Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)
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]
Planning and the first evacuations
In his book Vietnam Paul Ham relates 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 made an urgent request for Australian assistance. Australia, having taken its combat troops out of Vietnam several years before, responded by despatching eight Hercules from Richmond and two Dakotas from Butterworth.
South Vietnamese refugees crowd the cargo compartment of an RAAF Detachment S Hercules in April 1975. [AWM P05608.005]
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 situation on the ground deteriorating fast, two RAAF Hercules flew into the chaos at Phan Rang to ferry refugees to Can Tho. On the tarmac one of the aircraft was mobbed and 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 managed to evacuate some 1,500 refugees to Can Tho that day.