RANHFV Official History - Page 4

 

4TH CONTINGENT

 

(Corps Tactical Zones were restyled Military Regions on August 1,1970. IV Corps Tactical Zone became Military Region 4.)

 

The first group of RANHFV ’70, the last contingent, arrived ‘in country’ on September 10, 1970 and the second group on October 8. Lieutenant Commander W. P. James relieved Lieutenant Commander Farthing at Dong Tam on September 17. Lieutenant J. Buchanan was the senior pilot and second-in-charge of RANHFV.

 

Soon after RANHFV ’70 relieved RANHFV ’69,1 the extent of EMU operations in Military Region 4 broadened. While the company continued to support the 7th ARVN Division in Kien Hoa province, it began to fly increasingly for the 21st ARVN Division based at Vi Thanh in Chuong Tien province, about seventy miles south-west of Dong Tam, and for the 9th ARVN Division based at Sa Dec some forty miles west of Dong Tam. Operations with the 21st ARVN in particular, imposed long flying hours to and from Dong Tam.

 

The heavy rains of the summer monsoon and the flooded Delta kept enemy activity low in Military Region 4 in October and interfered with the EMUs’ flying, but did not stop enemy mortar attacks.

 

The Dong Tam base was the target of several mortar attacks during October and November with most rounds being directed at the US Navy compound about one mile south of the 135th headquarters. On October 27, five 85 mm rounds landed close to the EMU officers’ quarters showering the building with dirt, while five EMU personnel were injured on November 3 when several 82 mm rounds exploded near the company’s accommodation blocks.

 

Kien Long

 

The first major action for RANHFV ’70 occurred on October 11 near Kien Long, on the eastern fringe of the U Minh about fifty miles south-west of Can Tho where an enemy force thought to be a battalion with a heavy weapons company was entrenched in a treeline. EMU aircraft landed four times under heavy mortar and B40 rocket fire to insert ARVN troops. Five of the helicopters were hit and one, with Lieutenant B. G. Abraham as co-pilot, was forced down nearby. The enemy withdrew to the U Minh as night fell, leaving twenty-six dead in the field. The ARVN troops suffered eighty-eight casualties.

 

Near the end of the month, the direct combat support helicopter assigned to Dinh Tuong was badly damaged while parked on a road when a small boy threw a rocket canister into its tail rotor.

 

Dinh Tuong province remained the major area of enemy activity in Military Region 4 during November. The Viet Cong continued with the pattern of night attacks which they had established three months earlier by harassing small outposts on moonlit nights to probe their defences in preparation for later attacks during moonless nights.

 

On November 5, the EMU gunship platoon killed three Viet Cong in the Ca Mau peninsula, and the following day, near Mo Cay, Kien Floa province, two Viet Cong were killed by the crew of the command and control helicopter and one by the Taipans.

 

Early in the morning of November 22, armed Viet Cong were detected attempting to land from a junk onto a beach in Kien Hoa province. The EMUs took ARVN troops to the area, and one Viet Cong was killed by the command and control aircraft.

 

The main target of Viet Cong attacks in December was the South Vietnamese pacification program, by which the government sought to extend education, health and social welfare schemes to the rural population.

 

Lau Ba outpost

 

Outposts continued to be the targets of Viet Cong harassing attacks. In the early hours of December 3, the gunships were sent to the assistance of the Lau Ba Regional Force outpost near Tra
 

Vinh, Vinh Binh province. Lieutenant Commander James, the air mission commander, arrived just as the outpost was overrun by an enemy force and blown up. Eleven of the Regional Force defenders were killed as well as ten civilians. One Viet Cong was killed by the gunships.

 

The following day, Lieutenant Buchanan was the co-pilot of a helicopter carrying out a MEDEVAC from a disabled VNN patrol boat in the U Minh when the boat, with the other vessels of its flotilla, came under heavy attack. As the wounded Vietnamese was being loaded aboard the hovering helicopter, a sampan fifty yards away exploded from a direct hit by an 82 mm mortar round. Lieutenant Buchanan hooked the skids of his aircraft into the upperworks of the disabled patrol boat and towed it to a safer area.

