The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) began its involvement in the war in 1964 when a flight of Caribous began flying transport operations around South Vietnam. The following year RAAF helicopters began operations and in 1967 a squadron of Canberra bombers arrived in the country. Other RAAF personnel performed a variety of roles in Vietnam, from aeromedical evacuations to airfield construction and combat flying with United States forces.
The RAAF began its service in the Vietnam War on 8 August 1964 when three Caribou aircraft of the RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam landed at Vung Tau. The flight’s remaining three aircraft arrived on 29 August; in the meantime two Caribous carried out the RAAF’s first operation in Vietnam when they flew supplies to Pleiku. On 1 June 1966 the flight, its status raised, was renamed No. 35 (Transport) Squadron. For many veterans, however, the squadron will always be remembered as ‘Wallaby Airlines’.The bulk of the 35 Squadron’s operations in Vietnam were known as ‘milk runs’ - routine, and by implication, relatively safe flights - one to the north and one to the south, on alternate days for six days a week to drop supplies at American special forces camps and to members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam across the Central Highlands. Coupled with this already demanding workload, 35 Squadron routinely carried out wide-ranging unscheduled daily tasks, allocated at short notice, including transporting military and civilian passengers, medical evacuations and delivering mail or general cargo (food, fuel, livestock, ammunition, spare parts.)Benign though they sound, ‘milk runs’ involved certain dangers. Airfields at special forces outposts, where the Caribous often landed, were usually outside the camp’s perimeter. Attacks on the aircraft in the dangerous moments of take-off and landing were always possible, but even where the enemy was absent the airfields’ very location and condition could prove hazardous. For 35 Squadron pilots there was little margin for error, some airstrips were just a few metres longer than the minimum needed for a Caribou to take off. Others eroded under the flooding monsoon rains and more than one 35 Squadron Caribou crashed on these remote landing strips. After 1966 the squadron’s workload increased further when Luscombe Field was opened at Nui Dat. Now the Australian Task Force base was part of the Caribous’ regular run and work with the 1st Australian Task Force became a regular feature of the squadrons’ operations.
AsecondRAAFservicebeganinVietnamon3May1966whenanadvance party from No. 9 Squadron arrived at Vung Tau. The squadron’s helicopters arrived on 6 June aboard HMAS Sydney and were flown to Vung Tau that day before moving to Nui Dat at the end of the month.No. 9 Squadron’s helicopters carried out a variety of roles in Vietnam. Most important were the transport of infantry and logistic support, but the helicopters were also used to drop leaflets over enemy territory. Some were also used in aerial spraying to rid the base of mosquitoes and, more aggressively, to kill vegetative growth around the base and to destroy agricultural plots in Viet Cong territory, denying the enemy a source of food.Just two months after the squadron’s arrival in Vietnam, two pilots were called on to drop ammunition to the beleaguered troops of D Company, 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, at Long Tan. Flying in appalling weather at tree-top height; they dropped ammunition to the soldiers on the ground through driving rain and under intense Viet Cong fire. The squadron operated again that night, after the battle, to retrieve the wounded, guided only by the light emanating from the open hatches of armoured personnel carriers.No. 9 Squadron was re-equipped with larger Iroquois helicopters in 1967. Now equipped with 16 helicopters, the squadron worked in conjunction with aircraft of the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam and United States forces, on the dangerous tasks of transporting men to and from patrols and evacuating wounded soldiers from the battlefield. On some occasions these operations ended with the death of helicopter crewmen and the destruction of the aircraft.The last members of 9 Squadron left Vung Tau on 17 December 1971. Six squadron members were killed on operations, and another man, attached to the squadron from No. 1 Operational Support Unit, was alsokilled.
As well as Caribous and helicopters, the RAAF sent No. 2 Squadron to Vietnam in April 1967. Equipped with Canberra bombers and flying out of Phan Rang Air Base on South Vietnam’s southern coast, some 250 kilometres north-east of Saigon, No. 2 Squadron operated day and night missions destroying a wide range of infrastructure targets as well as attacking Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops. The squadron served with the United States Air Force’s 35th Tactical Fighter Wing until leaving Vietnam on 14 June 1971. Five members of the Squadron died during the war, two on operations.
Other RAAF Personnel
Other RAAF personnel flew in Vietnam, carrying out logistics tasks and aeromedical evacuations using Hercules aircraft based at Richmond in New South Wales. Additionally, No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron worked on the airfields at both Vung Tau and Phan Rang and the RAAF provided Air Defence Guards for both of these facilities. RAAF personnel also flew as forward air controllers, to call in and guide artillery strikes as well as carrying out reconnaissance operations within the US Tactical Air Control System. Working with all the allied air forces, their role was to call in and control artillery and air strikes against enemy ground forces, and to carry out visual reconnaissance. Six RAAF personnel also flew F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber and reconnaissance aircraft with the United States Air Force.
Patients lie on litters inside a C-130E Hercules transport aircraft. These wounded men were awaiting their return to Australia from Vung Tau, beside them sit two RAAF aircrew. Patients on these flights were looked after by members of the RAAF Nursing Service, over one hundred of whom served during the Vietnam War. Preparations for work on aeromedical evacuation flights included survival training in case aircraft had to ditch in the sea. But the nurse’s main concern was always for the patients whose survival depended on the skill and dedication of the RAAF’s medical personnel. By the time Australia’s involvement in the war ended more than 3,100 Australian and New Zealand soldiers had come home on such flights.
Members of No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron (5ACS) begin work on a hanger at Vung Tau in June 1966. These men are likely to be members of Detachment A, the first members of 5ACS to work at Vung Tau. The hanger for which they are preparing the site dated back to the Second World War. It was dismantled and brought to South Vietnam from an airfield in Parkes, New South Wales. By late June Detachment A numbered fifteen personnel but their labour was supplemented with that of Vietnamese workers who helped with the concrete laying. The hanger was completed in early October 1966.