Naval Operations in Vietnam

by
Jozef Straczek

Between 1965 and 1972 elements of the RAN undertook continuous operational service in Vietnam. During this period the Navy performed a variety of operational tasks at sea, ashore and in the air. The RAN's primary contribution consisted of destroyers, Fleet Air Arm personnel attached to a United States (US) Army assault helicopter company and the Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) No. 9 Squadron, a Clearance Diving Team, and a logistic support force consisting of transport and escort ships. Other RAN personnel served ashore in medical teams or performed staff duties at the Australian Embassy in Saigon or the Australian Task Force Headquarters in Nui Dat. The RAN Fleet Band also completed a short tour of Vietnam entertaining troops during periods of rest and recreation (R & R).

The Vietnam War was not a markedly naval conflict but for the 13,500 members of the RAN who saw active service it was undoubtedly a high tempo environment. The RAN's contribution, although small in comparison to that of the United States Navy (USN), was diverse and played a significant part in the Australian Forces overall commitment.

Early Goodwill Visits

Though the RAN did not become operationally involved in the Vietnam conflict until 1965, HMA Ships VAMPIRE and QUICKMATCH were the first ships in the area when they made a goodwill visit to Saigon in 1962. They were followed the next year by the Q Class destroyers HMA Ships QUIBERON and QUEENBOROUGH . These were not operational visits: but designed to show Australian government support for the government in Saigon, and members of the ships company visited the Vietnamese Special Forces training centre and carried out other `flag showing' activities. During the 1963 visit the small Vietnamese naval vessel KY-HOA accidently rammed and holed QUIBERON whilst coming alongside her.

Clearance Diving Team 3 - United and Undaunted

Without doubt one of the smallest, and unrivalled, Australian units to serve in Vietnam was Australian Clearance Diving Team Three (CDT3). They were an elite group of 49 officers and men; divers trained in the dangerous business of explosive ordnance disposal, who established an enviable reputation for courage and innovation in time of war in the spirit of the diver's motto, United and Undaunted.

The RAN formally established a Clearance Diving branch in 1951, and a Mobile Clearance Diving Team in 1956. In March 1966 two distinct teams were commissioned in Sydney; CDT1 and CDT2. Shortly thereafter CDT1 deployed for exercises in South East Asia, including one week in Vietnam conducting operations with their American counterparts. The Commanding Officer of CDT1 was of the view that a RAN diving team would make a worthwhile contribution to the Australian effort in Vietnam and recommended that CDT1 be deployed for a three to six month period. The RAN approved the formation of CDT3 in late 1966 as one element of a larger naval contribution to the war in Vietnam.

The first contingent of six personnel arrived in Vietnam on 6 February 1967 and were initially attached to a United States Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team based in Saigon. They then moved to Vung Tau and assumed responsibility for the defence of shipping against enemy attack, known as Operation Stable Door. The team was responsible for searching the hulls and anchor cables of shipping in the Vung Tau anchorages or alongside, for improvised explosive devices. In one particular incident, Viet Cong sappers penetrated the Vung Tau port area and placed home-made and Russian limpet mines on the hull of the MV Heredia and a nearby wharf. The home-made device partially exploded during search operations, and team members removed the Russian mine. Additional tasks included the salvage of downed military helicopters, searching villages for ammunition caches and demolishing Viet Cong cave and tunnel complexes.

CDT 3 Ordnance Disposal Vietnam.
CDT 3 Ordnance Disposal Vietnam.

CDT3 had originally been directed not to participate in SEAL type operations (United States Navy Special Forces) or in operations along the Cambodian border, however, the prohibition was lifted in January 1969 allowing team members to make full use of their unique skills. Consequently, the operational focus from 1969 shifted towards the provision of explosive ordnance disposal support for offensive operations, with team members frequently being attached to American and South Vietnamese special forces. These operations intensified in 1970 and team members were often under enemy fire while they were engaged in the destruction of bunker complexes, tunnels, trenches, observation posts and log barricades erected by the Viet Cong in the rivers and waterways of South Vietnam.

