In the minds of the general public, Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War is equated more readily with the deployment of the First Australian Task Force in Phuoc Tuy province, and its service there between 1966 and 1971. The RAAF is in turn recognised by the ubiquitous image of the helicopter. However, the involvement of the RAN is largely unknown, and as a result, is generally under-appreciated.
There are several valid reasons for this. Naval dimensions of the war in Vietnam were complex, highly varied and not readily understood by many. The Navy’s contribution was dispersed around the country, and therefore lacked an easily identifiable focus of the kind which the geographical parameters of Phuoc Tuy province provided. Also, it must be said, the Navy has never really been overly interested in promoting studies of its own history. Therefore, naval history is not done often, and is often not done well.
The Navy’s roles in Vietnam were more important than they initially might appear. The RAN commitment also needs to be seen in the context of a more general involvement in SE Asia, through participation with the Royal Navy and the Far East Strategic Reserve, dating back to 1955. Service in Vietnam also demonstrated a gradual shift away from long term affiliations with the Royal Navy to more cooperation with the United States and other regional navies.
RAN units served in four capacities - Sea Transportation and Logistic Support, Naval Gunfire Support, Assault Aviation and Clearance Diving. Some of these were carried out in support of other Australian forces, but much of the time, units of the RAN operated alongside the Americans and in support of US, SVN, Korean and other allied ground forces. The command hierarchies were equally varied. Ships deployed on ‘gunline’ duties formed an integral part of the US Seventh Fleet, based at Subic Bay in the Philippines, whereas members of the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam were part of a composite US Army aviation company. Fleet Air Arm pilots, who served as part of Nine Squadron RAAF in Phuoc Tuy, were always under Australian command. RAN Clearance Divers were incorporated into the explosive ordnance disposal effort mounted by the US Pacific Fleet, but they received their orders and tasking from US Military Assistance Command Vietnam, part of a US Army command. Altogether, RAN personnel experienced the widest variety of Vietnam service of all Australian units deployed there.
Sea Transportation/Logistical Support:
The Australian commitment to Vietnam developed incrementally, and initially there was little call for contributions from the RAN. The notable exception to this was the vital role played by HMAS Sydney in its capacity as a fast troop transport. Sydney deployed regularly between Australia and the port of Vung Tau for the duration of the Australian commitment - and beyond - ferrying troops, aircraft, stores, and all manner of equipment, to and from the war zone. Dubbed the ‘Port Jackson-Vung Tau Ferry’, she would serve continuously from May 1965 to November 1972, completing 25 voyages to and from Vietnam.
The logistical support effort was supplemented by two merchant ships taken up from trade - MV Jeparit and MV Boonaroo - when the Australian Seaman’s Union refused to man both ships in protest at Australia’s involvement in the war. To counter this difficult situation, naval personnel were placed in both ships, which were then commissioned into RAN service. HMAS Boonaroo made only one 69 day voyage under RAN control, but HMAS Jeparit was used extensively, completing 43 voyages in all to and from Vietnam, especially in the conveyance of tanks and other heavy vehicles.
Over the next seven years HMA ships Sydney, Jeparit and Boonaroo between them would transport in excess of 180,000 tons of supplies and equipment to the port of Vung Tau. Sydney would also transport in excess of 16,000 Army and RAAF personnel. Jeparit completed 43 voyages and Boonaroo two.
Army personnel being transported to Vietnam in Sydney were usually the Main Body of a battalion, the Forward Party having flown to Vietnam a week or so before to organise their arrival, with the Rear Party to follow on by air once the Main Body had departed.
The Main Body consisted of approximately 500 men, plus all the battalion’s stores and equipment. If required, the Main Body was fully equipped and ready to go on arrival at the terminal destination. Another advantage to the command was the fact that all in the ship would have acclimatised during the journey north. As well, they continued to carry out rigorous on-board training, as there were very little outside distractions in HMAS Sydney.
As noted by one of the heroes of Long Tan, Bob Buick MM, ‘there was always a sense of urgency in a troop changeover, as the plan was to have Sydney in and out in a day and have Vietnam well astern before dark. If the VC could have damaged Sydney while she was anchored in Vung Tau, it would have struck a significant blow to the RAN and their ability to support the war, and Australia’s effort could have been quite different.’
On each of her deployments to Vietnam, Sydney was given support by other RAN fleet units. Due to a scarcity of destroyer and frigate escorts - because of refit requirements, leave cycles and other commitments - on operational deployments five to eleven, four ASW helicopters were embarked to provide an anti-submarine and surface surveillance capability. This was reduced to two for deployment 12, and then disbanded due to a need for helicopter pilots to serve elsewhere - Vietnam included.
On each of her 25 operational deployments, Sydney was always accompanied into Vung Tau harbour by at least one, and on five occasions, two destroyer or frigate escorts. Before the ships entered Vietnamese waters, a much higher state of defence preparedness was assumed. The escort(s) then detached to screen ahead of the approaches to the port, proceeding into Vung Tau harbour to ensure Sydney’s anchor berth (B12) was clear. And, according to the US Commander Naval Forces Vietnam in 1971, Vung Tau remains the most vulnerable harbour in the Republic of Vietnam.
