The Royal Australian Navy’s role in the Vietnam War is sometimes overlooked by comparison with the Army’s larger numerical involvement. As well as serving in ships deployed to Vietnam naval personnel served in clearance diving teams, the Navy helicopter flight, in logistic support roles and in medical teams.
Australian destroyers sailed nearly 400,000 miles in the course of the war and fired more than 100,000 rounds of ammunition. The converted aircraft carrier HMAS SYDNEY carried about 16,000 Australian troops as the famed ‘Vung Tau Ferry’.
Australian Clearance Divers carried out several thousand ship searches looking for bombs and other explosive devices.
A total of eight officers and sailors of the RAN were killed and nearly 50 injured in the 10 years of our Navy’s involvement in hostilities.
Early Goodwill Visits
Though the RAN did not become operationally involved in the Vietnam conflict until 1965, HMA Ships VAMPIRE and QUICKMATCH were the first ships in the area when they made a goodwill visit to Saigon in 1962. They were followed the next year by the Q Class destroyers HMA Ships QUIBERON and QUEENBOROUGH . These were not operational visits: but designed to show Australian government support for the government in Saigon, and members of the ships company visited the Vietnamese Special Forces training centre and carried out other `flag showing’ activities. During the 1963 visit the small Vietnamese naval vessel KY-HOA accidentally rammed and holed QUIBERON whilst coming alongside her.
As the overall role of Australia’s military increased in Vietnam so did the involvement of the RAN. The converted aircraft carrier HMAS SYDNEY had been transporting Army personnel and equipment from Australia to Vietnam since May 1965.
This ship was to become a familiar sight and temporary home to some 16,000 Australian military personnel as they deployed to Vietnam or returned to Australia.
Because of these trooping runs SYDNEY was affectionately known as the `Vung Tau Ferry’.
During these deployments SYDNEY was escorted and protected by other units of the RAN. On at least one such trip her escort included the aircraft carrier HMAS MELBOURNE, though MELBOURNE did not enter Vietnamese waters. She entered the operational area which extended out to 100 nautical miles.
Clearance Diving Teams
In May 1966 the RAN’s underwater Clearance Diving Team 1 (CDT1) spent a short period in Vietnam working with USN divers. Almost a year later the Australian government announced the deployment of Clearance Diving Team 3. This team was made up of personnel from the RAN’s two existing diving teams, CDT1 and CDT2, and after a period of additional training arrived in Vietnam on February 6, 1967.
RAN CDT 3 was primarily employed in clearing rivers and shipping channels of mines and booby traps laid by the Viet Cong. This normally dangerous task was made especially so by the murky conditions under which the divers had to work. Other tasks assigned to the divers included salvage work and assisting in trawler and ship searches.
(US) Meritorious Unit Commendation awarded to RAN Clearance Diving Team Three
Citation for RAN Clearance Diving Team Three
The Secretary of the Navy takes pleasure in presenting the Meritorious Unit Commendation to RAN Clearance Diving Team Three for service as set forth in the following citation:
For meritorious achievement while conducting defence and surveillance operations in the harbors of Vung Tau, Cam Ranh Bay, Qui Nhon, and Nha Trang, in the Republic of Vietnam during the period 19 February through 30 June 1967. As a part of the Inshore Undersea Warfare Group ONE, Western Pacific Detachment, the Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diving Team THREE displayed well-coordinated effort and exemplary performance of duty during the planning and establishment phase of the counterinsurgency operations. Although operating in an environment where the United States Navy had virtually no past experience, detachment personnel were instrumental in denying enemy forces freedom of movement within assigned harbors. Harbour Defence units detected, boarded and searched large numbers of suspect junks and craft, contributing significantly to the curtailment of acts of sabotage and the flow of enemy supplies. Through their initiative, versatility, reliability and professional competence, the officers and men of the Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diving Team THREE reflected great credit upon themselves and the Royal Australian Navy, and upheld the highest traditions of the naval service.
Regular searches were also conducted of Australian Army water transport and other ships. This task was known as Operation STABLE DOOR and was intended to protect and secure South Vietnamese ports and military shipping from sabotage by the Viet Cong. As part of this operation RAN clearance divers conducted about 7500 ship searches.
While the Clearance Divers operated as a distinct unit a number of personnel were attached for short intervals to USN diving teams. Such attachments provided the RAN clearance divers with valuable experience and exposure to other operating techniques. Perhaps the most unusual request for assistance received by the RAN clearance divers came from the US Army 36th Evacuation Hospital: they had just admitted a patient who had eaten some C-4 explosive.
