RANHFV Official History - Page 2


Experimental Military Unit (EMU) Accurately described the 135th Assault Company.  Their integration proved very effective.

 

1968

 

On January 8, 1968, eight EMU helicopters were hit by enemy ground fire while supporting elements of the 9th Infantry Division’s 3/39th Infantry Battalion outside Saigon. In this insertion and extraction of troops which went on well into the night, the EMUs were led by Lieutenant B. C. Crawford.

 

First RAN sailors injured

 

On January 12, Naval Airman K. R. Wardle and Leading Mechanic K. J. French were injured when their gunship was forced down in jungle some miles north of Baria, Phuoc Tuy province. The men scrambled clear as the wreck caught fire, detonating ammunition and rockets. The smoke of the fire coming through the dense jungle guided to the scene the rescue helicopters of 9 Squadron RAAF which winched out the crew and took them to the US Army 36th Evacuation Hospital at Vung Tau.
 

Lieutenant Commander Ralph and the crew of the command and control helicopter survived three mortar attacks on the ground during a vigorous fire fight between a Viet Cong force and elements of the US 25th Infantry Division at Due Hoa, west of Saigon on January 31. Two company gun-ships were hit by enemy fire.

 

On January 29, when, in the absence of Lieutenant Colonel R. M. Cory USA, Lieutenant Commander Ralph acted as commanding officer of the EMUs for a few days, he became the first RAN officer to command a unit of the US Army. Lieutenant Colonel Cory himself made another ‘first’ in the same month by presenting the Naval long service and good conduct medal to Petty Officer R. Muscio on behalf of the Australian Naval Board.

 

Though Blackhorse was not attacked during the widespread Tet offensive of February 1968, the increasing Viet Cong activity in III Corps emphasised the vulnerability of the camp. Skirmishes on the boundaries became frequent and enemy mining of the road from Long Binh to Baria, via Xuan Loc disrupted supply convoys, causing shortages of spare parts and, without fresh provisions, a necessarily monotonous menu. Maintenance of aircraft was further complicated by the forced evacuation of helicopters overnight to Vung Tau.

 

First EMU personnel killed in action

 

On February 8, members of an enemy group later assessed as five companies strong attacked EMU aircraft flying in support of the 9th Infantry Division near My Tho. In this action, sniper fire was directed at the ten lift aircraft led by Lieutenant Commander Vickers. On the third lift in, automatic fire brought down one helicopter which crashed into the jungle. All the US Army crew were killed. The name of the aircraft commander, Captain R. D. Freer USA, was later commemorated when new living quarters at Blackhorse were named after him.

 

Sub-Lieutenant J. A. Dalgleish had a lucky escape in this action when rounds pierced the tail boom of his aircraft and almost severed the tail rotor control cables. He landed the helicopter just as the cables gave way and until he could be lifted out he was protected from further attacks by covering gunships. Forced down nearby was a helicopter piloted by Lieutenant Crawford which had been hit in the fuel tank. Most of the crew from the two downed aircraft spent the night with 9th Infantry Division troops before being lifted back to Blackhorse.

 

During the action, eight helicopters were hit by groundfire, and two were irreparably damaged.

 

Operation Clayton

 

EMU helicopters assisted the 1st Australian Task Force on February 20 in Operation Clayton, a cordon and search of the village of Long Dien near Dat Do on Highway 23 in Phuoc Tuy province. Some of the task force troops moved to the village in a road convoy, while the remainder were taken by helicopter. The two elements joined and soldiers of the 7th Battalion R AR searched the village while a cordon was maintained by the 1st Battalion. 5337 persons were screened to identify draft-dodgers and Viet Cong suspects. EMU aircraft lifted the task force troops back to Nui Dat the following day.

 

Lieutenant Commander Vickers killed

 


LCDR P J Vickers, RAN.
 

Lieutenant Commander Vickers was fatally wounded on February 22, while piloting the lead aircraft in a mission to lift out troops of the 18th ARVN Division near Xuan Loc. Descending to the pick-up zone, his aircraft was hit by enemy fire and Lieutenant Commander Vickers was wounded.

 

The co-pilot immediately flew the helicopter to Blackhorse, landing on the hospital pad within five minutes. Unfortunately this prompt action was unavailing as Lieutenant Commander Vickers died without regaining consciousness.

 

The company gunships killed twenty Viet Cong while providing continuous air fire support during a fifteen-hour long operation with the 25th ARVN Division near Can Giouc, south of Saigon, on February 23.

 

Enemy activity at Blackhorse

 

With the Tet offensive declining, enemy activity decreased around Blackhorse. This, however, did  not stop the base from being the target of forty-two enemy mortar rounds in the early hours of March 9. Not all the missiles exploded, and only eight people were injured, with some minor damage being done to buildings. Enemy mining of the Blackhorse—Xuan Loc road continued. Petty Officer O. C. Phillips, the company’s construction NCO, escaped injury when a vehicle he was travelling in detonated mines, tearing off one of its tracks. An American civilian engineer was killed in this incident.

 

Operation Ash grove Tram

 

On March 25, EMU slicks with helicopters of 9 Squadron RAAF lifted troops of ANZAC Battalion (2nd Battalion RAR/lst Battalion RNZ1R) from Nui Dat to Xa Long Hai, a fishing village at the foot of the Long Hai hills. A total of 2085 Vietnamese were screened in this operation, code-named Ashgrove Tram. The infantry were lifted back to Nui Dat the next day.

 

By the end of March 1968, the EMUs were flying in support of the 5th, 18th and 25th ARVN Divisions. The 18th Division based at Xuan Loc had most of eastern III Corps as its area of operations, the 5th Division operated to the north and west of Saigon; and the 25th Division had its area of operations west of Saigon and south into Kien Hoa province.

