Mr Allen Fairhall, Minister for Defence, announced the formation of this unit on July 14, 1967. The new flight was to be integrated with the United States Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC) flying the ubiquitous Iroquois helicopters in both the utility and gun-ship configurations.
The first contingent of pilots, observers, naval airmen and support staff was assigned to 723 Squadron Naval Air Station (NAS) Nowra in July 1967 under the command of Lieutenant Commander Neil Ralph, RAN. The flight consisted of eight pilots, four observers, four air-crewmen, twenty-four technical sailors and six support staff comprising of cooks, stewards, writers (clerks), medics and storemen.
Following an eight-week period of training the first contingent arrived in Vietnam on 16 October 1967 and was quickly integrated with the 330 personnel of the 135th AHC. As a result of this unique relationship between the R.A.N and the US Army, the unit was officially designated ‘EMU’, for Experimental Military Unit. This was fitting, given that the Emu is a native Australian bird, and in some ways comical as the Emu cannot fly.
135th Assault Helicopter Company
The 135th AHC was based at Vung Tau and organised to operate two troop lift (‘slick’) platoons, each with eleven UH-1Ds, a gunship platoon with eight UH-1Cs, a maintenance platoon with a single UH-1D and a headquarters platoon. Six of the gunships were equipped with mini guns, rockets and machine guns. The remaining two were fitted with the XM-5 40mm grenade launcher system (mounted in a ball turret under the nose of the helicopter) rockets and machine guns.
The role of the 135th AHC was to provide tactical air movement of combat troops, supplies and equipment in air-mobile operations. This included augmentation of army medical services, search and rescue and the provision of a command and control aircraft capability to supported units.
Having established their camp, and with a full complement, the 135th AHC become fully operational and flew its first mission on 3 November 1967. By the end of November the company had flown 3182 hours in support of the US Army 9th Infantry and 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.
The company’s first major operation, Operation Santa Fe, was a lift of 9th Infantry Division troops into northeast Phuoc Tuy in early November 1967. This operation involved more than 80 helicopters from a number of helicopter companies flying in support of a combined allied sweep against the 5th Viet Cong Division. It was also one of the largest operations any RANHFV contingent participated in. Operation Tiger Coronado followed and it was during this operation that helicopters of the AHC were first hit by enemy fire.
First Helicopter Shot Down
The first EMU aircraft to be shot down (and the first with an Australian pilot to be hit) was a gunship piloted by Sub Lieutenant Anthony Casadio, RAN. This occurred on 19 November 1967, during an attack on Viet Cong positions in the Rung Sat Special Zone near Saigon. After his gunship was hit by ground fire several times Lieutenant Casadio force-landed near the enemy. Once on the ground the Viet Cong immediately attacked the helicopter crew. Despite their relative inexperience, the young American soldiers and their Australian Navy captain maintained control of the situation and set up a defensive perimeter using the helicopter’s door-mounted M60 machine guns. The M60s combined with the small arms they all carried afforded the crew a degree of self-protection. Meanwhile Lieutenant John Leek, RAN in an accompanying gunship circled overhead until his fuel ran dangerously low and he was forced to leave the scene.
Before Sub-Lieutenant Casadio and his men were rescued by another EMU helicopter, they successfully drove off an unknown number of Viet Cong, killing two of the enemy in the process. A Chinook helicopter later lifted the downed helicopter from the crash site and recovered it back to Vung Tau.
In December 1967 the company experienced its first night combat operations and Lieutenant Commander Ralph experienced his first assignment as air mission commander. In late December the company moved from the secure base at Vung Tau to CampBlackhorse , 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 was dependent on convoys from Long Binh to bring food, ammunition and fuel to it. It was also 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 shift to Blackhorse committed the 135th to the support of more units over a greater area. 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 . On this occasion the insertion and extraction of troops that went on well into the night was led by Lieutenant B.C. Crawford, RAN.
First RAN Sailors Injured
On January 12 1968 the RANHFV suffered its first casualties when Leading Seaman Kevin French and Naval Airman Keith Wardle of the maintenance platoon were injured when the gunship in which they were travelling 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. A RAAF helicopter from 9 Squadron was soon on the scene and the downed aviators were winched from the jungle and evacuated to hospital. Leading Seaman French soon recovered from this ordeal but Able Seaman Wardle suffered very severe injuries necessitating his evacuation to Australia .
