R.A.N Helicopter Flight Vietnam - Official History
On July 14, 1967, Mr Allen Fairhall, Minister for Defence, announced that eight RAN helicopter pilots and supporting staff would join a US Army helicopter unit in South Vietnam to provide support for allied forces including the 1st Australian Task Force in Phuoc Tuy province. He also announced that RAN flying crews would join 9 Squadron RAAF at Vung Tau.
LCDR N. Ralph (pilot) in Command of Aircraft
Given the title of RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam, the first contingent of pilots, observers, aircrewmen and technical sailors was drawn from the Fleet and second-line squadrons and assembled at RAN Air Station, Nowra, New South Wales, for eight weeks of training with 723 Squadron. 723 remained the parent squadron for the Flight. Lieutenant Commander N. Ralph, RANHFV’s commanding officer-designate, visited the United States and Vietnam to establish the training requirements for the Flight.
The pilots undertook conversion courses with 723 Squadron’s UH IB Iroquois helicopters, and all personnel completed colloquial language, intelligence, code of conduct and small arms courses. As a final rounding-off of preparations for Vietnam, the flight exercised with the Australian Army in the field The later contingents followed a similar but much extended pattern of pre-Vietnam training which included the three-week Army battle-efficiency course at Canungra, Queensland.
Led by Lieutenant Commander Ralph, the first group of RANHFV ’67 arrived in Vietnam on October 16, 1967 while the second group followed two days later. The flight, consisting of eight pilots, four observers, four aircrewmen, twenty-four technical sailors and six other sailors, was quickly integrated with the 330 personnel of the US Army 135th Aviation Company at Vung Tau with the RAN personnel taking their place in the Aviation Company according to rank and seniority.
Lieutenant Commander Ralph became second-in-command as the company executive officer. He ‘wore his second hat’ as officer-in-charge of RANHFV, being assisted in RANHFV administration by the next senior RAN officer—in this case the senior pilot, Lieutenant Commander P. J. Vickers, who also commanded the 1st platoon.
The officer-in-charge of RANHFV, as executive officer of the 135th, was responsible to the commanding officer for the efficient running of the company in accordance with United States military law. Notwithstanding this incorporation into the US Army, RANHFV could not be used in any role which contravened Australian Government policy on the employment of its forces in Vietnam. In any such policy decision, the officer-in-charge of RANHFV received direction from the Australian ambassador through COMAFV.
The only occasion of serious conflict between the operational role of the 135th and restrictions on the use of RANHFV occurred in May 1970 when RAN aircrews were not permitted to take part in the 135th’s operations in Cambodia.
It was not long before the Australians gained senior positions: pilots became aircraft commanders and platoon leaders; observers joined the intelligence and operations centres; aircrew sailors became machine gunners and (in later contingents) helicopter crew chiefs; and technical sailors took charge of the maintenance sections.
Because the initial engagement period for sailors in the RAN, an entirely volunteer service, was nine or twelve years, the Navy was able to train its technical sailors to a high level of skill. By contrast, the US Army, with a much shorter term of engagement, a large proportion of drafted personnel, and with senior technical enlisted men in short supply, was not so well placed.
Service in the 135th Aviation Company therefore enabled many of the technical sailors to assume responsibility for maintenance work at a higher level than would normally be given to their particular rank in the RAN in peacetime.
Before continuing with the narrative of the first contingent, it is appropriate to outline the history of the formation of the 135th Assault Helicopter Company, its position within the 1st Aviation Brigade, and the nature of helicopter operations in IV Corps Tactical Zone.
135th Assault Helicopter Company
The 135th Assault Helicopter Company1 was one of the four companies of the 214th Aviation Battalion, 12th Combat Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade. It was formed on 1 July 1965 at Fort Benning, Georgia, being equipped at First with VC 2B Caribou transport aircraft, and then in February 1967 becoming a helicopter unit. The 135th was deployed to Vietnam in early October 1967, just before it was joined by RANF1FV.
1st Aviation Brigade
The first US Army aviation units had arrived in Vietnam in late 1961, and the 1st Aviation Brigade was organised on March 1, 1966 and deployed to Vietnam in May 1966 to provide air support for all United States, Vietnamese and ‘free world’ forces.
Before the rundown of United States forces in Vietnam, the brigade was composed of more than sixty aviation companies in four combat aviation groups and two separate combat aviation battalions.
Of the four combat aviation groups, the 17th operated in II Corps Tactical Zone; the 164th in IV Corps; and the 12th in III Corps. The fourth group, the 165th, was attached to brigade headquarters in the USARV complex at Long Binh, twelve miles north-east of Saigon. Each group contained several combat aviation battalions, and each battalion, four or five aviation companies.