 

The commitment to combat assaults and troop lifts was varied by general support missions carried out every fourth day. The company also supplied eleven utility helicopters which were employed singly as command and control aircraft for ground operations, and for essential administrative and re-supply sorties.

 

The onset of the south-west monsoon in mid-April lessened the dust hazard of the summer months, but the dust was replaced by morning fog and thunderstorms as the monsoon weather intensified. Although few missions were cancelled, many troop lifts were temporarily disrupted.

 

On Anzac Day, April 25, EMU and RAAF helicopters lifted troops of 1st and 2nd Battalions, RAR, from Nui Dat to positions near Dat Do, eastern Phuoc Tuy, in a phase of campaign Toan Thang. This operation involved the allied forces in III Corps acting to counter an expected Viet Cong offensive against Saigon and the military bases of Long Binh and Bien Hoa.

 

Ambushes

 

Early in May, an 18th ARVN Division convoy was ambushed on Highway 1 at Dinh Quanh north of Xuan Loc. The rapid counter-action of the ‘Taipans’ (the EMU gunships) and tactical air support helped to kill 200 of the attacking Viet Cong.

 

An enemy force ambushed a flight of EMU slicks and gunships east of Tan An, Long An province, as they landed troops of the 25th ARVN Division on May 18. The enemy waited until the soldiers were leaving the aircraft before opening fire with automatic weapons. Of the ten aircraft hit, seven were disabled with bullets in major components. Two aircraft were ‘write-offs’. Lieutenant R. J. Godfrey, piloting the lead aircraft of five slicks, found himself quite alone as he left the landing zone. Lieutenant Crawford and Sub-Lieutenant G. E. S. Vidal in another slick were forced down north of the ‘hot’ combat area. Though aircraft were seriously damaged, crew injuries generally were light. One crew remained unscathed in spite of twenty-two rounds passing through the aircraft while a bullet passed through the windscreen of Lieutenant Crawford’s helicopter, three inches from his head. As this ambush had successfully immobilised most aircraft of this EMU flight, a relief flight was called in to complete the operation.

 

'Smoke Ship'

 

Soon after this episode, a new tactic was employed to protect slicks during their most vulnerable period, i.e. while unloading troops in a landing zone. This was the employment of one UH1H equipped with four door-mounted M60 machine guns as a ‘smoke ship’ which laid a smokescreen in front of the troop-carrying helicopters. The smoke ship itself was still extremely vulnerable to enemy fire as it necessarily flew at a very low altitude. This new tactic proved successful, for in June 1968 no aircraft were hit going in or out of the landing zone in a smokescreen.

 

The south-west monsoon was well established by early June, bringing a daily pattern of morning fog and afternoon downpours. With the flooding rice paddies slowing down the movement of ground troops, the EMUs were used more consistently to provide operational mobility.

 

Jungle crash

 

Lieutenant Leak, Lieutenant A. H. Craig (of RAN Detachment, 9 Squadron RAAF), and Leading Air Mechanic A. Green were injured on June 13 when a lateral cyclic control rod broke, sending their helicopter into a spiral dive. It came by a RAAF MEDEVAC helicopter, taken to the 1st Australian Field Hospital at Vung Tau, and later evacuated to Australia. Lieutenant Leak was replaced by Sub-Lieutenant M. J. Ward from 9 Squadron RAAF at Vung Tau who remained with the Flight until September.

 

135th support of 9th Infantry Division elements in Vinh Long, Dinh Tuong and Long An provinces, IV Corps, increased in July with a major night assault late in the month near Tan An. Although the troop landings were unopposed, the EMUs led by Lieutenant Crawford encountered sniper fire during troop lifts.

 

Aircraft hit

 

Six company aircraft were hit on July 25 while bringing troops of the 25th ARVN Division into a landing zone near Ben Luc, south-west of Saigon. Light enemy fire received on the first landing was suppressed by the accompanying gunships. The six aircraft were hit on the second landing by rifle fire from Viet Cong who were well entrenched in ‘spider holes’ with concrete lids. The snipers would raise the lid and fire several volleys before lowering the lid. Six disembarking ARVN soldiers were killed. The helicopter piloted by Lieutenant Godfrey received several rounds, but no RAN personnel were injured.

 

August 1968 brought large-scale enemy movements through III Corps, in contrast to June and July, when contact with Viet Cong was infrequent. The United States and ARVN forces supported by the 135th concentrated on the defence of Saigon, limiting their search and destroy operations to areas within mortar and rocket range of the capital.

 

Blackhorse was the target of mortar attacks in the early hours of August 15, a Viet Cong tactic to keep helicopter gunships grounded while they attacked ARVN outposts at Gia Ray, ten miles from the camp. Heavy fighting followed nearer Blackhorse on the 23rd as units of the 18th ARVN Division battled with a large Viet Cong force. The EMUs kept the ARVN units supplied with reinforcements and lifted an ARVN battalion into a blocking position to the rear of the Viet Cong.

 

Lieutenant Casadio and Petty Officer Phillips killed

 


LEUT Casadio (Left)
 

Lieutenant Casadio and Petty Officer Phillips were killed on August 21 when their gunship crashed and burned six miles from Blackhorse. The low cloud base kept the EMU light fire team, led by Lieutenant Casadio, flying at tree-top level to reduce the risk of being hit by Viet Cong snipers.

 

Lieutenant Casadio’s aircraft was hit by an RPG1 and was seen to emit a sheet of flame from its jet pipe before it crashed through the trees into a ditch and exploded. Lieutenant Dalgleish landed his helicopter quickly in an attempt to rescue the crew, but all had been killed, and the exploding ammunition stopped attempts to extinguish the fire.