Vietnam War – Australian Air Power Involvement

Speech delivered at the 2018 Sunset Service by WGCDR Graeme Williams.

Much has been written about the Vietnam War. We know at the time it was controversial at home, and complex abroad.

But there were the quiet achievers among our Australian Defence Forces who did their job and did it well when the call was made to deploy our troops and support elements to the then divided and war-torn country.

Australia’s commitment and involvement in the Vietnam War during the years 1962 to 1973 was a period when Australia was experiencing significant social and political upheaval. Not since the conscription referendums of the First World War, had our country witnessed such active campaigning about Australia’s involvement in an external conflict.

While dissent raged in Australia, the air war in Vietnam brought forward the quiet professionalism of the Royal Australian Air Force in support of our troops on the ground who often fought in stifling, dangerous and difficult circumstances.

The RAAF began its involvement in the war in 1964 when the much-respected Caribous began flying transport operations around South Vietnam. The following year RAAF helicopters began operations and, in 1967, a squadron of Canberra bombers arrived in the country. Other RAAF personnel performed a variety of roles in Vietnam, from aeromedical evacuations to airfield construction and combat flying with United States forces.

The 35 Squadron Caribous, fondly known as ‘Wallaby Airlines’ carrying, among other things, passengers, mail, ammunition, fuel and a wide variety of other supplies necessary for Australians in the field.

‘Wallaby Airlines’ spent seven and a half years on active service and in that period flew nearly 80,000 sorties totalling 47,000 hours in the air. They carried more than 677,000 passengers and 40 million kilograms of freight and mail.

Of course, helicopters proved to be a vital asset in the jungles of Vietnam and Australia came to the force. The 9 Squadron’s helicopters carried out a variety of roles in Vietnam. Most important were the transport of infantry and logistic support, but the helicopters were also used to drop leaflets over enemy territory. Some were also used in aerial spraying to rid the base of mosquitoes and, more aggressively, to kill vegetative growth around the base and to destroy agricultural plots in Viet Cong territory, denying the enemy a source of food.

Just two months after the squadron’s arrival in Vietnam, two pilots were called on to drop ammunition to the beleaguered troops of D Company, 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, at Long Tan. Flying in appalling weather at tree-top height; they dropped ammunition to the soldiers on the ground through driving rain and under intense Viet Cong fire. The squadron operated again that night, after the battle, to retrieve the wounded, guided only by the light emanating from the open hatches of armoured personnel carriers.

Image by Taylor Edwards Photography
Image by Taylor Edwards Photography

As well as Caribous and helicopters, the RAAF sent No. 2 Squadron to Vietnam in April 1967. Equipped with Canberra bombers and flying out of Phan Rang Air Base on South Vietnam’s southern coast, some 250 kilometres north-east of Saigon, No. 2 Squadron operated day and night missions destroying a wide range of infrastructure targets as well as attacking Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops. The squadron served with the United States Air Force’s 35th Tactical Fighter Wing until leaving Vietnam on 14 June 1971. Five members of the Squadron died during the war, two on operations.

While the RAAF served with courage and distinction there were losses. Among them was the first Canberra bomber to be lost over Vietnam in November killing both the pilot and navigator.

Another Canberra bomber was lost six months’ later when the aircraft went down after being hit by ground-to-air fire. Fortunately, the pilot and navigator managed to eject.

The dedication, training and professionalism of our aircrew in Vietnam were crucial to Australia’s engagement and the saving of lives in sometimes atrocious conditions.

It is to their services we pay tribute this evening.