With more than 2000 aircraft flown and maintained by 20,000 officers and men, the brigade was the largest US Army aviation unit ever formed, and more than fifty percent of all Army aircraft in Vietnam were in 1st Aviation Brigade units.
Most of the brigade’s aircraft were turbo-jet Bell Iroquois helicopters which were first introduced to Vietnam in 1962. In various models, the Iroquois (in US Army usage a ‘Huey’) functioned as a ‘slick’ (a lightly-armed troop-carrier), a ‘gunship’ (heavily armed with machine guns and rockets), a MEDEVAC aircraft, or a command and control aircraft from which combat assaults were directed.
Other aircraft included the CH 47 Chinook helicopter used for troop transport and heavy lifts, especially the carrying of damaged ‘Hueys’, the CH 54 Skycrane which could lift ten tons and which specialised in the lifting of heavy cargo, trucks and artillery pieces; the AH 1C Cobra helicopter gun-ship; and the 0-1 Bird Dog fixed-wing reconnaissance aeroplane.
For the major part of RANHFV’s deployment, the 135th was controlled by the 164th Combat Aviation Group based first at Bien Hoa north of Saigon, and then at Can Tho, Phong Dinh province.
The provision of an air mobile capacity for ARVN forces in IV Corps was the major task of the 135th during the four-year period of RANHFV integration. This required the transport of ARVN troops from their base to the area of operations and landing them near known or suspected enemy
positions for a sweep operation through the enemy occupied area—i.e. ‘search and destroy’ tactics. This was known as a troop insertion, and the usual number of aircraft employed were a ‘package’ of ten UH 1H slicks accompanied by two ‘light fire teams’, each composed of two UH 1C gunships.
With shortages of spare parts and non-replacement of destroyed helicopters, the number of helicopters available for an operation was on occasion too few for the above requirement to be met, so that the standard package with its two light fire teams was often modified to a ‘mini-package’ of five slicks accompanied by one light fire team, and the command and control helicopter.
The air mission commander, a pilot suitably qualified by operational experience, flew in the UH 1H command and control helicopter in overall command of the insertion.
Though designated an 'Aviation Company' the 135th had the title of Assault Helicopted Company for most of the period of the RANHFV Integration
In late 1969, when the 135th was based at Bearcat in Bien Hoa province but was supporting ARVN forces operating in the northern provinces of IV Corps, a typical troop insertion would involve the helicopters leaving Bearcat at 0600 and flying seventy miles to the US Navy riverine base at Dong Tam, near My Tho, where the flight refuelled. From Dong Tam, the flight would cover another fifteen miles or so to the ‘pick-up zone’, in, for example, Kien Hoa province. Here the ARVN troops would be embarked in the slicks while their commander, with his US Army adviser and artillery and regimental liaison officers, joined the command and control aircraft.
The gunships would precede the slicks to the area of operations and begin strafing canal banks, treelines and other Viet Cong positions with rocket and machine-gun fire. The Viet Cong positions were determined from intelligence received by the air mission commander, or the Viet Cong gave themselves away by firing at cruising reconnaissance aircraft.
Guided by smoke flares dropped by a gunship on a suitable landing position determined by the air mission commander as he flew over the area, the slicks would sweep into the landing zone and disembark the ARVN troops who immediately moved away from the helicopters to begin their search operation.
As the slicks were at their most vulnerable to enemy mortar and small arms fire while in the landing zone they left as quickly as possible and returned to a convenient safe staging area, often an artillery firebase, to await the next requirement, eg, collecting the inserted troops and taking them to another area, or the medical evacuation of wounded soldiers.
While the operation was in progress, the command and control aircraft circled overhead as the air mission commander coordinated the air and ground aspects of the operation with the ARVN commander and his staff.
After a day in the field, the troops were returned to their base or taken to a night ambush position at dusk. The flight then returned to Bearcat after again refuelling at Dong Tam on its way back.
The 135th was also called on to provide heavy and light fire teams to strengthen air support of troops in the field, and to work in conjunction with river assault groups, but these requirements were less important than the carrying out of troop insertions.
The dust raised by the rotor downwash of the helicopters made take-off and landing hazardous in the ‘dry’. Torrential rain and flooded rice paddies produced different but no less difficult conditions in the ‘wet’. Low cloud and heavy fog often delayed early morning take-offs, and the helicopters were forced to take-off singly, coming out of the cloud at about 2000 feet and then flying in formation. The low cloud base also meant aircraft forced to fly below it were exposed to a greater risk of being hit by ground fire.
