I graduated from No 64 Pilots Course in February 1968 one of 21 new RAAF pilots. Eleven of us were subsequently posted to No 5 Squadron to fly the UH-1B Iroquois helicopter. By May the following year we had all been posted to No 9 Squadron South Vietnam on active service flying the upgraded UH-IH Iroquois.
Australia had been providing military assistance to South Vietnam for many years from the early sixties and this aid was being significantly increased at the request of the South Vietnamese government and America. By 1965 a battalion of the Australian Regular Army had been deployed to Phuoc Tuy Province south of Saigon where it had been agreed between the South Vietnamese Government, Australia and the Americans that this was an ideal location for the Australians to be positioned and conduct operations against the North Vietnamese Communist Forces; the enemy.
At that time the Province was a strong hold of the enemy who consisted of North Vietnamese regular forces as well as local Viet Cong (VC) guerillas or “Charlie” as they came to be known. The location also suited Australia as it was on the southern coast and had a deep sea port and an airfield located at Vung Tau, the largest city in the Province. Both of these were relatively secure and provided the necessary port and airhead to support the Australian forces.
The home of the Australian Task Force was at Nui Dat which translated as “small hill”. It was on a major roadway to Saigon and roughly in the centre of the populated area of the Province. Nui Dat was an area with a radius of approximately 6km which was cleared of all Vietnamese many of whom were peasant farmers by day and Viet Cong guerillas by night. Within this perimeter the Australian Task Force would eventually number around 5500 personnel.
The base included a runway called Luscombe Airfield which could handle C130 Hercules transports, and a Helicopter Landing Zone (LZ), called Kangaroo Pad, which could handle around 30 helicopters and had a hot refueling facility for 8 helicopters and a rearming facility for helicopter gunships. It also had a medical facility for triage and in 1969 when I was there two US Army medevac helicopters were on standby during daylight hours. No 9 Squadron provided two medevac helicopters on standby at Vung Tau for the Province at night from 6 pm until 6 am.
With the steady build up of Australian forces into Phuoc Tuy a Government decision was made to provide a squadron of 8 Iroquois UH-1B helicopters to the Task Force. This was to be No 9 Squadron which was to be based at Vung Tau airfield and the squadron arrived in Vietnam in June 1966. Around the same time the Ist Australian Logistics Force which included an Australian Military hospital was also established about 5 miles (8km) from Vung Tau airfield at Back Beach. So at its peak in 1969 the Australian contribution in country was roughly about 8500 personnel. At Nui Dat there were three infantry battalions plus supporting arms such as the SAS, centurian tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery totaling around 5,500. At Vung Tau there were 400 RAAF personnel at the airfield and 1000 military personnel at Back Beach and another 1000 Australians scattered throughout the country with the Navy, special Army advisors, RAAF Forward Air Controllers (FACs) and at Phan Rang No 2 Canberra Bomber Squadron plus many specialists assigned to various US Forces.
The UH-1B helicopter had two pilots and could carry seven personnel in the back two of whom were crewman/gunners so a useful load of five soldiers. Unfortunately the squadron on arrival in country was not well prepared for the task assigned having no armour plating, appropriate self defence weapons or personal protection equipment. This essential equipment was initially obtained by squadron personnel bartering with the US Army before a proper logistic system was put in place. A slouch hat or carton of Aussie Beer could get you almost anything, rotor blades to replace damaged ones no questions asked and even the odd jeep.
The inadequacy of the B model Iroquois was recognized early so a decision was made to upgrade the Iroquois to the latest UH-1H model, which was a much larger helicopter with improved cabin space, bigger rotor blades a more powerful engine and could carry an extra 4 passengers.
In 1968 the RAAF took delivery of these bigger helicopters and doubled the number of helicopters in the squadron from eight B models to sixteen H models. The B models were subsequently returned to No 5 squadron in Canberra for use as a basic helicopter trainer which I trained on as well as purchasing a number of Hotel models to provide familiarity and support to the rest of the Army as they prepared themselves for deployment to South Vietnam.
