By March 1967 the USAF had spent nearly a year building a giant air base at Phan Rang. The strip was complete, the aircraft revetments in place and sorties were being flown daily. The USAF more than welcomed the Australians of 2 Squadron and bent over backwards to make them feel welcome.
The Americans were glad to have Australians, an ally, on the base with them. It let them know that they were not fighting by themselves.
On April 23, operations began with all eight Canberra’s hitting targets throughout South Vietnam. These missions set the pattern for 2 Squadrons operations for the next four months except that, until the 27th, the strikes were made by day for crew familiarization. After that date the squadron worked almost exclusively at night; 8 missions being flown each night, seven days a week.
After three months constant night bombing the crews were extremely proficient. Wing Commander Aronsen pressed his American Commanders into allowing 2 Squadron to undertake some daylight visual bombing strikes, feeling that better results could obtained by day. But the American Commander was dubious. However the daylight runs were so successful that 2 Squadron was soon flying two, and later four of its missions by day. Australian Canberra’s were the only tactical aircraft in Vietnam to use the level bombing technique from low level and the Americans expected very heavy Australian casualties. But these fears were proved groundless.
When General Westmoreland carried out an inspection of Phan Rang he stated: “The RAAF has an elite Canberra Squadron which has impressed me very much. Its discipline is superb and there is obviously a very high esprit de corps within the Squadron.”
While small in comparison with the USAF and South Vietnamese effort, 2 Squadron’s strikes proved remarkably successful and it was obvious that early predictions about the success of visual bombing had been well founded. In 1969, the 35th TFW’s commander, found to his shock that while only flying about 5% of the TFW’s missions, the Australian Squadron was obtaining no less than 16% of the wing’s assessed bomb damage. Disregarding the skill of the aircrews, three factors contributed to this remarkable record. First, there was the ability of the Canberra to bomb from under the clouds. This was particularly important during the monsoon season when the entire country was under heavy cloud. The US Air Force fighter/bombers were essentially used as dive bombers and were regularly unable to attack targets visually. Secondly, most of the targets in South Vietnam lay along canal lines which again suited the Canberra style. Normally a Canberra made one pass on a target complex releasing all six bombs at a spacing determined by the targets size. Finally, the endurance of the Canberra was such that if the primary target couldn’t be attacked for some reason, the crew could fly from one end of the country to the other ‘hawking’ their bombs to whoever wanted them. If unsuccessful (a very rare event) the Canberra could also land with a full load of bombs. The Americans would not do that.
By November 17, 1968, 2 Squadron’s assessed bomb damage stood at: 608 troops killed; 49 troops wounded; 1850 structures destroyed; 1595 structures damaged; 214 secondary explosions; 2600 bunkers destroyed; 1114 bunkers damaged; 8685 metres of trench destroyed; 31 tonnes of rice destroyed and 20 bridges destroyed.
Missions continued unabated seven days a week and resulted in a number of milestones being achieved during 1969. On April 25th, 2 Squadron’s 40,0000the bomb was dropped and on November 28th, the Squadron dropped the 50,000th.
A veteran navigator with many years service in Canberra aircraft, created an RAAF record by completing 3000 flying hours in Canberra’s. This was equivalent to 375 working days, each of 8 hours. He flew the 3000th hour on his 275th combat mission in South Vietnam. He returned to Australia after completing 285 missions and was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
2 Squadron’s unbeatable aircraft serviceability rate of 98% was dealt a severe blow in September. Cracks were detected in the tail planes of several Australian based Canberra. A Government aircraft factory (now ASTA) inspection team flown to Phan Rang found similar cracks in most of 2 Squadron’s aeroplanes which resulted in their temporary grounding. As luck would have it these defects were found just as a truce was arranged in relation to the death of Ho Chi Minh. The ground crews quickly went to work on the Canberra to rectify the problem.
Tragedy struck 2 Squadron on November 3, 1970 when Canberra A84-231 failed to return from a mission. The aircraft, had bombed a target in poor weather conditions north of Da Nang when it disappeared off the Skyspot controllers radar screen. All 2 Squadron missions scheduled for the next day were cancelled as the remaining Canberra’s joined US aircraft in a fruitless search for the missing aircraft and crew. No trace of the aviators was ever found and no adequate explanation is available to account for their disappearance, although many in the Squadron suspected a North Vietnamese SA-2 surface to air missile was responsible.
On March 14 1971 Canberra A84-228 were carrying out a routine bombing mission North of Khe Sanh. As the Canberra turned onto its attack heading, they entered the newly extended area of North Vietnamese surface to air missile (SAM) activity. Minutes later they were rocked by an explosion, and within seconds another. Through his shattered canopy the pilot saw a SAM zooming past the nose of the Canberra.
They were hit bad and had no control. The crew had no choice but to eject over the VC dominated jungle. After sending a (Mayday) which was not heard as the radio was damaged, they both ejected. As their parachutes deployed both crewmen watched their aircraft spiral down into thick cloud, its starboard wing disintegrating into a mass of flames. Both men landed in separate areas.
Once on the ground, their priority was to move away from their parachute canopies which were hanging like beacons in the trees. One had a broken kneecap and the other a broken wrist and four vertebrae in his spine were crushed. Neither knew where the other was and they spent a night cold, wet and frightened by themselves. As the night wore on, the sound of rain drops falling on the jungle floor became footsteps and the glow of fire fly’s the torches of searching Viet Cong to the Australians.
Daylight bought little respite to the airmen. Their injuries were much worse and they were in severe pain. Neither man had eaten since lunch the day before. It was not until that afternoon that they established radio contact. A short time later they made contact with ‘King’, a rescue co-ordinator Hercules aircraft.
A helicopter was homed into the area and despite low cloud quickly located and extracted the first man. Pinpointing the second man was more difficult and it was not until he crawled into a convenient bomb crater that the helicopter crew found him and winched him out of the jungle, twenty seven hours after they had gone down. After initial treatment the two airmen were evacuated to Australia for a protracted convalescence.
June 4, 1971 was set as the Squadrons day of departure from Vietnam. All eight Canberra’s departed Phan Rang on the fourth as planed and arrived in Darwin a few hours later. The ground staff followed later in transport aircraft.
During its operational service, 2 Squadron was credited with the destruction of 7000 buildings, 10,000 bunkers, 1000 sampans, 36 bridges and an unknown number of enemy troops. The Squadron was awarded a Vietnamese Cross of gallantry and a United States Air Force Outstanding Unit Commendation for its service in Vietnam – High honours indeed.
Supplied by Keith White