In August 1970 CDT3 was relieved at Vung Tau by South Vietnamese Navy personnel and airlifted to Da Nang. In three and a half years on Operation Stable Door, CDT3 searched 7,441 ships.

The eighth and final contingent returned to Australia in May 1971, bringing to a close four years of war service in trying and hazardous circumstances. The contingents had rotated through Vietnam at approximately six to seven month intervals. The one fatal casualty was a young sailor killed in a motor vehicle accident while on exchange with an American unit in Cam Ranh Bay. Seven personnel were decorated whilst others received recognition from the United States and South Vietnamese governments, including a United States Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation awarded to the first contingent.

CDT3 was disbanded in 1971 and did not reform again until 1991. The traditions established by CDT3 personnel in Vietnam have been carried forth by their successors who served meritoriously in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 campaign in Iraq.

On the Gun Line - HMA Ships Hobart, Perth, Brisbane & Vendetta

HMAS Brisbane on the gunline.
HMAS Brisbane on the gunline.

The largest single commitment by the Royal Australian Navy to Vietnam was the provision of a destroyer on a rotational basis to the United States Navy's Seventh Fleet for service on what became known as the 'gunline'. RAN warships provided naval gunfire support from March 1967 to September 1971. They also participated in Operation Sea Dragon, the bombardment of North Vietnamese military targets and the interdiction of supply routes and logistic craft along the coast of North Vietnam from the Demilitarized Zone to the Red River Delta, from April 1967 until it was suspended in November 1968.

The first RAN destroyers to deploy to Vietnam were the Charles F. Adams class guided missile destroyers (DDG) Hobart, Perth and Brisbane. The Australian DDG's were well suited for the task of providing Naval Gunfire Support (NGS). Armed with two 5 inch 54 calibre gun mounts that fired a standard 76 lb High Explosive (HE) shell, they were capable of bringing down accurate 5 inch gunfire at a rate of 40 rounds per minute on targets at ranges beyond 14 nautical miles in most conditions.

The Daring class destroyer HMAS Vendetta was also deployed for service on the gunline. Her main armament consisted of six 4.5 inch guns that were capable of providing accurate and rapid fire to a range of nine nautical miles at a rate of 16 rounds per gun per minute. In good conditions Vendetta's guns were capable of expending up to 100 rounds per minute.

HMAS Hobart firing on the gunline.
HMAS Hobart firing on the gunline.

HMAS Hobart was the first DDG to join the US Seventh Fleet on 15 March 1967 beginning the six monthly rotation of RAN destroyers for service on the gunline. Hobart and Perth deployed three times to Vietnam, Brisbane twice and Vendetta once. The destroyers carried out NGS missions in all of South Vietnam's four military regions and Hobart and Perth were actively involved in Sea Dragon. Hobartand Perth came under fire on a number of occasions. Perth was hit once during her first deployment and Hobart suffered two killed and seven wounded when she was mistakenly hit by missiles fired from a United States Air Force jet aircraft.

Hobart was awarded a US Navy Unit Commendation in recognition of her service in Vietnam while Perth received both the US Navy Unit Commendation and the US Meritorious Unit Commendation. This honour allowed both ships to fly distinguishing pennants known as 'burgees' from their masthead when alongside for the duration of their commissions.

In their five years service in Vietnam, the four gunline destroyers steamed over 397,000 miles and fired 102,546 rounds.

Logistic Support - and the 'Vung Tau Ferry'

Mention The Vung Tau Ferry to any Vietnam veteran and they will immediately recall HMAS Sydney, the former aircraft carrier that was later converted as a fast troop transport and destined to become the mainstay of naval logistic support operations for Australian forces in Vietnam.

Commissioned in 1948, HMAS Sydney was a keystone in the development of Australia's post war naval aviation capability and served with distinction in the Korean War. HMAS Sydney was converted for troopship duties in the early 1960s and began her first voyage to Vietnam in May 1965, transporting the First Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, from Sydney to Vung Tau in southern Vietnam.

