Australia and the Vietnam War

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Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)

RAAF 1975: Life in a dangerous city

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 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]

In the South Vietnamese capital, the hundred or so Australian RAAF personnel of Detachment S lived in the relative haven of the Embassy Hotel, just 150 metres from the Presidential Palace. Around them 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 two 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 gun point 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 were drawing ever nearer. On 14 April, shells ignited the Bien Hoa airbase’s bomb storage area in a massive explosion just 30 kilometres 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.