Phuoc Tuy Province
Vung Tau: Settling in
‘Home away from home’, the Vung Tau Recreation Centre, 1970. [Image courtesy of David Keall]
In April 1966 HMAS Sydney was a week away from completing the first of her 25 voyages to South Vietnam when the Australians received permission to establish a logistics base on the shifting sand dunes at Back Beach, Vung Tau. Sydney landed her cargo – members of the 5th battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR) and supplies – on this barren strip of seashore. The men had nowhere to unload and no equipment to unload with but just six weeks later 1 Australian Logistic Supply Group (1ALSG) was sufficiently well established at Vung Tau to supply the Australian task force.
In this unpromising environment, the field ambulance set up a 50-bed hospital with a surgeon and anaesthetist able to treat the sick and the less seriously wounded. Major casualties and overflow patients were treated at the United States 36 Evacuation Hospital at Vung Tau until, in 1968, the 1st Australian Field Hospital replaced the more limited field ambulance facilities at Vung Tau.
Vung Tau’s deepwater port provided excellent access for ships bringing in troops and supplies from Australia. After Sydney’s arrival at Vung Tau on 4 May 1966, AV John Monash and AV Vernon Sturdee, medium-loading ships of 32 Small Ships Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers, anchored. They carried personnel, engineers’ vehicles and materiel. The Australian National Line cargo vessel MV Jeparit also arrived at Vung Tau in June 1966 on the first of her 43 voyages between Australia and Vietnam.
Safer than Nui Dat, the base at Vung Tau possessed superior airport facilities and had been home to the RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam (RAAFTFV), known fondly as Wallaby Airlines, since 1964. The RAAFTFV had been making regular flights to Saigon, other South Vietnamese towns and cities and remote outposts for almost two years before Nui Dat’s Luscombe Field was added to their route. In June 1966 the Flight was joined by 9 Squadron RAAF.
During 1965, Australian patients on medical evacuation (medevac) flights were carried on Dakota aircraft from Vung Tau. At first flights were only undertaken when needed but in July 1966 a regular service using Hercules aircraft began transporting patients between Vietnam and Australia. The flights departed from Vung Tau and staged overnight at RAAF Butterworth in Malaysia where the patients were assessed. Those judged sufficiently stable for the long trip to Australia were then flown to Richmond RAAF base in NSW.
In February 1967 the first contingent of the Royal Australian Navy’s Clearance Diving Team 3 (CDT 3) arrived in Vung Tau. Their primary task was to protect shipping from underwater attack in Operation Stabledoor and divers spent many hours in Vung Tau Harbour’s murky waters.
For the troops, Vung Tau was the port of arrival in South Vietnam, the place from which supplies and mail came, the home of a well-equipped hospital, and the place from which they began the much-anticipated trip home. During their tour it was also somewhere to get away from the war during brief periods of rest and convalescence (R & C). The Peter Badcoe Club, named for Major Peter Badcoe, VC, provided recreational facilities, including the Harold Holt Memorial Pool where men could cool off in the tropical heat. The nearby beach, complete with surf-lifesaving club, proved another popular swimming place and venue for inter-unit competitions.
Vung Tau was also popular with the Americans and large numbers of Australian and American servicemen patronised the numerous bars and cafes in the town. Military Police and naval Shore Patrols monitored the curfew and regularly visited the various ‘drinking holes’ to rescue or restrain servicemen when necessary.