When the Delta was flooded, the slicks would not attempt to land but would hover over the paddies to disembark the troops who, weighed down with rifle and other equipment, often sank to their armpits in the mud.
The RAN aircrew carried out training to familiarise themselves with flying and operational conditions in South Vietnam before the 135th Assault Helicopter Company—designated an ‘Experimental Military Unit’ because of the integration of RAN personnel into the company—began combat operations on November 2. Not unexpectedly, the 135th became known as ‘The EMUs’.
By the end of November, the company had flown 3182 hours in support of the US Army 9th Infantry Division based at Bearcat and of the 1st Australian Task Force based at Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy province.
The usual daily commitment was one UH1H command and control helicopter, four UH1C gunships and ten slicks.
Operation Sante Fe
The company’s first major operation in early November 1967 was a lift of 9th Infantry Division troops into north east Phuoc Tuy in Operation Santa Fe, a sweep against the 5th Viet Cong
Division in its home territory by the 1st Australian Task Force, the 9th Infantry Division and the 18th ARVN Division. With more than eighty helicopters used from the 135th and other helicopter companies, Santa Fe was one of the largest operations any RANHFV contingent participated in. The EMUs then took part in Operation Tiger Coronado in the Delta with the US 2nd and 9th Infantry Divisions, and although the company aircraft were unopposed in these, their first combat assaults, later in Tiger Coronado helicopters lifting out troops were hit on four occasions.
First helicopter shot down
The first EMU aircraft to be shot down (and the first with an Australian pilot to be hit) was a gun-ship piloted by Sub-Lieutenant A. A. Casadio and Warrant Officer Esterhazy, USA. While standing by with another gunship to work with combined US Navy and VNN riverine forces operating in the Rung Sat special zone late in November, they were called out to assist a merchant ship receiving recoilless-rifle fire.
The gunships located the enemy positions and commenced strafing them, but on the second run Sub-Lieutenant Casadio’s helicopter was hit by automatic weapons fire.
The fuel tanks were holed, a fuel booster pump wrecked,' and the port minigun damaged. With the gunship rapidly losing fuel, Sub-Lieutenant Casadio landed in the nearest available area, still exposed to small arms fire.
The crew detached the machine guns and quickly set up defensive positions against the Viet Cong closing in on the downed aircraft, while Lieutenant J. M. Leak in an accompanying gunship circled overhead until his fuel ran dangerously low and he was forced to leave the scene. Before the area was secured and Sub-Lieutenant Casadio and his men rescued by another EMU helicopter, they killed two Viet Cong and drove off an unknown number. The downed helicopter was lifted back to Vung Tau by a Chinook.
On December 16,1967, the company experienced its first successful night combat operations while bringing out troops of the US 199th Light Infantry Brigade who had attacked a well-defended Viet Cong bunker system. Enemy fire on the troopcarrying helicopters was countered by gunship attacks and artillery. Lieutenant Commander Ralph was the air mission commander for this operation. Previous night combat operations on December 1 and 5 had been abandoned for various reasons.
In late December, the company moved from the secure base at Vung Tau to Camp Blackhorse, thirty-five miles away and on a main road five miles south of Xuan Loc, Long Khanh province. Blackhorse, in the middle of rubber plantations and jungle and dependent on convoys from Long Binh to bring food, ammunition and fuel, was dangerously vulnerable to rocket and mortar attack. Its unsealed runways caused it to be extremely dusty in the ‘dry’, and, conversely, a sea of mud in the ‘wet’ so that take-offs and landings required more than the usual exercise of caution.
The move from Vung Tau to Blackhorse put appalling strains on the EMU maintenance section commanded by Lieutenant W. S. Lowe. With little warning and with indifferent cooperation from units already on the site, the 135th living quarters had to be hurriedly improvised, and maintenance facilities established. On the day of the move, the EMU aircraft departed from Vung Tau on operations, and then landed at Blackhorse the same night, continuing normal operations from Blackhorse the next day. While facilities for urgent maintenance were hurriedly set up at Blackhorse, second-line maintenance was carried out at Vung Tau for another three weeks until the full maintenance section could be established at the new base.
The shift to Blackhorse committed the 135th to the support of more units over a greater area: the needs of the 9th Infantry Division remained the major commitment, while the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Bien Hoa province and the 1st Australian Task Force continued to receive support. The 18th ARVN Division, responsible for the defence of the northern environs of Saigon, and the US 101st Airborne Division to the west of Saigon, could also call on the helicopters of the 135th.