Australia and the Vietnam War

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Royal Australian Navy (RAN)

Helicopter Flight

Royal Australian Naval Airman Mechanic Airframes and Engines (NAMAE), Francis (Frank) Eyck, a member of the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV) seated in a Huey helicopter with his M6O machine gun. [AWM NAVY19683]

Royal Australian Naval Airman Mechanic Airframes and Engines (NAMAE), Adrian Whiteman, a member of the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV) seated in a Huey helicopter with his M6O machine gun. [AWM NAVY19683]

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) did not confine its effort in Vietnam to seaborne activity; the Fleet Air Arm provided an additional Australian aerial presence during the war.

In December 1966, the United States Government requested Australian assistance to meet the need for additional air crew and maintenance personnel. Australia, recognising the heavy toll that the war was taking on US air crew, offered a detachment of RAN airmen and support personnel. Named the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV), the Vietnam-bound naval personnel had to replace training in anti-submarine warfare with new skills. Now they learnt how to drop troops into, or extract them from, dangerous landing zones as well as methods of escape and evasion if they were shot down – an increasingly common occurrence for helicopter crews on combat operations in Vietnam.

The first RANHFV contingent reached Vietnam on 16 October 1967. The Flight, having to integrate with the United States 135th Assault Helicopter Company, was designated an Experimental Military Unit and became known by the acronym EMU. Initially based at Vung Tau, the 135th Assault Helicopter Company flew Iroquois and provided the tactical movement of combat troops, supplies and equipment in what, during the Vietnam War, were known as air-mobile operations.

‘The EMU Unit’

  • ‘Get the bloody job done’: the RANHFV- EMU emblem. [Image courtesy of Ian Wilson]
  • The combined US/RAN force became known as the EMU Unit (Experimental Military Unit). Their motto, coined very early in their partnership, was ‘Get the bloody job done’. [Image courtesy of John Sitkei] The first RANHFV contingent arrived in Vietnam on 16 October 1967. The contingent contained twenty-four technical sailors and six support staff including a cook, steward, writer (clerk) and a medic. As well as eight pilots, four observers and four air-crewmen.
  • ‘Slicks’ (US gunships) en route to a pick up in the Mekong Delta. [Image courtesy of Max Speedy]
  • Iroquois helicopters flying over the rice paddies. [Image courtesy of Max Speedy]

The flying was what we had been trained for and yet so very different. Unpronounceable towns, never ending rice paddies, and more formations of helicopters than I had ever seen before. During my first touch down into a Landing Zone I was thinking ‘I’ve got a full year of this. Good Lord, what if I get shot on my very first day?’ But I didn’t and remarkably quickly we all got into the daily routine of [being] up around 0430, eating a hurried breakfast, collecting our ‘C’ rations, jokingly called food by some, then out to our ‘birds’. Most of the time we took off through the morning fog, formed up on top, and headed off hoping there would be a hole to go down through at the other end – generally there was. [Lieutenant I M (Max) Speedy, DFC, RAN, in John Perryman and Brett Mitchell, Australia’s Navy in Vietnam, Topmill Pty Ltd, Silverwater, p. 43]
  • Naval Airman Mechanic Airframes and Engines (NAMAE) Francis (Frank) Eyck of WA works on the engine of a Huey helicopter in the maintenance area at Bearcat Base, Bien Hoa Province, c. October 1969. [AWM NAVY20272]
  • Maintenance was conducted twenty-four hours a day, often outdoors and in all weathers. [Image courtesy of Max Speedy]
  • Sub-Lieutenant Robert Kyle was one of four members of RANHV to be awarded a MID. [Image courtesy of Robert Kyle]
  • The members of the ‘Helo Flight’ who were awarded the US-issued Air Service Medal were granted permission to wear the decoration some thirty years later. [Image courtesy of Ian Wilson]
  • ‘Lieutenant James Buchanan’s heroic action.’ [Image courtesy of the artist, David Marshall] On 4 December 1970, while operating in the U Minh Forest area, Lieutenant James Buchanan, RAN was participating in the medical evacuation of a wounded crew member from a South Vietnamese patrol boat. Under heavy enemy fire, and realising that the patrol boat was disabled and drifting towards the enemy held shore, Buchanan performed an extraordinary feat:

I tilted the rotor, as though I was going to do a skidding takeoff and the friction of my skids on the deck of the patrol boat was sufficient to drag the boat in the direction I wanted to go. This was in the opposite direction from the trees at the edge of the river and the nasty-minded individuals who were hiding under them and trying to impede my progress with various weapons. [Lieutenant James Buchanan, RAN in John Perryman and Brett Mitchell, Australia’s Navy in Vietnam, Topmill Pty Ltd, Silverwater, p. 53]
  • Pilots, observers and other necessary personnel were drawn from the existing Fleet Air Arm to join the new RAN flight, Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV). The Australians were to be integrated into the United States Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) to fly Iroquois helicopters provided by the US. [Image courtesy of Seapower Centre – Australia]

Two months after their arrival in Vietnam, the 135th, including the RANHFV, moved from Vung Tau to the American base at Black Horse in Long Khanh province, thirty-five miles away. Amidst rubber plantations and jungle, Black Horse was far more vulnerable to enemy attack than Vung Tau. The facilities too were more primitive and the ever-present dust made helicopter maintenance more difficult. During the Tet offensive conditions at Black Horse became more precarious, fighting on the camp’s boundaries became more frequent and enemy mines made the supply route to the camp increasingly dangerous.

Even after the fighting associated with Tet subsided helicopter crews continued to fly daily missions and combat assaults that left crews and maintenance personnel exhausted. For aircrew, the routine meant rising at 4.30 in the morning, eating breakfast and collecting combat rations before beginning the day’s flying which, not infrequently, would end 12 or more hours later.

In November 1968 the 135th, including the RANHFV was reassigned and moved to Camp Martin Cox at Bear Cat, a large base in Bien Hoa province that, housed the Royal Thai Army volunteer force and United States aviation units. During the third RANHFV contingent’s tour the 135th moved again, this time to Dong Tam, south of Saigon in South Vietnam’s Mekhong Delta region. Once more RANHFV personnel found themselves having to develop facilities to make the base more habitable while continuing to fly a full schedule of operations.

Each of the four RANHFV contingents lived and fought under similar conditions. Routine flying, still exhausting and dangerous, was interspersed with periods of intense combat. Over the course of a year-long tour a contingent’s flight crews commonly logged a combined total of between 9,000 and 12,000 flying hours.

Helos from the RANHFV. [Images courtesy of Robert Kyle]

The RANHFV ceased operations on 8 June 1971, the 135th and the Australians were giving way to the process of disengagement and 'Vietnamisation' - devolving responsibility for operations to South Vietnamese forces. Shortly afterwards the 135th moved to Dien, northeast of Saigon. By the time the RANHFV left Vietnam, more than 200 personnel had served in the four contingents. The unit flew hundreds of offensive operations, placing great strain on both men and machines, and was involved in some of the most intense combat experienced by Australians in the war. Five members of the Flight lost their lives in Vietnam, some 22 were wounded in action. Their having served in a combined US/Australian formation was a source of pride for personnel of both countries.

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View a map showing the locations of RANHFV bases in South Vietnam.

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Reports of Proceedings, The RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam, February, 1970. [AWM 78 389/2]

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A confidential report dated 2 March 1970 providing details of RANHV operations, casualties and pilot hours during February 1970. [AWM 78 389/2]

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An article in Navy News, June 7, 1968, describing the day-to-day activities of the members of the RANHV. [Image courtesy of Bill Oppenhuis]