Between 1965 and 1972, HMAS Sydney undertook 25 voyages to Vietnam and transported 16,094 troops, 5,753 deadweight tons of cargo and 2,375 vehicles. On her first voyage four days were taken to unload cargo in Vung Tau. On subsequent voyages this turn around time was reduced to a matter of hours.

HMAS Sydney - the Vung Tau Ferry.
HMAS Sydney - the Vung Tau Ferry.

On every voyage HMAS Sydney was ably supported by at least one escort that provided a measure of protection against potential hostile forces. She had up to four escorts in 1965 and 1966, including at times the flagship HMAS Melbourne. Other escorts included HMA Ships Anzac, Derwent, Duchess, Parramatta, Stuart, Swan, Torrens, Vampire, Vendetta and Yarra.

In 1966 the Vietnam supply line was supplemented by two Australian National Line (ANL) cargo ships, Jeparit and Boonaroo. These ships were chartered by the Department of Shipping and Transport on behalf of the Australian Army to transport military vehicles, ammunition, aid and canteen supplies.

In March 1967 members of the Seamen's Union refused to man Jeparit and Boonaroo. To overcome this difficulty, Boonaroo was immediately commissioned by the Royal Australian Navy with a full naval crew for one return voyage to Cam Ranh Bay and Singapore.

In the case of Jeparit, existing crew who were prepared to continue to serve in the ship were supplemented by a Royal Australian Navy detachment. She made 21 voyages under the Red Ensign with a combined Merchant Navy / Royal Australian Navy crew. Further industrial action in December 1969 prompted the Federal Government to commission Jeparit as one of Her Majesty's Australian Ships. HMAS Jeparit made a further 17 incident free voyages under the Australian White Ensign. In all she carried 175,000 deadweight tons of cargo to Vietnam before returning to ANL control in March 1972.

The RAN Fleet Air Arm in Vietnam - 'Get The Bloody Job Done'

The ubiquitous Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter is still arguably the most instantly recognisable symbol of the Vietnam War. Images of the 'helicopter war' feature prominently in books, films and documentaries; indeed, a granite etched image of an Iroquois extracting troops forms the centrepiece of Australia's National Vietnam Memorial located on Anzac Parade in Canberra.

Not so widely known though is the role that was played by personnel of the RAN's Fleet Air Arm (FAA), in a war that depended heavily on tactical air movement of combat troops, supplies and equipment in what were eventually called air-mobile operations.

Between 1967 and 1971 the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV), was fully integrated with the US Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) flying Iroquois helicopters in both the utility and gun-ship configurations. As a result of this unique relationship between the RAN and the US Army, the unit was officially designated 'EMU', for Experimental Military Unit. This was fitting, given that the EMU is a native Australian bird, yet amusing at the same time because of the Emu's inability to fly. The unit later designed its own unique badge and adopted the unofficial motto 'get the bloody job done', which was to personify their attitude to air-mobile operations. In keeping with Australian Naval tradition many of the aviators also grew beards to distinguish themselves as sailors in a predominantly army environment.

The 135th AHC was initially based at Vung Tau and comprised two troop lift platoons, each with eleven UH-1Ds, a gun-ship platoon with eight UH-1Cs, a maintenance platoon with a single UH-1D and a headquarters platoon. Six of the gun-ships were equipped with mini guns, rockets and machine guns. The remaining two were fitted with the XM-5 40mm grenade-launcher system, rockets and machine guns.

The role of 135th AHC was to provide tactical air movement of combat troops, supplies and equipment in air-mobile operations. This included augmentation of army medical services, search and rescue and the provision of a command and control aircraft capability.

It was not long before the Australians became fully operational, flying their first mission on 3 November 1967. By the end of November the company had flown 3182 hours in support of the US Army 9th Infantry Division and the 1st Australian Task Force based at Nui Dat, in Phuoc Tuy province.

In December 1967, the 135th AHC was relocated to Camp Blackhorse five miles south of Xuan Loc, in Long Khanh province. In February 1968, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive and Camp Blackhorse came under enemy attack by mortar. Skirmishes on the boundaries became frequent and the enemy mining of the road from Long Binh to Baria, via Xuan Loc disrupted supply convoys causing shortages of aircraft spare parts.

