Australia and the Vietnam War

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Royal Australian Navy (RAN)

Vung Tau Ferry

HMAS Sydney, Peter Blenkinsopp 1990. HMAS Sydney III, off the coast of Vietnam, 1968. [Reproduced by courtesy of Peter Blenkinsopp]

HMAS Sydney, Peter Blenkinsopp 1990. HMAS Sydney III, off the coast of Vietnam, 1968. [Reproduced by courtesy of Peter Blenkinsopp]

During the Vietnam War the task of moving, supplying and maintaining Australian forces in South Vietnam was shared between the Royal Australian Air Force, civilian aircraft – mainly Qantas – and ships from the Australian National Line (ANL). But the bulk of the task fell to the Royal Australian Navy and the vessel that carried out the majority of transport duties to and from Vietnam was the former aircraft carrier, HMAS Sydney.

Sydney’s first voyage to South Vietnam, escorted by HMAS Melbourne, HMAS Duchess and HMAS Parramatta, began on 27 May 1965. For Sydney’s crew, the trip meant the chance to both establish routines for a logistic task, the like of which had not been undertaken by the navy for twenty years, and to gain an understanding of the risks facing their ship in hostile waters. In the years to come, the run to Vung Tau and back became an increasingly speedy and smooth operation. Nevertheless, each voyage required a great deal of hard work, particularly during the loading and unloading phase of the operation.

'The ferry'

  • ‘Boarding diggers’ in 1966. HMAS Sydney departed Sydney, Brisbane, Fremantle, Port Adelaide and Townsville during her 25 operational deployments to South Vietnam between May 1965 and November 1972. [Image courtesy of John Hatton]
  • HMAS Sydney – an aerial shot showing her open flight wells. The aircraft carrier was not air-conditioned and in the tropics the heat below decks was extreme. [Image courtesy of John Thackray]
  • Troops of 2RAR line the deck to receive a last wave as HMAS Sydney leaves Brisbane bound for Vietnam during the battalion’s first tour in May 1967. [Image courtesy of Richard Stone]
  • HMAS Parramatta escorted HMAS Sydney to Vung Tau in May 1965, March 1968 and May 1971. Here a Navy Wessex helicopter approaches her stern.
  • HMAS Sydney’s 3 PAPA 1 Gun Room crew en route to Vietnam during September, 1965. From left to right, back row: John Paterson, Mick Standen, John Cunningham, Stan Oversby, Gary Gosden and John Thackray. Centre row: Eugin Boron, Bob Patmore, Harry Shukosky and Ian Robinson. Front row: John Bolton, Ray Elliot, Bruce Askinstall, Harry Sander and Bob Dean. [Image courtesy of John Thackray]
  • Members of 1 Field Squadron, HQ on board HMAS Sydney, 1966. [Image courtesy of David Wallbridge]
  • An Iroquois ‘Huey’ prepares to land on the HMAS Sydney off the Vietnam coast. [Image courtesy of Phillip Heeb]
  • HMAS Vendetta escorted HMAS Sydney on three voyages to Vietnam: in 1965, 1966 and 1970. [Image courtesy of Garry Tancock]
  • Band members from HMAS Sydney practicing in the flight well. [Image courtesy of Paul Roberts]
  • HMAS Jeparit heads towards Vietnam with cargo for the conflict. Jeparit made 43 voyages to Vietnam between June 1966 and March 1972 when she was decommissioned. [Image courtesy of John Ferguson]
  • ‘Delivered by the Port Jackson – Vung-Tau Ferry Service’. [Image courtesy of Allan Pettman]
  • HMAS Yarra escorted HMAS Sydney on five voyages to Vietnam: in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1970 and 1971. [Image courtesy of Sea-Power Centre – Australia]
  • MV Boonaroo completed one voyage to Vietnam in 1966 but was commissioned by the Royal Australian Navy in March 1967. As HMAS Boonaroo she completed one return voyage to Cam Ranh Bay and Singapore with a full naval crew. [Image courtesy of Sea Power Centre – Australia]
  • HMAS Torrens, a River Class Destroyer Escort (DE), accompanied HMAS Sydney to Vietnam on her 14 February – 12 March 1972 voyage. [Image courtesy of Sea-Power Centre – Australia]

In its role as the ‘Vung Tau Ferry’, HMAS Sydney brought together men from two distinct cultures: the army and the navy. In the days before she sailed from Australia, Sydney would be loaded with soldiers and their equipment. Crew members would be detailed to act as ‘sea daddies’ to groups of soldiers, helping them to get their bearings on board ship, showing them where to keep their gear and how to sling their hammocks – a novel, and often unwelcome, mode of sleeping for most soldiers. Apart from the unfamiliarity with shipboard life, or indeed with the ways of the navy, the soldiers often found Sydney to be uncomfortable, particularly in tropical waters when the heat below decks was intense.

During loading and unloading, when Sydney and her escort ships were anchored off Vung Tau, their crews were prepared to counter any attacks launched from shore. The ship’s divers carried out constant patrols, checking hulls and cables while armed sentries stood on deck with orders to fire on suspicious movements in the water. As it turned out, neither Sydney nor her escorts were endangered in Vietnamese waters. But she performed in her role as ‘Vung Tau ferry’ very effectively, safely transporting thousands of troops to and from Vietnam along with thousands of tonnes of cargo and equipment.