As previously mentioned I graduated from pilots course in February 1968 and as a result of the expansion of the helicopter force 11 new pilots from my pilots course were sent to Canberra to learn to fly helicopters with No 5 squadron. There were fifteen pilots on our helicopter course which consisted of one hundred flying hours and took about four months to complete. Our instructors were all veterans from No 9 squadron Vietnam so we were taught all the latest roles, tactics and tricks of how to operate the Iroquois safely under combat conditions day and night. I was very lucky as my primary instructors were FltLt Frank Riley who featured prominently in the Battle of Long Tan where he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), FltLt Les Morris and FltLt Bill Gill a former RAF fighter pilot. One bit of advice which has stuck with me forever was: “ never go flying with a full bladder because if you crash and get injured you don’t want your piddle complicating things if your bladder is damaged and bursts!” so if you are planning on driving somewhere make sure you go to the toilet before you go.
The squadron primary roles were many and varied utilizing the unique capabilities of this helicopter. My course finished in August 1968 coincident with the expansion of No 9 squadron in Vietnam so between August and May the following year we were all trickle fed to the squadron in Phuoc Tuy for a tour of up to twelve months duration.
During this period with No 5 Squadron in Australia we were heavily involved in training with Army units who were themselves preparing to deploy to the Task Force at Nui Dat. These activities were conducted all over Australia with the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) in Perth, No 9 Battalion RAR at Cultana and Leigh Creek in S.A. and up and down the east coast with other Battalions and supporting units at various Army Bases. The principle training area though was Shoalwater Bay north of Rockhampton in Queensland where all units were given their final assessment prior to deployment to South Vietnam. The geography and climate of this area was very similar to that of Phouc Tuy.
I was posted to No 9 Squadron on 13 May 1969. I was 20. It was an interesting time as we departed Sydney’s Mascot Airport around 10pm in a QANTAS chartered Boeing 707 and had to land at Singapore to refuel. We had to wear uniform but for some weird political reason I think to do with Singapore not wanting to be recognized as helping us, we were not allowed to be seen in uniform as we waited in the Transition Lounge so we all had to put on a civilian shirt so that we could not possibly be identified as Australian servicemen; the haircuts most probably gave us away anyway as did the proliferation of Hawaiian shirts! As I recall QANTAS were good to us as they gave us a couple of free cans of beer which weren’t really needed as we were pretty well inebriated when we boarded the flight in Sydney.
We landed at Tan Son Nut airport in Saigon around 9am. At the time this was the busiest airport in the world with a constant flow of military traffic taking off and returning from live missions as well as domestic and international flights arriving and departing. As I was travelling with the new Squadron Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Nugget Hibben, we were looked after pretty quickly and were soon on an American transport aircraft bound for the RAAF compound at Vung Tau.
Vung Tau airfield had many different aircraft squadrons operating on it. There were around sixty Caribou light tactical transports including seven RAAF Caribous with No 35 Squadron. Sixteen No 9 Squadron Iroquois, many other helicopter types from Cobra gunships, Chinooks, Iroquois from the American Army as well as several squadrons of USAF forward air control (FAC) and tactical reconnaissance aircraft plus an assortment of South Vietnamese Air Force aircraft: a very busy airfield.
The RAAF contingent was housed in its own compound within the Base perimeter. There were about four hundred personnel comprising No 9 Helicopter Squadron, No 35 Caribou Tactical Transport Squadron and No 1 Operational Support Squadron the latter comprised all the support facilities who were needed to support and guard the two operational squadrons. We were housed in dormitory style wooden buildings with individual bedrooms containing a bed, small wardrobe and a chair and desk. The buildings were sand bagged to prevent shrapnel damage from rockets and mortars and there were bunkers for us to jump into should we be rocketed which occasionally happened usually during the night.
There were what were known as “hooch ladies” who looked after the laundry and general cleanliness of the compound. They were mostly mid to old age Vietnamese women usually with about 6 kids each. Most of them could speak a smattering of English. I think all were catholic and used to get ribbing about being Viet Cong spies which they would vehemently deny. As it subsequently turned out the woman who ran our bar apparently was a Viet Cong plant. My lasting memory of these women was seeing them all sitting on the ground on a big blanket sorting out all the dried fruit from a big pile of fruit cakes that had been sent to us in packages by various Australian welfare organisations. These packages usually contained packets of gum, two cigarettes in a very small packet would you believe, boot polish and fruit cakes the latter two of which were seldom used so were given to the house girls. They didn’t like the cakes either but had lots of uses for the contained mixed fruit which they individually picked out and placed in separate piles for later uses.