 

Heavy contacts with enemy units around Tra Vinh and in the U Minh characterised EMU operations for the remainder of December. The campaign in the U Minh continued until February.

 

An unusual mission for the EMUs on Christmas Eve was the provision of a security force for President Nguyen Van Thieu who was spending the night with ARVN troops in the Ca Mau peninsula.

 

All EMU slicks leaving a landing zone near Chau Lang, Chau Doc province, were hit by automatic weapons fire on December 30 in a day-long engagement in which a Viet Cong force was routed by the combined efforts of ARVN troops, EMU gunships, artillery, and continuous air-strikes. Fifty of the enemy were left dead in the field: of these, at least twenty were killed by the EMUs. Numerous AK47 rifles, mortars and machine-guns were captured.

 

In this action, Sub-Lieutenant K. T. Powell was the co-pilot of a helicopter which suffered a severed throttle linkage and damaged rotor blades from small arms fire and flying shrapnel.

 

1971

 

The new year began for the EMUs with support of the 9th ARVN Division in Vinh Binh province. On January 3, all gunships involved in assisting a unit of this division, together with the command and control helicopter, were holed by enemy fire, and, with its instrument console and circuit breaker panels smashed, the helicopter piloted by Warrant Officer Slaick US Army and Sub-Lieutenant J. T. Gumley was forced down.

 

The Seven Mountains

 

Major allied offensive operations in January took place in the Seven Mountains area and the U Minh. The Seven Mountains, peaks reaching more than 2000 feet in height, rise abruptly from the Mekong Delta in south-west Chau Doc province, astride an enemy infiltration route from Cambodia into the Delta, and were a major base for Viet Cong activity in the western part of the Delta.

 

An EMU aircraft attempting to land in the Seven Mountains to MEDEVAC a seriously wounded US Army adviser was hit by heavy fire on January 16. The pilot, Warrant Officer T. F. Mesera USA, was fatally wounded and the helicopter crashed upside down. The crew, which included Naval Airman J. V. Shaw, was pinned down by enemy fire from well-protected bunkers and, unable to be immediately evacuated, spent the night on the mountainside defending its position while ARVN troops and a company of the 7th Battalion, US 1st Air Cavalry, attempted to destroy the entrenched Viet Cong force. The enemy were finally driven off the next morning, and the EMU aircrew lifted out.

 

Rescue at Giong Trom

 

An insertion of units of the 7th ARVN Division near Giong Trom proved disastrous for the troops concerned when the helicopters received heavy enemy fire from the rear as the soldiers were disembarking. The Viet Cong had known of the location of the intended landing zone and had prepared it as an ambush site. Out of forty soldiers, twenty-two were killed and ten wounded. Led by Lieutenant Abraham, the helicopters quickly took off under fire. Only two crew members in the flight were injured though one helicopter was so badly damaged that it was forced to land nearby in an insecure area. It again came under heavy fire as its crew were rescued by the command and control helicopter which landed twice to take off the crew and rig the aircraft for lifting out.

 

Late in February, a gunship flown by Sub-Lieutenant W. J. Shurey was hit twice when supporting the 21st ARVN Division north of Cai Nuoc, An Xuyen province. The hydraulic system was damaged and the aircraft was forced to land at Quan Long (Ca Mau).

 

Laotian campaign

 

Heavy fighting in Laos in February and March caused helicopters that would have replaced damaged aircraft in the 135th to be allocated instead to helicopter companies sent to Laos. The non-replacement of damaged aircraft not only put a greater burden on the EMU maintainers but seriously reduced the number of gunships available for missions in southern Military Region 4.

 

Sub-Lieutenants Gumley and Shurey each piloted a gunship in a flight of four helicopters which went to the assistance of a command post under heavy attack in the U Minh on March 21. The aircraft were fired at many times but escaped unscathed after killing seven Viet Cong. Three days later, Lieutenant Commander James led an EMU team in strikes against an enemy force caught in the open twenty-five miles north-east of Dong Tam. Four Viet Cong were killed.