By 1972, when Australia’s involvement in Vietnam ended, Sydney had carried 16,000 army and RAAF personnel to Vung Tau on 24 ferry runs and had made a 25th trip to Vietnam to deliver and pick-up military equipment. Every voyage took between 10 and 12 days in each direction, a time during which soldiers heading for Vietnam were given hours of physical training and prepared for the year that they would have to spend as combatants in a war zone. For those on the return voyage after their twelve-month tour of duty, the passage to Australia offered a chance to relax, to reflect on their experiences and to prepare themselves for the transition from war to peace. Such a period of reflection was denied to those soldiers who returned home by aircraft, leaving Vietnam and being home within 10 hours. Although many Vietnam veterans recall being ignored upon their return to Australia, this was not the case for those who returned with their battalions on board HMAS Sydney. When the ship docked, the infantry were often met by dignitaries, including the Minister for the Army, and a march through the city - Sydney, Brisbane or Townsville - usually followed within hours.

‘Soldiers at sea’

  • Private David Llewellyn, 1RAR, farewells his wife Jo before boarding HMAS Sydney for his first tour in Vietnam. HMAS Sydney sailed on 27 March 1968 with more than 100 1RAR troops who were returning to Vietnam for the second time. [AWM CUN/68/0123/EC]
  • Another departure. [Image courtesy of Richard Stone]
  • HMAS Sydney with 1RAR, en route to Vietnam. [Image courtesy of Seapower Centre – Australia]
  • Troops heading to Vietnam participate in a jack stay transfer from HMAS Sydney across to the support ship Yarra. Many such activities kept soldiers occupied during the trips up to Vietnam, 1971. [Image courtesy of David Trigg]
  • Crossing the line ceremonies were commonplace for crew or passengers who had not previously crossed the equator. [Image courtesy of Conrad Behr]
  • Relaxing on the deck of HMAS Sydney. [L–R] 2RAR Privates John Kielman of WA, and John Grogan and Richard Stone of NSW. [Image courtesy of Richard Stone]
  • A tug-of-war during the sea voyage to Vietnam. [Image courtesy of John Eaton]
  • The menu for Christmas Day 1967 aboard HMAS Sydney as she travelled north with equipment and troops of 3RAR. [Image courtesy of Ken Bessen]
  • Army personnel, possibly from 1 Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), undergo physical training exercises on board HMAS Sydney en route to Vietnam, c. June 1965. An instructor (obscured) works with them to maintain their fitness levels in preparation for active service. [AWM NAVY 08013]
  • Members of 2RAR who had embarked from Brisbane enter a CH47 Chinook on the deck of HMAS Sydney. They are about to travel to Task Force Headquarters at Nui Dat for their first tour of duty in Vietnam, 1967. [Image courtesy of Richard Stone]
  • Ferrying troops ashore in a Landing Craft Medium (LCM) from HMAS Sydney. [Image courtesy of Ian Stacker]
  • Sapper Stephen Daly from NSW shakes hands with his father, Petty Officer George Daly on board HMAS Sydney at Vung Tau, c. 1970. Sapper Daly, 1ATF had been in Vietnam for six months and his father was waiting to transport men of 8 RAR home to Australia. [AWM FAI/70/0775/VN]
  • Preparing to head for home; 3RAR troops on the deck of the Vung Tau ferry, c. November 1968. [Image courtesy of David Limpus]
  • Accommodation for the troops travelling on the Vung Tau ferry was not luxurious but in most cases it was superior to their accommodation in South Vietnam. [Image courtesy of Owen Ashby.]

Living conditions on board Sydney were cramped and more so when the troops were embarked. Despite that, the troops were pleased to be returning home:

Coming home on the Sydney was bloody great. I had slept in a decent bed for the first time. I got a hot Australian shower. The tucker was great. They cooked bread every day. The navy had big cans of Fosters, didn’t like Fosters in the first place but I used to drink the bloody thing. [Sergeant Bob Buick, 6 RAR, Australians at War Film  Archive,  Interview No: 2181]
  • Private (Pte) Jack Doulis of NSW is welcomed by four of his five children on the wharf at Garden Island Dockyard, Sydney, 26 April 1968. Pte Doulis, 7RAR has just disembarked from HMAS Sydney after his year in South Vietnam. [AWM LES/68/0163/EC]

Sydney’s efforts were complemented by the work of two Australian National Line vessels, MV Jeparit and MV Boonaroo. After February 1967 Jeparit sailed with mixed crews, civilian seamen and naval personnel. Boonaroo made only two voyages to Vietnam and did one of these as a commissioned naval vessel. Jeparit on the other hand made 43 voyages to Vietnam, often coming up against strike action imposed by anti-war unions that delayed her loading and unloading. By 1970 authorities were sufficiently concerned at the toll that strike action was taking that in December that year she was commissioned as a Royal Australian Naval vessel, making union concerns, at least on board, irrelevant.

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View video of Interview 1 John O'Callaghan, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.0673

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View video of Interview 2 John O'Callaghan, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.0673

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View video of Interview 3 John O'Callaghan, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.0673

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View video of Interview 4 John O'Callaghan, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.0673

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View video of Interview 6 John O'Callaghan, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No.0673

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The certificate awarded to Ken Bessen after he had crossed the equator line. [Image courtesy of Ken Bessen]