The squadron was required to have thirteen of the sixteen helicopters on line for daily tasking with the other three undergoing routine maintenance. If pre planning indicated the need for the full sixteen then this too could be achieved although it was not that common. We had thirty six pilots in the squadron and basically crews for sixteen helicopters. The squadron was split into two flights; ‘slicks’ or the normal every day assault aircraft and the gunship flight. The gunships were involved in all squadron SAS insertions and extractions, all combat assaults and any missions where it was thought the enemy might be lurking and we might be needed.
Our working day was from 6.00am until 6.00pm. The first six crews were woken at 5.00am, fed, briefed, airborne and on the ground at Nui Dat 15-20 minutes flying time away by 6.00am. The others were kept at Vung Tau and tasked from there. Depending on Task Force activities you could be home after six or you stayed until released sometimes well into the night. This roster would go for five days when on the sixth day you would be rostered for one of the two night medevac aircraft which we provided every night. This duty would go from 6.00pm to 6.00am the next morning. The seventh day after night duty you would get to rest but were on call if needed. The cycle would then start all over again.
Every third week junior pilots were rostered on as the daily Duty Pilot responsible for waking crews, transporting them to Base Operations for briefings and picking them up after the day’s work was done and taking them back to the barracks. We had a couple of yellow Volkswagon Combi vans for this task and it was always great fun trying to fit in as many people as we could. I can’t remember what the record was but sometimes the poor overloaded van could hardly move!
Each helicopter had a crew of four, two pilots a crewman on the right hand side equipped with a M60 machine gun with between 400 – 750 rounds of 7.62mm 100% red tracer ammunition. The RHS crewman was the crew chief in the back who was responsible for using the hoist to rescue people and the hook underneath the helicopter for lifting external loads. He also gave us clearances on the right hand side of the helicopter from trees and other obstacles near the tail rotor and main rotor. On the left hand side was a gunner who also had the same machine gun setup and had similar responsibilities for providing main and tail rotor clearances on his side.
The Bell UH-1H Iroquois was more commonly known as the Huey. In the normal assault /admin role they were known as “slicks”. Our callsign for the squadron slicks was “Albatross and the daily mission number” such as “Albatross 01 to 10.” Our squadron crest had an albatross sitting on a naval crown because pre World War 2 the fore runner of the squadron, 101 Flight, was embarked on the Royal Australian Navy aircraft carrier HMAS Albatross flying sea planes hence the connection. When we converted some of the helicopters to the gunship role their call sign became “Bushranger 71 to 73”
The UH-1H Iroquois was very versatile. It had seating for thirteen including the aircrew but in emergencies was known to carry much more. It had a hoist which extended roughly 70 metres and could lift two people at a time or a litter with a non ambulatory patient. The hook beneath could lift 700 kilograms usually a load such as a couple of 200 litre drums of fuel or rolls of barb wire which were used as perimeter defences at Fire Support Bases when the battalions deployed on operations. Apart from people, internally it carried a mixed bag of supplies from water containers ie jerry cans, ammunition, hot boxes of food, mail and anything else that the diggers might need when deployed. This role was called “admin support or “ hash and trash.” When the soldiers were deployed during my time there the Australian Army philosophy was to try and give a soldier a hot meal each day so it could get very busy in the afternoon if a couple of battalion groups of 7-900 men were deployed and they all required a hot meal before it got dark. This often meant we came home late as night was approaching.
The helicopter could also be set up as a medical rescue helicopter or “dustoff” as it was universally known. Another role was as a flare ship helicopter to light up the sky at night. This was particularly helpful if a rescue helicopter was needed to evacuate wounded following engagement with the enemy and it was necessary to not highlight your presence by turning your landing and search lights on when landing or hovering during the pickup. A flare ship carried twelve parachute flares which each burnt for about three minutes and provided about two million candle watts of power which was enough for you to see what you were doing provided they didn’t run out of flares and leave you suddenly completely in the dark! Our other alternative, if available, was to use a USAF fixed wing flare ship which was an old transport aircraft equipped with a three million candle watt search light on the wing and could orbit above you providing illumination. They also carried flares if needed.
