In the first week of June 1966, 9 Squadron’s eight UH-1B’s and a small maintenance party sailed for Vietnam in the Navy transport HMAS Sydney. The remainder of the Squadron flew to Vietnam in a Qantas aircraft.
HMAS Sydney anchored off Vung Tau on June 12, 1966 and the Iroquois were flown off the ship to Vung Tau airfield, the squadron’s new home.
Operations began the next day when the squadron received a request from 5RAR for an urgent resupply of ammunition. While it was not expected that operations would begin so quickly, the request was complied with. Two helicopters delivered the ammunition and returned to Vung Tau without incident. This first mission was to mark the beginning of six years of combat flying for 9 Squadron.
On July 10, two Iroquois undertook the ‘hot extraction’ of a Special Air Service (SAS) patrol which was in contact with the Viet Cong. While descending to the landing Zone the helicopters came under fire. The Iroquois crew replied to the enemy fire while the troops were embarked and whisked to safety. Neither helicopter was damaged in the action.
Five aircraft were airborne on July 25, to evacuate 22 Australian casualties during ‘Operation Hobart’. Again the Viet Cong attempted to interfere with the proceedings and it was necessary for one of the helicopters to remain overhead, suppressing the enemy’s fire with its machine guns while the other four landed to pick up the dead and wounded. The mission was successfully completed.
The use of helicopters in this role resulted in casualties receiving medical treatment much quicker than had been the case in previous wars. As a consequence the death rate of the wounded in military hospitals reduced from 4.5% in WW2 to just 2.6% in Vietnam.
Casualty evacuations (Dustoff) were also made in support of the local population. In one early incident of this nature Flt Lt L O Hindley’s crew evacuated a badly wounded 6 year old girl from Binh Gia village, despite considerable ground fire being directed at their helicopter.
During the Battle of Long Tan the embattled Australians ran critically short of ammunition. An urgent resupply was requested. Despite conditions of torrential rain and failing light two Iroquois, captained by Flt Lts F Riley and C Dohle, located the friendly position and ignoring the very heavy enemy fire being directed at them, delivered their cargo just as the troops were emptying their magazines. When the helicopters arrived some of the soldiers were preparing to continue the fight with bayonet and machette. Without the ammunition delivered by the two Iroquois D Company’s chances of survival were practically nil.
9 Squadron suffered its first casualties on October 18 when Iroquois A2-1018 struck trees and burst into flames while putting down in a very small clearing. Despite being burned on the head and arms one of the crewmen, Sgt G Butriss, dragged his injured companions from the wreckage. The aviators were quickly rescued by another helicopter and flown to hospital. A2-1018 was totally destroyed in the crash.
After representations to Australia the decision was made to partially equip 9 Squadron with ‘gunships’ – armed attack helicopters. It had long been recognised by Army and RAAF officers, both in Australia and Vietnam, that this was better than always relying on the Americans for fire support. Official approval for the purchase of four gunship modification packages was granted in March 1969. However on July 2 1968 an ‘Aussie scrounging mission’ was flown by Flt Lt B L Dirou from Vung Tau to Vinh Long, Dong Tam and Phu Loi. The Iroquois was loaded with Victoria Bitter and Tarax soft drinks. These were exchanged for rocket pods and mini guns which were then used to make the first RAAF gunship.
Four Iroquois were converted into gunships, ( named ‘Bushrangers’ ) and were grouped into a separate flight from the remaining 12 troop lift, or ‘slick’ helicopters.
Official bushranger operations commenced on April 11 1969 and proved immediately successful. The gunships usually worked in pairs, referred to as light fire teams, although if more firepower was required, three or all four gunships could be used in the same action. Inexperience was obviously a problem and this was highlighted soon after they became operational. A Bushranger was being flown at low level 25 kilometres from Vung Tau when its crew located a group of Viet Cong in a clearing. The door gunners immediately opened fire and a number of enemy troops were hit. As the captain manoeuvred to continue the attack with rockets and miniguns, the crew was dismayed to see smoke grenades ignited by the men on the ground identifying them as ‘friendlies’. The attack was broken off at this stage. As events transpired the soldiers proved to be troops of 6RAR who were setting up an ambush when they were attacked. Four Australians were wounded in this incident and this highlighted the need for positive identification before attacks began.
Flt Off T K Butler (RNZAF) led a more successful mission on May 9 1969, in support of an ARVN battalion in trouble after contacting a large enemy force in the vicinity of Long Green. Intense and accurate fire greeted the gunships over the target and Butler, whose Bushranger was hit early, called for a third Bushranger to assist. After repeated attacks the enemy broke contact. The ARVN later told the Squadron that at least seven Viet Cong had been killed by the gunships.
Many individual acts of heroism and daring were carried out by the men of 9 Squadron and they can’t all be mentioned here but the following story shows the sort of men they were.
Late afternoon of April 17, Iroquois A2-767, captained by flying officer Mike Castles, was scrambled for an urgent dustoff in the Long Hai Hills. Due to the location two Bushrangers escorted the lightly armed Dustoff helicopter on its mercy mission. On arriving in the area it was found that there was no clearing. It was necessary to hover the helicopter so that the winch and stretcher could be used to extract a south Vietnamese soldier, who had both legs blown off at the knees by a land mine. The wounded soldier had just been strapped into the stretcher on the ground when the Viet Cong opened fire on the helicopter, hitting it repeatedly. Despite this fire Cpl R A Stephens started the winching operation while LAC Roy Zegers replied to the enemy’s fire. The Iroquois took more hits and all of a sudden there was silence as the engine stopped and the doomed helicopter fell out of the sky. Cpl Stephens watched with horror as the legless soldier got out of the stretcher and crawled away from the falling chopper. The chopper crashed into a boulder strewn area occupied by Vietnamese troops and their Advisors resulting in one American and one Australian soldier being killed by flying debris.
The two pilots and LAC Zegers managed to get clear of the burning wreck. However Cpl Guillespie, an Army medical orderly, had his legs firmly pinned in the wreckage and Cpl Stephens remained behind to free him. Unfortunately the task was beyond human strength and after frantic efforts he was forced out of the chopper by the flames. As he scrambled clear the choppers fuel and ammunition exploded. On finding the other shocked survivors amidst the boulders, Cpl Stephens found that flying officer Tony Ford had been burned on the face and hands. He applied dressings to the co-pilots face and hands while a vicious fire fight between the ARVN and the Viet Cong continued. Some of the tracer ricocheted off the rock they were sheltering behind, narrowly missing them. After a very unpleasant stay with the ARVN troops the rescue chopper arrived.
Stephens: “When it arrived the wounded were winched on board the chopper, which was flown by the CO, Wing Cdr Coy, with a crew of Flt Lt Clarke (RNZAF), LAC Rowley and LAC Flemming. After an eternity the chopper was fully loaded with dead and wounded, plus the crew of the downed Iroquois. We vacated the area just on dark and flew to the Army hospital at Vung Tau.
They had many losses but despite them, the quality of 9 Squadron support for the troops in PhuocTuyProvince remained very high and the Army and The RAAF worked extremely well together.
On December 8 1971 the Iroquois and personnel were loaded onto HMAS Sydney for the trip home. On that day President Thieu, the leader of South Vietnam, came aboard to thank the Australians for their efforts in helping maintain his country’s independence. When he left it weighed anchor and sailed for home.
Supplied by Keith White