 

U Minh infiltration

 

A marked increase in the frequency of enemy attacks in southern Military Region 4 in April led to greater helicopter losses in the U Minh with the northern part of the forest becoming particularly dangerous. The Viet Cong seemed to have little difficulty in replenishing food and ammunition and these were thought to be arriving from the coast. This supposition was confirmed by the discovery of a small freighter attempting to evade Market Time patrols west of Nam Can in the early hours of April 12. Fired on by the patrolling warships, the vessel blew up in shallow water about a mile offshore. At daylight, ARVN troops which were landed on the beach by EMU slicks found cooking facilities and a base camp nearby.
 

The remainder of April followed as an anticlimax to this action, though on the 24th EMU gunships operating east of Cai Lay, western Dinh Tuong province, killed two Viet Cong, destroyed two structures and wounded one Viet Cong who was captured.

 

Outposts attacked

 

As the monsoon weather worsened in May with heavy rain and thunderstorms, flying conditions in the afternoons became more hazardous. The Viet Cong took advantage of the dark rainy nights to step up attacks on outposts and mortar the Dong Tam base. While an outpost was being overrrun west of Dong Tam on May 30, eleven mortar rounds were fired into the base causing minor damage to the hangars, and the same night four of the ARVN soldiers guarding the perimeter were killed by sniper fire.

 

When operating in Bac Lieu province on the morning of May 18, the EMU gunships were opposed by heavy enemy fire and three helicopters were hit. One, piloted by Sub-Lieutenant S. P. Rawlinson, was unable to continue the mission and returned to Dong Tam that afternoon, while the remainder of the flight continued on to Vi Thanh to carry out strikes in the eastern U Minh where four slicks of another company had been destroyed in a landing zone. The gunships were met by heavy small arms and 50-calibre machine-gun fire which seriously damaged Sub-Lieutenant Shurey’s aircraft.

 

On May 20, Naval Air Mechanic A. S. Beales survived the crash of a helicopter which was being test flown after a periodic inspection.

 

Infiltration of NVA units from the Cambodian Parrots Beak across the Plain of Reeds into the north-western delta became especially noticeable in May. On the 31st, EMU gunships were sent into Military Region 3 to land a blocking force to surround two NVA companies moving in the open near Tan An, southern Long An province, about fifteen miles north east of Dong Tam.

 

Sub-Lieutenant Powell had the doubtful honour of being the last RAN pilot to be the target of enemy fire when his helicopter received hits in the tail rotor while on a direct combat support mission in late May.

 

RANHFV withdrawn

 

RAN pilots ceased flying on June 8, and the maintenance sailors were stood down the same day. On the Nth, the flight was farewelled in Vung Tau by Major General D. B. Dunstan, COMAFV, and returned to Australia on the 16th.

 

With the departure of the last group of RANHFV ’70, the four-year long successful integration of Fleet Air Arm personnel with the 135th Assault Helicopter Company ended, and the 135th’s Experimental Military Unit status came to an end.

 

The 135th was withdrawn from Dong Tam in late June and set up new headquarters near Di An, Bien Hoa province, fifteen miles north of Saigon, where it operated in support of the 5th ARVN Division in Tay Ninh province.

 

This account of RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam has so far concerned itself with the flying operations of the EMUs but it must not be overlooked that in addition to pilots and sailor-gunners, each RANHFV contingent had a sizeable element of technical sailors; a small group of drivers, stewards and cooks; a medical branch sailor and a writer; and, in its officer strength, three or four Observers.
 

Maintenance and repair

 

That the helicopters of the 135th were kept serviceable was due entirely to the dedication and ceaseless effort of the maintenance staff who worked in two shifts ‘around-the-clock’ in all weathers to meet the unrelenting demands of routine upkeep and the repair of battle-damaged aircraft.

 

Under the direction of the officer-in-charge of the maintenance platoon, the technical personnel of the 135th (some 150 in number, of whom thirty were RAN) manned the platoon’s workshops, inspection teams, technical supply and quality control sections as well as the motor transport section and the avionics detachment. Lieutenant W. S. Lowe of RANHFV ’67, who was qualified both as an air engineer and a pilot, was the only RAN officer to take charge of the maintenance platoon.