The 135th’s relationship with 9 Squadron, RAAF, was first established when both units shared the tarmac at Vung Tau, this relationship was further strengthened early in 1968 when 9 Squadron began to replace its UH-1Bs with larger and more powerful UH-1Hs. To help the RAAF Squadron achieve an easy transition it was arranged that a number of its pilots would be attached to the 135th’s slick platoons for conversion training. Subsequently, RAAF and RNZAF pilots saw action with the EMUs for several months. It should be noted that RAN pilots also augmented 9 Squadron during its service in Vietnam .
Operations continued throughout January 1968 during which 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 Duc Hoa west of Saigon . Two company gunships were hit by enemy fire and during the widespread Tet offensive of February 1968, the increasing Viet Cong activity in III Corps emphasised the vulnerability of Blackhorse. Skirmishes on the boundaries became frequent and the enemy mining of the road from Long Binh to Baria, via Xuan Loc disrupted supply convoys causing shortages of spare parts.
First EMU Personnel Killed in Acton
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 Pat Vickers. On the third lift in, automatic fire and Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) brought down one helicopter that crashed into the jungle. All the US Army crew were killed. Sub Lieutenant Jeff 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 that 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 airlifted back to Blackhorse. During the action eight helicopters were hit by ground fire and two were irreparably damaged.
On February 20, EMU helicopters assisted the 1st Australian Task Force in Operation Clayton , a cordon and search of the village of long Dien near Dat Do on Highway 23 in Phuoc Tut province. Two days later Lieutenant Commander Vickers was fatally wounded while piloting the lead aircraft in a mission to lift out troops of the 18th Army of the Republic of Vietnam (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. Notwithstanding this prompt action Lieutenant Commander Vickers died without regaining consciousness.
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 of the missiles exploded, however eight personnel were injured and several buildings sustained minor damage. Enemy mining of Blackhorse-Xuan Loc road continued and Petty Officer O.C. Phillips, the company’s construction NCO, escaped injury when a vehicle he was travelling in detonated a mine tearing off one the vehicles tracks. An American civilian engineer was killed in this incident.
Operation Ashgrove Tram
On 25 March 1968, EMU slicks with helicopters of 9 Squadron RAAF lifted troops of ANZAC Battalion (2nd Battalion RAR/1st Battalion RNZIR) 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 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.
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.
On May 18th a flight of ten Hueys put down in a landing zone near Tan An without the usual ‘softening up’ by artillery and gunships in an attempt to take the Viet Cong by surprise. The experiment proved disastrous. The helicopters settled into the paddy field without opposition but, as their troops began to disembark, they came under intense fire from the Viet Cong who had been waiting, concealed in small ‘spider’ holes, complete with lids which had rice growing on them. All the aircraft were hit and some of the ARVN troops panicked and refused to get out. After unloading their troops all of the helicopters took off but few made it back to base as most crashed or force-landed on the way. Two helicopters were ‘written off’ and the remaining eight were badly damaged. Though aircraft were seriously damaged, crew injuries generally were light. One crew remained unscathed in spite of 22 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.
On June 13 Lieutenant John Leak, Lieutenant Andy Craig (of RAN detachment, 9 Squadron RAAF), and Leading Air Mechanic A. Green were injured when a lateral cyclic control rod broke (possibly due to gunfire), sending their helicopter into an uncontrolled spiral dive. It came out of the dive just above the jungle canopy, but still out of control it crashed through the trees coming to rest in a more or less level position. The injured crew extracted themselves from the wreck with the engine of the aircraft screaming and unable to be shut down. After spending some time alone in enemy occupied territory they were later winched to safety by a RAAF MEDEVAC (medical evacuation) helicopter and taken to the 1st Australian Field Hospital at Vung Tau, later being evacuated to Australia .
Six company aircraft were hit on July 25 while bringing troops of the 25th ARVN Division into a landing zone near Ben Luc, southwest 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. Six disembarking ARVN soldiers were killed during this insertion. On this occasion 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. Blackhorse again attracted attention in the form of mortar attacks in the early hours of August 15, and it became apparent that this was 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 enemy.
The gunship platoon suffered further casualties on 21 August 1968 when a light fire team was engaged by enemy troops equipped with Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) near Blackhorse. The lead gunship, captained by Lieutenant Casadio, RAN, flying at tree top level was hit by one of these deadly projectiles and exploded in flames before crashing through trees and exploding. Lieutenant Dalgleish, RAN, 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. Petty Officer O.C. ‘Darky’ Phillips of the RANHFV also lost his life in this incident as did Warrant Officer Hershel Bullock (USA) and Specialist 4 William Fennell (USA). The loss of these aviators was deeply felt within the 135th AHC.