Australia and the Vietnam War

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Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)

RAAF 1975: 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. They 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.

Humanitarian supplies bound for the An Thoi refugee camp on Phu Quoc Island being loaded onto a RAAF Hercules at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport. [AWM P05608.004]

Humanitarian supplies bound for the An Thoi refugee camp on Phu Quoc Island being loaded onto a RAAF Hercules at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport. [AWM P05608.004]

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 the 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 three RAAF flights landed in Saigon. The war was entering its final days. Just before 7 o’clock that evening, the Ambassador and the last ten Australian members of his staff were brought out of South Vietnam, along with 15 Vietnamese refugees and 9 Australian journalists. Earlier flights had carried out a small group of orphans and 34 Vietnamese nuns. Left behind were some 130 Vietnamese who had 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.

An Thoi on Phu Quoc Island. The runway, made of perforated steel matting was narrow, slippery and short, particularly for a heavily laden Hercules. Pilots recalled that the shock wave caused by an aircraft landing on the matting would travel its length before snapping back towards the plane in what the Official Historian called a ‘disconcerting manner’. [AWM P01973.003]

An Thoi on Phu Quoc Island. The runway, made of perforated steel matting was narrow, slippery and short, particularly for a heavily laden Hercules. Pilots recalled that the shock wave caused by an aircraft landing on the matting would travel its length before snapping back towards the plane in what the Official Historian called a ‘disconcerting manner’. [AWM P01973.003]

The last Australian military personnel to leave Vietnam, thirteen years after the first had arrived, were four Air Defence Guards – Sergeant John Hansen, Corporal Ian Dainer, Leading Aircraftman Trevor Nye and Leading Aircraftman Mick Sheean. 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 four rounds each they had no idea how long it might be before rescue came. Meanwhile the din of gun-fire 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 four 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 four 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 three countries which had compromised the territory of the former French Indochina – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – were under communist control.