 

The maintainers’ day began at 0400 when the helicopter crew chiefs were assisted to prepare their aircraft for the day’s flying. The engines were started and checks made to detect any mechanical or electrical malfunction which may have developed from the entry of dust or water in the previous day’s flying. If faults were found, attempts were made to rectify them prior to take-off.

 

At about 0600 the EMU flight left for the day’s operations, and the maintainers turned their attentions to the routine work of the day: the maintenance and repair of helicopters undergoing an intermediate or periodic inspection. In any one day it was quite usual to have six aircraft undergoing the intermediate inspection, after twenty-five hours flying time, with three helicopters receiving the much more exhaustive periodic inspection—a requirement for each helicopter after each 100 hours of flying.

 

In the periodic inspection, an extremely thorough procedure intended to counter the effects of stress on the helicopter, the airframe was inspected and structural faults repaired; the engine and transmission completely removed and examined; the main and tail rotor assemblies rebalanced and realigned; control linkages checked; instruments and gauges removed and calibrated and, if necessary, the tail boom was dismantled to allow internal repairs. At the same time the aircraft was completely washed and cleaned to remove all traces of dust and mud.

 

The airframe of the Iroquois helicopter had a normal life of 2000 hours flying time before being returned to the United States for re-building. Thus with an average of 100 hours flying per month for a helicopter, the company could have expected each aircraft to give twenty months service in Vietnam. Due to the rigours of operations and the effects of battle-damage, however, most aircraft were ‘retired’ before the expiration of twenty months service. The turbojet engines were usually replaced at between 500 and 750 hours service.

 

On completion of the day’s flying, the tightly-scheduled maintenance program often gave place to the hasty repair of battle-damaged aircraft. The maintenance task then became a race against the clock to have the damaged helicopters ready for the next day’s mission.

 

As the 135th seldom had its full quota of helicopters and as spare parts were always in short supply, the maintenance staff often had to resort to ‘cannibalising’ parts from aircraft undergoing periodic inspection to repair a helicopter required for a mission. A large-scale trading of parts went on with other helicopter companies.

 

At their best, the working conditions for the maintenance staff of the 135th were barely satisfactory. The company shifted its base four times. On each occasion, the maintenance facilities of the previous base had to be abandoned and new hangars and workshops constructed. The makeshift hangars that did exist could accommodate only the aircraft undergoing major overhaul or repair while helicopters receiving routine maintenance remained in their revetments where the maintainers worked on them exposed to rain or wind-blown dust. At night, electric torches were often the only illumination, and care had to be taken with these lest the working party presented a target for Viet Cong snipers.

 

The skill of the RANHFV technical sailors and their US Army counterparts played a major part in keeping the 135th a highly efficient operational assault helicopter company.

 

As noted earlier, the RAN was able to supply senior sailors with long and varied experience in the Fleet Arm. To these men—especially Chief Petty Officers and Petty Officers K. P. Brennan and R. H. Homer (RANHFV ’67), R. C. Cole and R. A. Hayes (RANHFV ’68), B. L. Grainger and R. G. Markwell (RANHFV ’69), and J. C. Day and J. M. Da Silva (RANHFV ’70) - must go much of the credit for the high standard of maintenance sustained throughout the four years of RANHFV’s integration.

 

In a similar manner to the technical personnel, the remaining sailors were integrated with other elements of the 135th or its parent battalion. The sick berth attendants manned the dispensary and on occasions were attached to outside military hospitals. The writers assisted the officer-in-charge of RANHFV with administration, pay, and posting matters, while the cooks were required for extended hours in the kitchen preparing the early and late meals required by the aircrew and shift-work maintainers.

 

Observers

 

RANHFV Observers undertook a variety of duties in the 135th ranging from intelligence and operations work (their main task), through the administration of RANHFV personnel, to the planning and supervision of new building constructions as the 135th shifted its bases from

 

Blackhorse to Bearcat to Dong Tam. They flew on reconnaissance flights, and on occasion acted as gunners.