We normally flew between 50-200ft (15-60 metres) on top of the trees or well above 1500 ft (500metres) out of small arms range. At night it was always above the minimum lowest safe altitude of 1500ft until we commenced descent for landing. Flight endurance was around 2 hours 20 minutes and at the 2 hour mark a 20 minute fuel warning light would come on giving you a hint to start thinking about a refuel. We could do “hot refueling” which allowed us to refuel without shutting down so on busy days it was not uncommon to have “your arse strapped to the seat” for 6 plus hours. As the seat was just bolted to the floor with the constant vertical vibrations backs were mercilessly pounded so that is why it is easy to identify an old Iroquois pilot because they all have stuffed backs and walk with a stoop just like me!
The Iroquois helicopter had many roles. It was used extensively in direct engagement with the enemy during combat assaults, “sniffer missions” that were helicopters equipped with infra red gear to detect the enemy hidden by the jungle and SAS insertions and extractions. Many of these operations involved direct confrontation with the enemy but surprisingly we did not lose a lot of aircraft or aircrew although we were frequently engaged in firefights with them.
A combat assault operation usually involved lifting half a Company, roughly 56-70 soldiers into an “insecure landing zone (LZ)” then following up with the rest of the Company. This could entail up to 12 helicopters flying in close formation shepherded by a light fire team with the LZ being pre-prepared with artillery, and close air support from a variety of fighter bombers and gunships just prior to the assault. On late finals all the outside gunners of the assault force would engage the tree lines with machine gun fire until landing. Very noisy and with adrenalin working overtime!
The standard formation we used was known as “heavy left or right” or “finger four” which was actually developed by World War One fighter pilots and refined in World War Two. This is best explained by looking at the fingers of your left hand. The middle finger is the leader, the index finger his wingman or number two, the ring finger is the deputy lead, number 3 and the little finger is his wingman or number 4. So in each finger four formation there were two sections of two helicopters. The combat assault formation usually consisted of two flights of 4 helicopters with occasionally a third flight of up to 4 helicopters. Each flight of four was given a colour code such as red, blue, and yellow flight numbers one to four for instance “Albatross red four.”
This enabled much flexibility particularly when on short finals for landing as the lead could call for all aircraft to retain this formation or to go “stagger trail left or right” in which all the section leads would go line astern on the lead in front of them and their wingmen then go left or right of their leads depending on the condition of the LZ and where the battalion commander wanted his troops disembarked. LZs were notorious for being full of bomb craters, blown up trees and other rubbish, plus the ever present threat of enemy and mines. In the dry they were often full of dust and occasionally on fire so on short finals to landing you were working like a one armed paper hanger trying to maintain some semblance of formation, avoiding other helicopters as well as trying to find somewhere to land and safely deposit your load of diggers without injuring them. These landings were very hairy as the lead had to fly a very exact approach keeping his speed up otherwise formation aircraft could run out of tail rotor control and start spinning out of directional control resulting in a heavy landing. Often the troops would start jumping out as soon as you were within about 6 feet of the ground as they figured this was the safer option! As soon as they were all disembarked the formation would get airborne fly back to Nui Dat, reload and do it all over again.
The squadron developed a special relationship with the Special Air Service Regiment during the conflict as we were responsible for inserting and extracting them by air into LZs. The SAS’s principal role was to be the eyes and ears of the Task Force so they were inserted in small patrols usually of five men for up to fourteen days around the Province to locate and observe the enemy. Their insertion was to be covert and they were to avoid being discovered by the enemy. If they were and they couldn’t break contact then we would go back in and extract them under what was called “a hot extraction” where to put it mildly there could be lots of gun fire from both sides hence why we called it “hot”. In the event that they could not get to a suitable landing zone and they were being chased and unable to break contact then they could be hoisted out or in the extreme urgent case 60 metre ropes attached to the helicopter were dropped through the jungle and the SAS folk would simply attach themselves to the rope ends and we would drag them up through the trees and haul them off to safety. A very dangerous mission and one which was subsequently stopped after one helicopter crashed fortunately with no loss of life and on another occasion a soldier fell off his rope and was killed. Under “Operation Bring Them Home” this soldier’s remains were subsequently found and recovered after 40 odd years. His name was Private Fisher.
SAS insertions were a highly planned covert reconnaissance operation involving the patrol commander, the mission leader Albatross 01, the aircraft to insert the patrol Albatross 02, the spare Albatross 03, in case of unserviceabilities or misadventure and two Bushranger gunships. Headquarters Task Force would issue orders stating what where and when they wanted patrolled and the detail planning was then left up to the SAS and Albatross 01. Photos of the area and landing zone (LZ) were studied with a landing required into the wind. The LZs were often just a small gap in the jungle which prevented a landing and necessitated the patrol having to jump out from around 5 feet because of vegetation and saplings. Occasionally the rotors chopped into these saplings more often though on the extraction because the helicopter had to get closer to the ground to enable the SAS to embark.
