Australia and the Vietnam War

DVA Logo
Print this page Reduce font size Increase font size

Royal Australian Navy (RAN)

Clearance Divers

RAN divers Able Seaman Clearance Diver Mike Ey in the water at Cat Lo, Vung Tau, and Chief Petty Officer Clearance Diver Vic Rashleigh with an unidentified American diver. The group was clearing two 4.2 mortars from the propellers of a Philippine tug. [Image courtesy of Norm Cooper]

RAN divers Able Seaman Clearance Diver Mike Ey in the water at Cat Lo, Vung Tau, and Chief Petty Officer Clearance Diver Vic Rashleigh with an unidentified American diver. The group was clearing two 4.2 mortars from the propellers of a Philippine tug. [Image courtesy of Norm Cooper]

Australian naval clearance divers had been operating under various titles since the Second World War. The Clearance Diving Branch of the navy was formally established in 1951. In 1966 during a tour of South-East Asia, a team of Australian clearance divers spent a week on an unscheduled operational attachment to a United States Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal team based near Saigon. Brief and unofficial though their sojourn was, they became the first Australian clearance divers to serve in Vietnam.

The task that faced the eight Australian Naval Clearance Diving teams in Vietnam was complex and dangerous. The country’s long coast and many rivers, and the large Mekong Delta near Saigon gave the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong many opportunities to attack and disrupt shipping with mines and underwater obstacles, often planted by sappers known as swimmers. The attempts to combat these threats to shipping were collectively labelled ‘Stable Door’ operations and these were the primary task of the Australian clearance divers.

  • Clearance Diving Team 3, 8th Contingent, based at Da Nang. Back row: Able Seaman (AB) CD Larry (Digger) Digney; AB CD Tony Ey, AB Brian (Blue) Furner. Front row: Acting PO CD Phil (Narra) Narramore, Lieutenant Edward (Jake) Linton and Chief Petty Officer CD John (Speed) Gilchrist, 1970. [Image courtesy of Tony Ey]

Initially it was mine clearance. That was the role of clearance divers. They were mine clearance but that's expanded and took on everything until now they are basically the Australian equivalent of the American Navy SEAL [Sea, Air Land personnel]. They parachute, they shore base, they are weapon specialists, anti-terrorist the whole box and dice. But Vietnam kicked it off. That really kicked off the clearance diving branch. [Clearance Diver Tony Ey, RAN, The Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No. 1836]
  • Able Seaman Clearance Divers J L Garrett and A J Sherlock with Lieutenant A A Davis, RAN, members of the CDT 3 – 5th Contingent,  preparing demolition charges, 1969. [Image courtesy of Seapower Centre]
  • Australian naval personnel worked alongside their US and South Vietnamese counterparts in a variety of situations. The US-built patrol boats river (PBR) operated both in the South China Sea and in the network of rivers interlacing the country. [Image courtesy of Tony Ey]
  • Lieutenant Alexander Donald, RAN, CDT 3 – 6th Contingent, during a bunker-busting operation in the Mekong Delta, c. 1969–70. [Image courtesy of Seapower Centre]

Upon reaching the entrance to a bunker the area visible was brassed up and a white phosphorus grenade introduced. A ten pound satchel charge was placed as far into the bunkers as possible by means of timber poles and a CS grenade was also introduced as the fuse was ignited. [Lieutenant A Donald, report on bunker operation in John Perryman and Brett Mitchell, Australia’s Navy in Vietnam, Topmill Pty Ltd, p 73]
  • Patrol boats river (PBR) manned by Australian and South Vietnamese naval personnel. The PBR on the right carries the flag of the Republic of South Vietnam. [Image courtesy of Tony Ey]
  • The Australian Military Forces South Vietnam Pocket Book was issued to all Australian personnel who served ashore in Vietnam. It would not have been distributed to RAN personnel apart from the clearance divers and helicopter crews. [Image courtesy of Seapower Centre]
  • The United States Commendation awarded to members of Clearance Diving Team 3 for their work in South Vietnam alongside US troops. [Image courtesy of Tony Ey]
  • Lieutenant ‘Edward Jake’ Linton, BEM, Clearance Diving Team 3, 8th Contingent, RAN, releases a grenade which has become stuck in an M79 rocket launcher, c.1971. [Image courtesy of Tony Ey]
  • RAN Clearance Diving Team 3, USN and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) personnel searching for enemy mines and obstructions in a Mekong River tributary. Three heavily armed USN river patrol craft are positioned at regular intervals and provide protection to smaller outboard-motor-powered boats which are manned by mixed crews from the three allied forces. Several men are in the water attaching demolition charges to a row of stakes which could have been placed by the Viet Cong. [AWM P03654.090]
  • Members of the special explosive ordnance disposal unit formed from US Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Royal Australian Navy personnel celebrate with a few beers after clearing damaged ammunition and ordnance from the Dong Ha Logistic Base located in 1 Corps about 10 kilometres south of the demilitarised zone in Quang Tri Province. The operation concluded on 14 May 1970. [AWM P01620.007]

Large merchant ships, often carrying military supplies, were a particularly valuable target as were military vessels, especially those that operated in Vietnam’s rivers. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese used a range of mine types against shipping including moored and floating mines as well as those placed on the bottom of a watercourse. In the north of the country Soviet-manufactured limpet mines were employed. The mines were also transported and placed in a variety of ways. In some instances they were tethered beneath a sampan by cables that could be cut if the vessel was approached. The most common method, however, was to have the mines placed by swimmers who had been trained in North Vietnam and who then came south to carry out anti-shipping operations.

Clearance Diving Team 3 personnel accompanied patrols into the dense mangrove swamps of the Rung Sat Special Zone, also known as the ‘Forest of Assassins’. [Image courtesy of Seapower Centre – Australia]

Clearance Diving Team 3 personnel accompanied patrols into the dense mangrove swamps of the Rung Sat Special Zone, also known as the ‘Forest of Assassins’. [Image courtesy of Seapower Centre – Australia]

In addition to combating attacks on shipping, Australian Naval Clearance Divers were engaged in disposing of ordnance that had become unsafe, and in salvage operations. These included diving around downed aircraft to remove classified material and render any explosive material safe. After mid-1968 the Australians were also involved in operations with the South Vietnamese armed forces during which they cleared barriers along the approaches to suspected enemy positions.

All eight clearance diving contingents performed difficult, dangerous tasks, often in very unpleasant conditions. The waters in which they generally operated carried swift currents, were murky – reducing visibility considerably – and choppy. The materials with which the divers worked were unstable and, if handled incorrectly, lethal. Their work did not have the same profile as that carried out by Australian naval vessels or aviators, but it was vital to the safety of shipping, both military and civilian, in South Vietnam.


Video Icon

View video of Interview 1 David Williams, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.2362