Lieutenant Commander Patrick John Vickers

Vickers, Patrick John

By Neil Ralph

Patrick John Vickers (1935-1968), naval officer, was born on 28 June 1935 in Brisbane. At the age of eight he was adopted by Frank Vickers, foreman, and his wife Annie Agnes, née Cornhill, both Queenslanders. Pat was a good student at Nambour High School, and also at Gatton Agricultural High School and College where he obtained diplomas in agriculture (1952), animal husbandry (1953) and horticulture (1954). After attending the Teachers' Training College, Brisbane, he taught at Gatton (1953-54) then at Warwick High School (1955). He also studied part time at the University of Queensland (B.Com., 1964). On 6 January 1956 he joined the RAN for aircrew training. Achieving a "special distinction in ground subjects", he graduated as a pilot in May 1957. That month he was promoted Acting Sub Lieutenant and granted a short service commission. Following operational flying training at the Naval Air Station, Nowra, New South Wales, he qualified on 20 December 1957 as a fighter-pilot in Sea Fury aircraft.

In March 1959 Vickers was promoted Lieutenant. Having learned to fly jet aircraft in all weathers, he was posted in July to No 805 Squadron which operated Sea Venoms from the Naval Air Station and periodically from the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne. Vickers accepted a permanent commission in 1961. Switching to helicopters, he was sent to Britain where he completed a helicopter flying instructors' course then spent two years (1962-64) on exchange with the RN, gaining experience and training other pilots. He became very proficient at both flying and teaching.

Returning to Australia, Vickers served at Nowra and at sea in Melbourne. He made frequent rescue flights from the Naval Air Station. On the night of 20-21 May 1966 he searched fruitlessly for survivors after the dredge WD Atlas sank off Jervis Bay. Next morning he tried again and plucked from huge seas two of only four crewmen saved, thirteen others died. On 22 March 1967 he was promoted Lieutenant Commander. Later that year he helped to form the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam. Consisting of eight pilots, four observers and support staff, the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam joined the United States Army's 135th Assault Helicopter Company at Vung Tau, Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), in October.

Vickers was assigned as commander of the company's 1st Platoon, responsible for 22 pilots and 11 new Iroquois UH-1H aircraft. He was also appointed senior instructor-pilot of the 222nd Combat Aviation Battalion, of which the 135th Assault Helicopter Company formed part. The company began operational flying at an intense rate. On 19 December 1967 Vickers led his platoon, with US Army troops on board, against a battalion of the People's Liberation Armed Forces (Viet Cong) which was well dug in, near Long Binh. The action continued late into the night and featured Vickers' platoon flying in and out of the contact zone, landing reinforcements and recovering the wounded. Artillery units and helicopter gunships gave covering fire but the troop carriers still faced grave risks. For his leadership throughout the engagement, Vickers was recommended for both American and Australian bravery awards.

The 135th Assault Helicopter Company moved to the American Black Horse base, south of Xuan Loc, in December 1967. While Vickers' helicopters were landing soldiers near My Tho on 8 February 1968, they met a hail of fire from the ground at the critical moment of troop disembarkation. One aircraft was destroyed and seven of the remaining eight were damaged.

Again, Vickers displayed courage and determination as platoon commander. On 22 February 1968 he was descending to land near Xuan Loc when his aircraft, leading the fleet of eleven helicopters, came under small-arms fire and he was hit in the head. His co-pilot immediately flew to the hospital pad at Black Horse, but Vickers died that day and was cremated. One of the RAN's most accomplished aviators and widely respected, he was posthumously mentioned in dispatches.

Image: Informal portrait of Lieutenant Commander Patrick John Vickers, July 1967, maker unknown
Australian War Memorial Collection