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 PJ 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.
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, 24 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 resupplying 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.