The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) played a significant role in humanitarian efforts during the final days of the Vietnam War in 1975.
As the situation in South Vietnam deteriorated rapidly, with the North Vietnamese Army advancing towards Saigon, the RAAF helped evacuate Australian citizens and other foreign nationals from the country.
In particular, the RAAF deployed a fleet of C-130 Hercules transport planes to Saigon, which was used to fly out refugees and evacuees to safety. These planes also transported essential medical supplies, food, and water to those in need.
One notable mission carried out by the RAAF was Operation Babylift, which began on 4 April 1975. This was a massive effort to evacuate orphaned Vietnamese children and bring them to safety in Australia and other countries. The RAAF contributed several of its C-130 transport planes to the mission, flying in and out of Saigon under extremely challenging conditions.
Despite facing significant risks, the RAAF personnel involved in these humanitarian efforts worked tirelessly to ensure that as many people as possible were evacuated safely. The RAAF’s efforts in Vietnam in 1975 have been recognised as an important chapter in the organisation’s history, demonstrating the vital role that military forces can play in providing humanitarian assistance during times of crisis.
Planning and first evacuations
Photo: Wearing civilian clothes, Wing Commander John Mitchell briefs Detachment S’s Hercules crews in the Embassy Hotel’s ground-floor restaurant on 6 April 1975. AWM P01973.001
In his book Vietnam, Paul Ham related the story of Flying Officer Geoff Rose’s return to ‘routine operations’ after a period of heavy work during the post-Cyclone Tracy relief effort.
Back at home and expecting visitors for the 1975 Easter long weekend, Rose answered a knock on his door to find instead his squadron’s navigator, Peter Gerstle, standing there with urgent news. According to Ham, Gerstle said:
Can’t tell you where, Geoff … but pack your bags … and come to the squadron – ASAP!
Later that day, Rose was airborne, flying in a Hercules from Richmond at the foot of the Blue Mountains to Butterworth on Malaysia’s west coast.
The story of how Rose and his fellow airmen found themselves en route to Malaya began on 29 March 1975.
Facing a humanitarian crisis and imminent defeat in a war that, in one form or another, had lasted decades, the South Vietnamese Government urgently asked Australia for help. Having taken its combat troops out of Vietnam several years before, Australia responded by despatching 8 Hercules from Richmond and 2 Dakotas from Butterworth.
On the ground at Butterworth, Wing Commander John Mitchell briefed his aircrews, now part of what the Air Force called ‘Headquarters Richmond, Detachment S’. The news was grim. A North Vietnamese offensive was making rapid headway. South Vietnam was on the brink.
Over a couple of days, first Da Nang, then Nha Trang and Can Ranh Bay, fell to the communists. With the ground deteriorating quickly, 2 RAAF Hercules flew into the chaos at Phan Rang to ferry refugees to Can Tho.
On the tarmac, one of the aircraft was mobbed. When a salvo of rockets landed a few hundred metres away, a panicked guard, firing into the air, put his bullets through the Hercules’ tail. Nevertheless, the Australians evacuated some 1,500 refugees to Can Tho that day.
Photo: South Vietnamese refugees crowd the cargo compartment of an RAAF Detachment S Hercules in April 1975. AWM P05608.005
South Vietnam’s population was moving all at once. As their forebears had done in times of war, they fled an approaching enemy, seeking safety to the south and hoping for a way out.
Thousands of orphans were caught in the mad rush of people vying for a means of escape. The children were far too young to appreciate the gravity of the situation. Some had been chosen for adoption in Australia, while others had homes waiting for them in the United States.
In early April 1975, the United States and Australia began evacuating the Vietnamese children in a series of flights known as Operation Babylift.
On 4 April, 2 days after the United States announced Babylift, 2 Australian Hercules crews stood on the tarmac of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport chatting with a giant American Galaxy crew.
After all their passengers were on board, the Americans took off, followed by the first Hercules.
On the Australian plane, loaded with babies – the older ones 5 to a litter and the smallest infants in cardboard boxes on the floor, all with water bottles between their lips to ease the pain of changing air pressure – all went well, and they headed west to Bangkok.
But on Galaxy, disaster struck. With 243 children, their escorts, medical staff and aircrew on board, the plane’s cargo door blew off soon after take-off. The pilots tried to return to the runway, but 2 km from the airport, the stricken aircraft hit the ground, bounced over the Saigon River and exploded. There were few survivors. The dead included 143 babies and 2 Adelaide women, Lee Makk and Margaret Moses, who had volunteered to help with the children.
A few hours later, the 2 Hercules landed at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport and disembarked 194 children and the 3 doctors and 20 nurses who had tended the infants. Other RAAF Hercules brought some 80 Australian civilians, mostly embassy officials and their families, out of Saigon.