The insertion was for the most part conducted in radio silence. The insertion formation would transit at around 3000feet and at a predetermined feature usually around 6-8 miles out Albatross 02 would break formation and descend to treetop height on a specific heading from where he would be guided by Albatross 01 with small heading changes like “ turn right five degrees, straighten.” The gunships would already be low level and would marry up and escort 02 flying about 500 yards behind and one on either side. Approaching the LZ a final radio call would be made like “pad in your right 2 o’clock commence 180 degree right flare now.” Albatross 02 would call pad sighted, flare which was a manouevre designed to rapidly lose airspeed by decreasing power and raising the nose at the same time turning 180 degrees into wind, come to a hover and descend into the pad. The patrol would then disembark clear the pad quickly and go to ground for 30 minutes to check for any enemy presence. At the same time the two gunships would fly past the LZ turn 180 degrees and then fly back either side of the LZ and intercept Albatross 02 as he lifted off and departed the pad. The formation would then go into a holding pattern a few miles away for 30 minutes in case the patrol was detected and needed an immediate extraction. In this case we would fly a similar profile and go back and extract the patrol usually in a fire fight with the enemy or as we termed it “a hot extraction or going down the mine.” This had to be done quickly due to our limited fuel endurance and the fact that the patrol’s presence was blown, needed immediate extraction and with the enemy being engaged in close proximity to the patrol and the extraction LZ.
I was involved in many SAS inserts and extractions one in particular was the hot extraction of a patrol, Callsign 19 on 9 Jan 1970 which had been spotted by a superior enemy force and was being chased. It was very hot and in the middle of the dry season and the patrol was having difficulty in breaking contact. They wanted to be extracted but the Task Force Commander refused to let them come out insisting that they break contact and stay there. I was part of a Light Fire Team of two gunships and we fired our rockets and mini guns in support of them and relayed messages to the patrol because they were on the run and couldn’t set up their radios to talk direct to the Task Force. Eventually we had to return to Nui Dat to refuel and rearm prior to returning but relayed to the patrol the Commander’s final order to break contact and stay there to which the patrol leader’s response was quite unprintable! When this message was relayed to my CO and the CO of SAS we were told to get back out there ASAP, keep supporting them and tell them the slicks were on their way to extract them. This was subsequently successfully accomplished and I never did find out what higher command thought of it all!
In early 1969 six of our airframes were converted to the helicopter gunship role which gave the Task Force the ability to have three gunships on line each day to support any number of operational activities throughout the Province. The gunships were equipped with 2 forward mounted mini guns that had six rotating barrels firing 7.62 mm rounds. Each gun had 5000 rounds of ammunition with every sixth one being a red tracer so you could see where your rounds were going. Additionally there were 2 forward firing rocket pods each containing 7 2.75in (64mm) rockets with a variety of warheads. The gunners in the back each had twin m-60 machine guns with 750 rounds which were all red tracer so the pilots could see where the gunners were aiming. They were only allowed to engage when the captain was satisfied that they knew where the target was and where friendly forces were.
They were very heavily armed helicopters and on a hot day required a long take off run up to get airborne as they were generally too heavy to hover. There were stories of American gunships scrapping along the ground trying to get airborne with the gunners running along side waiting until it had flying speed before they jumped on! Fortunately we didn’t subscribe to this practice. To prevent accidental shooting of our own troops our accuracy from friendlies was restricted to 80 metres for rockets and 50 metres for the mini guns. The enemy were very clever and obviously knew this as occasionally in tight engagements they would sneak right up to our troops inside these parameters particularly in thick jungle.
The Bushranger gunships usually operated as a light fire team consisting of a pair of gunships. When needed particularly in a heavy contact a third gunship was added to form a heavy fire team which enabled the gunships to provide continuous fire against the enemy. In a combat assault the Bushrangers would usually roll in about 20 seconds before the assault and attack the tree line with mini gun fire and rockets before the arrival of the assault formation. They were always coordinated by a Command and Control helicopter flying high above which contained the Commanding Officers of both the squadron and the Battalion being supported. Once the first assault was completed the assaults would continue throughout the day until the entire Battalion had been inserted usually to about five different LZs within the designated Area of Operations all of which initially were treated as being insecure and went through the same process.