 

Led by Lieutenant D. A. Cronin, the observers of the first contingent not only had to quickly acquire expertise as operations officers but were required to do this effectively in the initially bewildering environment of the US Army. They readily adapted to their new roles (to which their training in air navigation and anti-submarine warfare tactics bore little relation) and established the pattern of Vietnam service for observers of later contingents.

 

Operations

 

As company operations officers, the observers were required to plan the number of aircraft needed for a mission, allocate the crews to the helicopters, brief them before departure, and de-brief them on their return in the evening. During the night the operations staff received fresh intelligence of enemy movements and plans for the next day’s missions from the battalion operations centre. As it arrived, the new information was incorporated in the maps and briefing sheets for the aircrews. The operations staff (which included naval airmen) was also responsible for the compilation of statistics which were forwarded to higher commands.

 

Battalion operations

 

Observers of all contingents were attached to the operations staff of the 135th’s parent battalion, which controlled the daily operations in which the EMUs took part and arranged for helicopter reinforcements to be sent to hard-pressed flights. The rescuing of shot-down crews and the salvage of their helicopters was a battalion responsibility. Observers working in the battalion operations centre liaised with the US Army and ARVN units supported by the EMUs and other aviation companies, and coordinated operations covering several provinces which might involve as many as eighty aircraft from up to four helicopter companies and two air cavalry companies. An important aspect of this work was the planning of landing zone positions and the preparation of maps.

 

Observers of the second contingent, led by Lieutenant R. G. Ray, were also attached to the operations staff of the 164th Aviation Group. This experience gave them a share of administering helicopter operations throughout the whole of IV Corps.

 

The involvement in construction projects and the appointment of an observer as company construction officer also began with the second contingent when the observers organised the move of the 135th from Blackhorse to Bearcat, and were responsible for the construction of living quarters, bunkers and maintenance hangars.

 

Similarly, Lieutenant Kimpton of the third contingent directed the improvement of facilities at Bearcat and supervised the move to Dong Tam in September 1970.
 

Distinct from their role in the 135th, the Observers acted as divisional officers for the RANHFV sailors, and supervised the administration of RANHFV on behalf of the officer-in-charge who was fully engaged with flying operations.

 

A successful experiment

 

The placing of RAN destroyers under US Navy command in Vietnam had ample precedent in war and peace and Clearance Diving Team 3, again under US Navy control, carried out tasks which though very varied in scope were still within the mainstream of clearance diving activity in the RAN. However, the integration of a helicopter flight into a US Army aviation company was an event unique in the history of the Royal Australian Navy.

 

‘Experimental Military Unit’ accurately described the 135th Aviation Company. The integration of RANHFV was an experiment, and like all experiments could have failed. That it did not is a striking tribute to all, American and Australian, who served with the EMUs.

 

The US Army successfully absorbed four contingents of a traditionally rather independently-minded branch of a foreign navy, while RANHFV gained invaluable experience in the management of mixed flying and maintenance crews, the command of large helicopter flights, and the coordination of operations of considerable complexity.

 

Taking into account the fact that RANHFV was continuously engaged in offensive operations in its four-year deployment to Vietnam and the vulnerability of helicopters to Viet Cong small arms fire as shown by the numerous ‘near-misses’ experienced by EMU aircrew, the Flight suffered surprisingly few casualties.

 

The gallantry and distinguished service of RANHFV members was recognised by the award of three MBEs, eight DSCs, five DFCs, one BEM, twenty-four Mentioned-in-Despatches, and numerous Vietnamese and United States decorations. 723 Squadron, RANHFV’s parent unit, was awarded the battle honour Vietnam 1967-71 on December 22, 1972.

 

The performance of RANHFV and RAN Detachment 9 Squadron RAAF in the Vietnam War demonstrated that the Fleet Air Arm helicopter element whose training and experience had been principally directed to the anti-submarine defence of the Fleet could quickly and effectively adapt to the quite different demands of offensive helicopter operations on land. It can be fairly said that the helicopter component of the RAN, formed only in 1953, came of age in Vietnam.