On The Gunline
In March 1967, one month after the announcement of the deployment of the Clearance Diving Team to Vietnam, the (then) Minister for the Navy, Mr Don Chipp, announced that the RAN’s newly commissioned guided missile destroyer HMAS HOBART would be deployed to join the US Seventh Fleet to support operations off the coast of Vietnam. HOBART departed Sydney on the 7 March 1967 and joined the US Seventh Fleet on 15 March. Her arrival at the US Naval Base in Subic Bay began the six monthly rotation of RAN destroyers which was to last until October 1971.
All of the RAN’s guided missile destroyers deployed to Vietnam as did the Daring Class destroyer HMAS VENDETTA. HOBART and PERTH made three deployments each and made BRISBANE two. During the course of these operations the destroyers fired over 100,000 rounds of ammunition in support of military operations and steamed 397,484 miles.
Typically the destroyers were operating on the `Gunline’ providing fire support to Allied forces. They also took part in Operation SEA DRAGON, the name given to surface ship operations against North Vietnam. At various times the commanders of RAN ships were delegated command of the `Gunline’ and SEA DRAGON operations. Other tasks performed by the destroyers included screening the US carriers on YANKEE Station and, in the case of PERTH, supervising an abortive return of POWs to North Vietnam.
VENDETTA, which served in Vietnam from September 1969 to April 1970 was the only Australian-built destroyer to deploy. With her six 4.5 inch guns and 40 mm Bofors she was more like a light cruiser than the typical American destroyer.
On several occasions the destroyers operated close inshore and were fired upon by North Vietnamese shore batteries. However, the only fatal casualties onboard these ships occurred when HOBART was attacked , on June 17, 1968, by an aircraft later identified as belonging to the USAF. Two sailors were killed and a number wounded. HOBART returned to Subic Bay for repairs.
While they were in the operational area the RAN destroyers were supported by USN replenishment ships. At regular interval the ships visited Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines. This was to allow maintenance to be carried out and to provide shore leave and rest for the ship’s crew.
General logistic support to the Australian military forces operating in Vietnam was provided by SYDNEY supported by the merchant-ships JEPARIT and BOONAROO. The latter two were initially manned by civilian crews but had to be commissioned into the RAN due to union bans . BOONAROO was the first ship to commission into the RAN under the distinctive Australian White Ensign. These ships transported almost 200,000 DWT of cargo to South Vietnam with JEPARIT making a total of 42 trips. As well as providing logistic support for the Australian Army and RAAF other RAN personnel served ashore in Vietnam.
RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam
Members of Australia’s Fleet Air Arm served with the US Army’s 135th Assault Helicopter Company based at Vung Tau and with the RAAF’s 9 Squadron. Known as the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV) the first contingent of pilots and support personnel arrived in Vietnam on October 16, 1967. These personnel were quickly integrated into the 135th which was designated as an Experimental Military Unit or EMU. On the February 22, 1968 the RANHFV suffered its first fatality when LCDR PJ Vickers died as a result of wounds received when his aircraft was hit by ground fire.
Throughout their service in Vietnam members of the RAN Fleet Air Arm provided tactical airlift and gunship support to Australian and allied forces.
Medical and Support Personnel
Members of the RAN also served at the Headquarters Australian Forces Vietnam and as detached medical officers. This second group were RAN doctors who served with 1st Australian Field Hospital and US Army and Navy hospitals. While serving in this capacity the Navy doctors were also involved in the Medical Civil Action Program which provided medical support to the local civilian population.
In April 1971 the (then) Prime Minister Mr John Gorton announced that Australian forces in Vietnam would be reduced. This led to the withdrawal of the clearance divers in May and the RANHFV in June. The final RAN destroyer on the Gunline, BRISBANE, returned to Sydney on October 15 , 1971.
The Whitlam Labour government withdrew all Australian forces from and stopped military aid to South Vietnam. JEPARIT returned to Sydney from her final voyage on March 11, 1972 and was followed the next day by SYDNEY.
During the 10 years that the RAN was involved in the war, eight officers and sailors were killed and another 46 were either wounded or suffered other injuries. The dedication and professionalism shown by members of the RAN earned the Service the respect of our Allies and continued the traditions established by Australian sailors in other wars.