Another gunship role was to do what the Americans called “hunter killer tasks or armed reconnaissance “where we were given a specific area known as a “free fire zone “ to fly at low level on the treetops to see if we could find any signs of enemy activity. The lead aircraft would fly low and slow looking under the jungle canopy with his wingman orbiting at 500 feet above the lead watching him all the time and ready to roll in and attack should the leader be fired upon.
Usually fire fights were over the jungle where “Charlie” was generally pretty safe because they had the advantage of cover with tunnels, caves and bunkers to hide in and also the jungle itself which was very difficult for our rockets and rounds to penetrate. We were pretty vulnerable particularly to heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades so relied on our tactics to have the enemy constantly engaged to force them to keep their heads down. We often worked with our local FACs who usually had immediate access to fighter bombers should they be needed, which was always very handy. On the odd occasion usually when extracting SAS patrols under “hot” conditions we would deal direct with the fighter bombers. I found the Vietnamese Air Force A1 Skyraiders very accurate and interesting to control despite the occasional language barriers. If you put down a white phosphorous marking rocket and told them to hit it or a spot ten metres away they were always right on the button.
On the 18 February 1970 I was part of a three ship heavy fire gunship team that supported some centurion tanks and armoured mortar carriers that were engaged in a fire fight with the enemy. A mortar carrier had hit a mine killing two soldiers and wounding several others. We remained on station for six hours providing gunship support. Between the three gunships we fired a record 63,200 minigun rounds, 20,000 7.62 M60 machine gun rounds and 155 2.75 inch rockets quote from: “The RAAF in Vietnam by Chris Coultard Clark pg 176”. This quote is from the No 9 Squadron Official History: “18 Feb 70. Tank element of 8 RAR were involved in a heavy enemy contact resulting in 33 Aust WIA being medevaced during the afternoon (two later died). Bushrangers flew 6 hours in support of the tanks and dustoff missions.” Two gunships were hit by enemy groundfire during the engagement.
The gunship flying was outstanding particularly low level where we flew right on top of the trees. One of our more exciting missions on the way home in the evening was to sneak up on an uninhabited island called Long Son which was designated a free fire zone, that was around 8nm off shore of Vung Tau and search for rockets which the VC had clandestinely set up on timers and pointed in the general direction of the air base. These rockets were aimed indiscriminately and were set to go off during the night to cause us discomfort. They occasionally hit the odd aircraft or building but generally missed hitting anything of value. We would come in low over the sea at about 15 metres high, pull up and roll in on any likely target shooting our mini guns and side guns at anything that looked suspicious.
The “night dustoff” mission caused us the most anxiety because if you were called out you were pretty much on your own and apart from the night environment and the weather it seemed as though everyone wanted to shoot at you. Villages and towns that were friendly by day changed to be the enemy at night which caused us more than mild consternation. Landing or hovering in the jungle at night minimizing use of the aircraft’s lights and with the ground element understandably not wishing to give away their position by setting up lights to guide you in was quite harrowing hence the development of flare ships to help give us a sporting chance. I remember one particular night mission where we were on task to winch up a wounded digger in the jungle. I was the co-pilot and my job was to monitor the engine temperatures and pressures, ghost the controls in case the flying pilot was disabled ie shot, and to give obstacle clearances on the front left side. When the soldier was about half way up a fire fight suddenly erupted below us where tracer was going everywhere: friendly fire red and enemy yellowy green. We had our lights off so I think Charlie was just shooting through the tree tops at where he thought we might be. But I can remember wondering whether I should draw my pistol and start shooting out the window rather than just sitting there waiting to be shot or to place my pistol between my legs to protect my jatz crackers! Fortunately we had the digger in quick smart and got out of there like a hot potato without even getting a scratch.
During my twelve month tour I was given three days off for what was called “rest in country” where I managed to hop on an RAAF Caribou going to the RAAF Base at Butterworth, Penang in Malaysia for a servicing. The funny thing was when I went there there was a curfew on from 6.pm till 6.00am due to the communist terrorist activity and civilian unrest. After nine months in country I went to Hong Kong for seven days RnR, ie Rest and Recuperation! In simple terms a one year tour of duty consisted of 355 days of pretty much continuous combat. In a twelve month tour the average flying rate was between 850-950 hours which was about three times the normal average back in Australia. About half of my time was flying gunships where I qualified as a gunship flight leader. We socialized a lot and drank lots of beers but I think this helped us let off steam and kept us sane.