All but one of Sydney’s escort destroyers or frigates was detached from the Far East Strategic Reserve (FESR) based in Singapore. These ships were serving with the British Far East Fleet. During 1965-66, they were also involved in Confrontation with the armed forces of Indonesia. In 1970-1971, the Patron of the VVAA, R/Admiral Neal Ralph, DSC, was XO of HMAS Sydney.
NGFS, Interdiction, ASW & RESDES
Another major commitment of RAN units came about in March 1967, with the deployment of HMAS Hobart to Vietnam. Three new US built guided missile destroyers were coming into service, and it was relatively easy to incorporate these ships into the US naval order-of-battle.
Four RAN destroyers completed a total of nine operational deployments in Vietnamese waters between 1967 and 1971 (Hobart 3, Perth 3, Brisbane 2 and Vendetta 1). Each deployment was for approximately six months, with the ships initially undertaking three main tasks. The first of these was Operation Sea Dragon, which was the interdiction of enemy resupply efforts from North Vietnam to the South. Ships assigned to this task operated in North Vietnamese waters, firing at Water Borne Logistics Craft (WBLCs), road and rail facilities, supply and ammunition dumps and enemy shore defences, which responded in like form. Sea Dragon was suspended in November 1968, and never resumed.
The second major task was the provision of Naval Gunfire Support (NGFS) to allied forces ashore. The RAN ships fired many thousands of rounds in support of US, Korean, Australian and South Vietnamese units in the coastal regions of the country, against enemy troop concentrations and positions, destroying weapons, bunkers and caches of supplies. The third task the ships completed was serving as an integral part of the Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Rescue Destroyer (RESDES) screen for the US Carriers operating in the Gulf of Tonkin.
Hobart was known by her call sign Royal Purple, Perth was known by her call sign Gunpowder, Brisbane was known by her call sign Flamboyant, and Vendetta was known by her call sign Premier.
Clearance Diving Team 3
CDT3 (6 men) (8 teams) served for a six month period, based in the port of Vung Tau from February 1967 and August 1970, after which they were moved to Da Nang until the unit was withdrawn in April 1971. Their main role was the protection of shipping in the harbour as part of Operation Stable Door, which involved the checking of ships at anchor to protect against enemy mine attacks. They also undertook numerous ordnance demolition tasks across a wide area, and worked with USN SEALs and other units in the demolition of enemy bunkers and barriers erected in internal waterways to hamper allied operations.
Fleet Air Arm, Experimental Military Unit (EMU) Squadron
Fleet Air Arm aviators and their support crews (37 men) (4 contingents) served for a twelve month period, and were incorporated into the US Army’s 135th Assault Helicopter Company between October 1967 and June 1971, known colloquially as EMU Squadron. They flew gunships and troop transports in support of all ground forces serving in Military Regions Three and Four. Flying hours were much higher than normal, with the aircrew and their machines regularly involved in intense combat situations. The majority of Navy’s casualties were suffered by the helicopter flight.
The RAN also had 13 medical officers serving ashore with surgical teams at medical facilities in the field in South Vietnam from 1968 to 1971.
I served in HMAS Sydney twice, once in 1967 and again in 1972. I also served in HMAS Yarra, an anti-submarine frigate, which escorted Sydney to Vietnam in December 1967.
Conditions in Sydney were very hot and cramped. The conditions in the more modern frigate weren’t all that much better, although Yarra was air conditioned. You had to learn to live in a confined space, with a lot of other people, and put up with a lot of ambient noise, which is constant, on a platform which is forever moving. Other than that, the food wasn’t too bad, and the travel too far off places was a bonus. However, cockroach infestation was a constant problem, as was the provision of potable water. Heat and noise in machinery spaces such as boiler and engine rooms in Sydney, where the temperatures rose up to 45-50 deg. C for a four hour watch, was rather draining. Salt tablets were prescribed for all in the ship, plus drinking plenty of water was also recommended.
Agent Orange (AO) was the colloquial name given to one of the defoliants used in Vietnam, because it came in 44 gallon drums marked with an Orange Band. It was used to defoliate trees and scrubland thereby denying the Viet Cong cover for their clandestine operations, which they were fairly adept at carrying out. AO was also used on rice crops to deny the enemy sources of food. Basically, defoliants kill off plant life – and anything that kills off plant life must have an effect on humans. AO was toxic and can cause cancerous conditions. The toxic effect of AO was subsequently passed through the distillation system used to make potable water in ships of the time. Instead of purifying the seawater used to make potable water when in the Vietnam area, the process used in those days made the toxins worse. Recent Australian studies suggest that this may have had an effect on all who travelled in RAN ships of the time, as well as those who served in Army small ships.
The Government commissioned the studies in response to concerns from Navy veterans following the 1997 Vietnam Veterans Mortality Study, which showed an elevated mortality rate among RAN personnel, particularly RAN Logistic Support personnel, that is, those of us who served in HMA Ships Sydney, Jeparit, and Boonaroo and the escorts to HMAS Sydney. See Chapter 5 of my book for further details if you were transported to and from Vietnam in Sydney, as this will probably affect you as well.