Photo: RAAF aircrew comfort some of the babies with bottles before take-off during the second airlift of orphans from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport. AWM P01973.002
Life in a dangerous city
In the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, 100 or so Australian RAAF personnel of Detachment S lived in the relative haven of the Embassy Hotel, just 150 m from the Presidential Palace. Around them, social order was collapsing.
On 8 April, an Australian crew waiting to land at Tan Son Nhut noticed a South Vietnamese F-5 flying low over Saigon and wondered what the pilot was doing.
At the same time, on the ground, the RAAF contingent’s senior officer, Group Captain Lyall Klaffer, was walking between the Embassy Hotel and the Caravelle Hotel, which was home to the Australian Embassy, when he heard machine guns and the roar of a low flying jet. He looked up in time to see 2 high explosive bombs dropping from the aircraft onto the Presidential Palace.
At the Embassy Hotel, broken glass showered Australian aircrew as they were eating breakfast. The jet’s pilot is believed to have landed his plane on a North Vietnamese airfield.
At around the same time, some of the RAAF personnel were threatened at gunpoint by a South Vietnamese officer who made it clear that if he couldn’t get out of Vietnam, neither could anyone else.
The risk of sabotage seemed all too real, and in any case, the enemy was drawing nearer. On 14 April, shells ignited the Bien Hoa airbase’s bomb storage area in a massive explosion just 30 km from Saigon.
No longer safe in South Vietnam’s capital, the Australians decamped for Bangkok where they took up residence in the Sheraton and Montien hotels, flying into Tan Son Nhut each day to carry out operations and returning to Bangkok in the evening.
Photo: The Embassy Hotel in Saigon where Detachment S was quartered before the encroaching enemy forced their departure for safer quarters in Bangkok. South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace was located further along the same street. AWM P01973.005
The end in Vietnam
More orphans were flown out on 17 April, ending that part of the operation. But the Australian airmen remained to carry out airlifts coordinated by the United States Aid Organisation.
The Australians were joined by a detachment of Royal New Zealand Air Force personnel flying Bristol Freighters and later C-130s. Together, as they flew emergency food, medical and other relief supplies to some 40,000 refugees now crowded into a former POW camp at An Thoi on Phu Quoc island, they witnessed the Vietnam War’s dying days in all its bloody confusion.
Rockets hit the airfield, and some RAAF personnel saw 30 mutinous South Vietnamese marines executed.
Don Muang Airport, a combined civilian-military airport to the north of Bangkok, was a hive of activity as humanitarian agencies stockpiled relief supplies for transport to Saigon.
Working on the civilian side of the airport in the stifling Bangkok heat, in the sweltering cargo bays of their aircraft, the Australian crews started exhibiting signs of heat exhaustion. Soon they were moved to the military side of the airport, where better facilities eased their task a little.
On Anzac Day 1975, the last 3 RAAF flights landed in Saigon. The war was entering its final days. Just before 7 o’clock that evening, the Australian Ambassador Geoffrey Price and the last 10 of his Australian staff members were brought out of South Vietnam, along with 15 Vietnamese refugees and 9 Australian journalists. Earlier flights carried out a small group of orphans and 34 Vietnamese nuns.
Left behind were some 130 Vietnamese who had the approval to be flown out, along with another 30 former employees of the Australian Embassy. Loyal staff who had served Australia for years were left to their fate.
Last to leave
The last Australian military personnel to leave Vietnam, 13 years after the first had arrived, were 4 Air Defence Guards:
Left behind when the last evacuation aircraft took off from Tan Son Nhut, they had neither support, supplies nor means of communication. Carrying a pistol and 4 rounds of ammunition each, they had no idea how long it might be before rescue came.
Meanwhile, the din of gunfire and rocket explosions around the airport grew louder, and the North Vietnamese drew nearer. Of more immediate concern, perhaps, was the threat from South Vietnamese personnel facing imminent defeat and a deeply uncertain future.
None of the 4 RAAF personnel could be sure that these soldiers, feeling deserted by their allies, nearly all of whom had now fled the communist onslaught, would not turn on them in these final desperate hours.
Fortunately, a Hercules had been detailed to circle off South Vietnam’s coast to collect anyone who had been left behind. The relief felt by the 4 Australians when the RAAF transport came into view can only be imagined.
More than 200 people – air and ground crew, equipment and administration personnel, nurses and other medical staff – flew on operations during the RAAF’s final involvement in the Vietnam War. Some flew into the Laotian capital, Vientiane. Like Cambodia, Laos had been dragged into the war only to share in a crushing defeat.
By the end of April 1975, the 3 countries which had compromised the territory of the former French Indochina – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – were under communist control.