North of Nui Dat were rubber plantations owned by Italian and French tyre companies who paid taxes to both the South Vietnam government and the Viet Cong and whose facilities and plantations were largely left untouched. Regional Force outposts were supporters of the government by day but if you flew too close to them at night they shot at you. On one occasion I landed at a village taking some senior people to visit the local chief and shut down the helicopter. While we were waiting for their return a bunch of school kids came up to us and we were giving them lollies and joking with them when the local police known as “white mice” charged up and ordered the kids away and then berated us as kids were known to have put hand grenades inside other allied helicopters and weren’t to be trusted.
Of all the missions I flew the ones I hated most were bringing out dead Australians in body bags usually the victims of mines or close contact incidents. Night flying over the jungle in a hostile environment also had its moments particularly if you had to winch a wounded digger with minimum illumination! There was also the very real threat of being shot down or having an aircraft emergency such as an engine or hydraulic failure over hostile territory. We practiced emergency reactions to treat these possibilities and on one occasion I was the copilot of an aircraft that had an engine failure off the end of the airstrip just after take off from Vung Tau flying at 200ft and 100 knots. We managed to get out mayday calls before we crashed into mud flats in the bay. Fortunately no one was injured and we were rescued very quickly. My friend Jack Lynch was the captain and after being rescued the RAAF Commander, Group Captain Bay Adams, a famous WW2 and Korean War fighter pilot opened the bar for us which we thought was pretty neat. In hindsight it was quite funny as we flew for 5 minutes debriefed for 30 minutes and then into the bar well and truly inebriated by the time the rest of the squadron came home later that evening!!
I made some wonderful friends who went to Vietnam with me from my pilots course like Ted Bach, Sandy Main, Ian Thompson and Bob Treloar who I remain in contact with today. We enjoyed ourselves as best we could, lots of skylarking playing tricks on each other, and generally looking out for one another. We had great respect for our Diggers and would do anything for them. We also had a lot of respect for our enemies.
One of the strangest things to happen to me many years later was when I was stationed at RAAF Laverton. On the base was a unit called the International Training School which provided English language training to ASEAN students who were going to attend ADF Training and Educational Facilities. On this occasion there were two Vietnamese Army Colonels both former NVA regulars who were to attend post graduate training at ADFA. Chatting to them one day it turned out one of them as a young officer had fought in a battle in the north of our Province in which I also was involved in flying gunships. We figured it was quite likely that we had both shot at each other and here we were 32 years later as friends. So much for war!
My biggest disappointment occurred after I came home and was posted back to No 5 Squadron in Canberra. We were not allowed to go into town in uniform for fear of antagonizing the locals. The hostility to Australia’s participation in the conflict was often blamed on the Defence Force so around the country there were many alleged incidences of Defence personnel being verbally assaulted or spat on. This didn’t happen to me and personally I am not sure whether it is fact or myth but needless to say I did not attend the welcome home parade in Sydney in 1987 as I thought it was all too late.
I was subsequently posted in 1972-75 as a flying advisor to the Singaporean Air Defence Command. In 1975 I was flying an advanced jet trainer, the BAC 167 Strikemaster from Changi Airbase where our training area was over the South China Sea. On many occasions I was able to observe activities of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet, the ANZUK Combined Naval Fleet and naval assets, submarines and communication trawlers of the Russian Navy as they patrolled the South China Sea during the invasion of South Vietnam by the Northern forces. What is not widely known or perhaps forgotten about is that some 350,000 South Vietnamese people fled Vietnam by boat through the South China Sea mostly heading for the Philippines and approximately half of these folk perished.
Contrary to popular opinion the Americans didn’t lose the war. Under President Nixon in 1972/73 they bombed the North and drove Ho Chi Minh to the peace talks in Paris where he agreed not to invade the South. America subsequently withdrew their combat forces and then in 1975 “Uncle Ho” and Le Duan broke their word and invaded the South and the US, contrary to their agreement with the South, failed to provide the military assistance as promised. The rest as they say is history the final outcome depending on who writes it and what they want us to believe.