Australia announced in June 1964 that it was committing additional forces to South Vietnam, in support of the failing regime of that country. Australian advisors had been on combat duty in Vietnam now for almost two years.
The additional forces included a flight of six twin engined Caribou transport aircraft of the RAAF. This deployment made Australia the first country outside the United States, to send aircraft to the war zone.
The Caribou arrived at Vung Tau, in Phuoc Tuy Province on August 8th, 1964. The ferry crews handed over their aircraft to the personnel of the newly formed RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam (RTFV). Commenting on the conditions Sqn Leader Sudgen had this to say: “Living conditions at first, were unbelievably crude and all ranks moved off base into a villa at our own expense. The US Army commander did not like this because he had given us at least equal to what his own boys had, but I’m afraid that the treatment of the GI was like something out of the last century.
“On base we had been split up into different billets, none of which were much chop. The airmen’s hut was the worst and was located just a few feet from an open sewer system which stank beyond belief. In addition there was a generator alongside their hut which went flat out night and day. There were only 12 toilets on base for over 1200 men and most of them were blocked.”
“We were short of all kinds of equipment and communications back to Australia were just not working. If we asked for anything the first answer from Australia was that it was not on our equipment establishment table! Suffice to say, it was all very frustrating.”
Enemy ground fire was rarely a major threat to the Australian Caribou and this was due to effective tactics devised by Sqdn Ldr Sudgen. As he explains: “I was only hit by ground fire once. I devised a method of approach to airfields which enabled us to maintain at least 3000 feet until almost overhead. We then restricted our descent pattern to very close to the airfield itself. This procedure was not followed by the American or Vietnamese pilots, so it was wonderful insurance for us. While the others were prepared to drag their aircraft in on long approaches, their was little likelihood of the enemy bothering to come right in close to the strip, so in most areas we were probably never exposed to ground fire. Of course there were numerous occasions when we had to fly low because of the weather, but we always remained conscious of the need to restrict our operating radius when at low altitude.”
The professionalism of the Australians was again highlighted one day at Vung Tau when the base commander staged a practice ‘red alert’ just as the Caribou were returning for the night. Everyone went to their assigned defence positions near the edge of the runway to observe the Americans flopping their aircraft onto the ground and using the whole runway to stop. Then a ‘Wallaby’ came in, alighted on the edge of the runway, ran a few lengths and turned off the runway at the first taxi way. It was all so expertly done and of course in no way rehearsed or planned. Not one American said a word, they didn’t have to.
The efficiency of the RAAF Caribou Squadron was noted by General Wesmoreland, who after failing to get his own transport squadrons operating at the same level of efficiency, cabled the Australian government in May 1966 requesting an additional 12 aircraft RAAF Caribou squadron for Vietnam. This request was refused. Australia only had two such squadrons.
Being Australian there was always room for a joke or two…”A well known loadmaster, named ‘Lurch’ was not adverse to the odd practical joke. One day, while carrying a large number of Vietnamese, the aircraft ran into some rough weather. Not being very good air travellers a lot of green faces were evident. The crew decided to have some fun. After a particularly bumpy patch of weather, the pilot made urgent motions to the load master – all passengers eyes watched as the ‘Loady’ passed a sick bag to the distressed pilot, resulting in a few more going green. At this stage the pilot turned to the side of the cockpit out of sight of the passengers and tipped the contents from a tin of tropical fruit salad into the bag. Wiping his mouth, the pilot now passed the new full sickbag back to the ‘Loady’ and the passengers went a darker shade of green. The climax came when ‘Lurch’ opened up the sick bag and ate the contents in front of the passengers. Instant results were achieved – all 28 passengers called out for sick bags.
On 24th May 1968, an RAAF Caribou captained by Flt Off Goodsall, was hit by ground fire while operating in the Mekong Delta. Weather conditions were poor and the aircraft was forced down below the cloud cover. In an attempt tp reduce the effects of ground fire, Goodsall descended to very low level but due to the sparseness of vegetation in this area, this was not as effective as he wanted. One bullet penetrated the left side of the cockpit and struck the nosewheel steering mechanism before disintegrating. Large of the bullet were deflected upwards, wounding the pilot in the head. He collapsed over the controls. The co-pilot Flt Off Cooper, quickly took control and returned to base while the loadmasters dressed their Captains wounds. His wound was not serious and he completed his tour of duty before returning to Australia.
35 Squadron supported Vietnamese, US, and Australian forces in Vietnam and by the end of 1971 were the last RAAF Squadron operating in Vietnam.
On February 13th, 1972, flying ceased as all ranks prepared to return to Australia. On 19th, four Caribou took off from Vung Tau airfield for the last time and flew to Richmond air base, NSW. After a formation flypast over Richmond, the four Caribou landed, ending a period of 71/2 years active service.
While in Vietnam 35 Squadron and its predecessor RFTV, set new standards for Caribou flying, maintenance and safety. Even though the “Wallabies” received little recognition in Australia, the unit played a remarkable and vital role in supplying allied forces in the Republic of Vietnam.
Supplied by Keith White