecting combat rations before beginning the day’s flying which, not infrequently, would end 12 or more hours later. In November 1968 the 135th, including the RANHFV was reassigned and moved to Camp Martin Cox at Bear Cat, a large base in Bien Hoa province that, housed the Royal Thai Army volunteer force and United States aviation units. During the third RANHFV contingent’s tour the 135th moved again, this time to Dong Tam, south of Saigon in South Vietnam’s Mekhong Delta region. Once more RANHFV personnel found themselves having to develop facilities to make the base more habitable while continuing to fly a full schedule of operations. Each of the four RANHFV contingents lived and fought under similar conditions. Routine flying, still exhausting and dangerous, was interspersed with periods of intense combat. Over the course of a year-long tour a contingent’s flight crews commonly logged a combined total of between 9,000 and 12,000 flying hours. The RANHFV ceased operations on 8 June 1971, the 135th and the Australians were giving way to the process of disengagement and 'Vietnamisation' - devolving responsibility for operations to South Vietnamese forces. Shortly afterwards the 135th moved to Dien, northeast of Saigon. By the time the RANHFV left Vietnam, more than 200 personnel had served in the four contingents. The unit flew hundreds of offensive operations, placing great strain on both men and machines, and was involved in some of the most intense combat experienced by Australians in the war. Five members of the Flight lost their lives in Vietnam, some 22 were wounded in action. Their having served in a combined US/Australian formation was a source of pride for personnel of both countries.

9 Squadron RAAF Detachment

In 1967 No 9 Squadron was operating in direct support of the 1st Australian Task Force at Nui Dat. Late that year the squadron was re- equipped with larger Iroquois helicopters than those with which it had previously operated and its strength doubled to sixteen aircraft. Already heavily committed in Vietnam, Malaysia and at home, the RAAF was short of trained aircrew. The RAN was approached to help temporarily by providing pilots, eight of whom joined the squadron in 1968. As well as the RAN detachment, thirteen Royal New Zealand Air Force pilots also flew with 9 Squadron. Flying with RAAF aircrews, RAN pilots provided covering fire for MEDEVAC aircraft and were sometimes asked to evacuate wounded soldiers in their single-stretcher helicopters. They escorted gunships in combat assaults and retrieved Special Air Service (SAS) patrols from enemy occupied areas, often performing ‘hot extractions’ when they were in contact with the enemy. The squadron also conducted ‘people sniffer’ missions in a specially equipped helicopter fitted with sensors. As the helicopter flew low over the jungle canopy, the sensors would analyse air samples, detecting concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas. This would supposedly indicate a concentration of people or CO2 coming from air vents in underground enemy bunkers in the area. The RAN detachment remained in Vietnam until March-April 1969, enabling the RAAF to consolidate its pilot training program for Vietnam. Many of the RAN pilots also flew missions with the RAN Helicopter Flight (RANHFV) during their time in Vietnam.

Gunline Destroyers

Australia’s largest naval commitment to the Vietnam War was the provision of destroyers, on rotation, to serve on the ‘gunline’ delivering naval gunfire support for ground forces with the US 7th Fleet. HMA Ships Hobart, Perth and Brisbane all served on multiple six-monthly rotations between 1967 and 1971. The Daring Class destroyer, HMAS Vendetta served one tour of duty on the gunline. The Australian vessels emerged from the gunline largely unscathed but the requirements of operational service placed heavy demands on ships’ companies. Gunline destroyers needed to be constantly available to provide support to shore-based forces and to conduct off-shore patrols. Hobart and Perth were also involved in Operation Sea Dragon along the North Vietnamese coast between 1966 and 1968. Ships serving on Sea Dragon interdicted enemy attempts at seaborne infiltration and resupply along the North Vietnamese coast from the Demilitarised Zone to the Red River delta near Hanoi and often came under heavy and accurate fire from shore-based batteries. For the ships of the RAN serving in the waters off Vietnam, these operations were amongst the most dangerous of the war. In one tragic incident two members of Hobart’s crew were killed when the ship was mistakenly attacked by a US aircraft. For the sailors who came under fire and saw friends killed and wounded, the war was every bit as real as it was for the ground forces in South Vietnam. No one going into an operational area can be sure of what will happen, only with hindsight is it possible to rank the relative danger of one type of service over another.
HMAS Vendetta
HMAS Perth
CDT3 in Action
Hive of activity in Vung Tau
Jackstay Transfer with HMAS Sydney
Sleeping Quarters on HMAS Sydney
Wessex with HMAS Derwent as Rescue Destroyer
HMAS Sydney
Barges off the stern of HMAS Sydney
Please press play to listen to the “Vung Tau Ferry” by Pearse Coleman
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