In response to the Tet offensive, operations intensified with EMU aircraft frequently coming under enemy fire and being forced down. The RANHFV suffered its first casualty during a mission to lift out troops of the 18th Army of the Republic of Vietnam near Xuan Loc when Lieutenant Commander P.J. Vickers, RAN, was fatally wounded while piloting the lead aircraft. He was to be the first of five RAN aviators killed in action during the flight's four-year deployment to Vietnam.

RANHFV Huey - Vietnam.
RANHFV Huey - Vietnam.

Throughout the RANHFV's deployment there were many individual acts of bravery performed in the face of the enemy. One such incident occurred on 4 December 1971 when Lieutenant Jim Buchanan, RAN, was piloting a helicopter operating in the U-Minh Forest. He was engaged in the medical evacuation of a wounded crew member from a Government patrol boat when the group came under heavy attack from enemy forces. Another patrol boat, fifty metres away exploded due to a direct hit by a B40 rocket. Realising that the boat on which he was operating was disabled and drifting towards the enemy held shore, Lieutenant Buchanan deliberately hooked the skids of his aircraft onto the boats superstructure and towed it to a safe area although he was still receiving heavy automatic weapons and 82mm mortar fire. He was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The gallantry and distinguished service of RANHFV members was recognised by the award of three Member of the British Empire Medals, eight Distinguished Service Crosses, five Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC), one British Empire Medal, twenty-four Mentions-in-Dispatches and numerous Vietnamese and US decorations. 723 Squadron, RANHFV's parent unit, was awarded the battle honour 'Vietnam 1967-71' on 22 December 1972.

The RANHFV ceased operations on 8 June 1971. During its four-year deployment to Vietnam, over 200 RAN FAA personnel had rotated though the RANHFV in four contingents. Over this period they were continuously engaged in offensive operations, earning not only the pilots but also the maintenance and support staff of the flight, a reputation second to none.

RAN FAA crews also supplemented the Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF's) 9 Squadron based at Vung Tau. Eight RAN pilots were attached to 9 Squadron which was also providing troop-lift capacity for the 1st Australian Task Force, and re-supplying troops in the field with food, ammunition, clean clothing and stores. An equally important role was aerial fire support using specially modified UH-1H helicopters dubbed 'Bushrangers' that were introduced early in 1969.The RAN detachment to 9 Squadron played a significant part in enabling it to meet its army support role in Phuoc Tuy Province during 1968 and into 1969, until the last of its pilots returned home in May that year. The eight-man detachment to 9 Squadron RAAF was also recognised with the award of a DFC and three Mentions-in-Dispatches.

Medical and Support Personnel

Members of the RAN also served at the Headquarters Australian Forces Vietnam and as detached medical officers. This second group were RAN doctors who served with 1st Australian Field Hospital and US Army and Navy hospitals. While serving in this capacity the Navy doctors were also involved in the Medical Civil Action Program which provided medical support to the local civilian population.

Withdrawal

In April 1971 the McMahon Liberal Government announced that Australian forces in Vietnam would be reduced. This led to the withdrawal of the clearance diving team in May and the RAN Helicopter Flight in June. The final RAN destroyer to serve on the gunline, Brisbane, returned to Sydney on 15 October 1971.

The transport Jeparit (I) returned to Sydney from her final voyage on 11 March 1972 and Sydney (III) arrived the following day. After winning the General Elections in December 1972 the Whitlam Labor government completed the withdrawal process and stopped military aid to South Vietnam.

The traditions established by CDT3 personnel in Vietnam have been carried forth by their successors who served meritoriously in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 campaign in Iraq.

RAN ships in support of the Vietnam War

Gunline Destroyers Logistic Support Escorts
Hobart Sydney Anzac
Brisbane Boonaroo Derwent
Perth Jeparit Duchess
Vendetta   Melbourne
    Parramatta
    Stuart
    Swan
    Torrens
    Vampire
    Vendetta
    Yarra