The Vietnam War was the longest and arguably the most divisive Australian military involvement in our history. It is also the least understood, and the most misrepresented. Support for South Vietnam, and involvement in the Laotian crisis of 1961, were pant of Australia’s broader commitment to the policy of containment of communism by the West in both Europe and Asia, as was membership of South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO).
The Insurgency mounted by the National Liberation Front and its North ‘Vietnamese backers gained gin und rapidly and the Saigon government was in crisis. The patriot in ragged clothes armed with little more than a bolt-actioned rifle, existed only in propaganda and credulous minds. The Viet Cong (VC) soldier was well equipped5 with a supply-line reaching to Hanoi, and also to the factories of Russia and the People’s Republic of China. In reality the individual VC was a member of a highly organised and controlled political structure. South Vietnam had requested non-specific aid in 1961 and 1962, intended to improve the security situation and help strike at the roots of the revolution by improving the living standards of the rural population.
Australia Enters the Vietnam War – 1962
In 1962, the Australian Government dispatched the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV)… the first Australian unit into Vietnam and the last out, it was operational for ten years, four months and eighteen days, achieving the distinction of being the longest serving unit of any theatre of war. It was both elite and unique as its members were specially selected, it was small, and for its size was one of the most highly decorated units in the history of the Australian Army; included winning of four Victoria Cross’s.
Bien Hoa Province 1965-66
In 1964, the South Vietnamese Government asked Australia for additional military assistance, which was followed a few days later by renewed pressure from the United States for an increased commitment to South Vietnam.
In June 1965, 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment and supporting units (1 RAR Group) were dispatched to South Vietnam to serve alongside the American 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) in BienLionProvince. The infantry battalion group was entirely regular in composition and it operated throughout the Ill Corps area and was maintained and supplied largely by the Americans.
Phouc Tuy Province 1966-73
In March 1966, I RAR was to be replaced by a Task Force (I ATF) of two infantry battalions (5 RAR and 6 RAR), armoured cavalry squadrons, an artillery regiment, an army reconnaissance flight and other supporting arms and services. It was assigned its own Area of Operations (AO) in PhoucTuyProvince.
1 ATF was capable of operations independently of the Americans, and avoided the conflicts of disagreements over tactics and doctrine which had marked I RAR’s first tour of duty. This provided a test for different tactics and techniques, which the Australians bought to counter insurgency.
1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) and 1st Australian Logistic Support Group (1 ALSG)
In June1966, I ATF constructed a base at Nui flat, while I ALSG was established at the port of Vung Tau. On IS August, ‘D’ Company of 6 RAR was involved in a heavy action near Xa Long Tan, in which IS Australians were killed and 24 wounded while inflicting 245 dead on an enemy force of at least regimental strength. Although a relatively minor engagement in comparison with other wars, or even bigger battles fought by the allies in the northern provinces; ‘Long Tan’ was significant in asserting the Task Force’s dominance on the province. Although there were many bigger and sustained operations against VC and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units in the ensuring years. the Australian’s presence in Phouc Tuy was not again fundamentally challenged. In late 1967, a third infantry’ battalion was added and armour was deployed in support. Phouc Tuy was the primary area of Australian operations, however, units of] ATF were available for deployment anywhere in the Ill Corps area. During 1968, the Australian battalions spent a large part of their time on operations in neighbouring provinces against the enemy’s TET and subsequent offences, In May 1968, I RAR and 3 RAR with artillery and tank support fought off large-scale enemy attacks in the battle of Fire Support Bases (FSPB) Coral and Balmoral. In June 1969,5 RAR fought the other well known major engagement of the Australians’ war at the village of Binh Ba. These spectacular, large scale actions were generally typical of the fighting in Phouc Thy. Integrated with the Australian Task Force units were elements of New Zealand infantry and artillery. At anyone time, one of the Australian battalions had two rifle companies of New Zealanders and bore the title ‘The Royal Australian Regiment/New Zealand (ANZAC) – 2 RAR/ANZAC – 4 RAR/ANZAC – 6 RAR/ANZAC.
Infantry rifle companies spent much of their time on patrol, or in cordon and search operations, designed lo put pressure on enemy units and deprive them of their links with the people. The Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC’s) meant to the infantryman much more than a free ride and proved an invaluable and reliable supporting arm throughout the war Infantry-tank cooperation in battle had a devastating effect on the enemy and the Centurion tank provided superb mobility and awesome firepower Infantry battalions were magnificently supported and there was an unequalled respect before and after the Battle of long Tan 1966 for close artillery fire support. So no matter how far a unit advanced it was always within adequate gun range. The term ‘Engineers’ conjures up in the mind buildings and other major construction tasks which are predominately their responsibility. But, to the infantry, engineer support was of a more humble, and simple nature, but also hazardous and dirty. Minefields were laid and the most terrifying job of all was the ‘Tunnel Rat’. Crawling through dark, narrow tunnels, sometimes booby-trapped, armed with only a torch, and a pistol as their basic tools of trade. The Special Air Service (SAS) long range patrols provided invaluable intelligence for the Task Force Commander and accounted for a large number of VC through ambush and booby trap operations. 161 Independent Reconnaissance Flight (Army) operated Sioux helicopters Cessna and later Pilatus Porter fixed wing aircraft supported the infantry on every operation. ‘Air Taxi’ is a misnomer for the unit “‘as used as air reconnaissance, night surveillance, casualty evacuation, resupply and act as a Forward Air Controller (FAC) for both artillery, and air support and many other tasks. From Vung Tau to I ATF the convoys kept rolling, bringing into the area the materials of war for I ALSG was the warehouse for all stores ammunition and equipment that had arrived by air and sea. To the wounded and sick the 2nd Field Ambulance, situated in the sand dunes of I ALSG, was a haven. The battle for popular support was fought with far less than adequate skill at the political level. Many programs were initiated under the acronymic heading of WHAM (Win Hearts and Minds). In Phouc Tuy, the Australian Civil Affairs Unit carried out many projects, such as building schools, improving water supplies and providing medical and dental teams to care for the locals. Without doubt the innate friendliness and generosity of the Australian serviceman won more hearts and minds in Phouc Tuy than any other programs conceived by the allies.
Nine Australian infantry battalions of the RAR carried the brunt of both the fighting and the casualties; seven served twice in Vietnam, while 8 RAR and 9 RAR raised later than other units served once each. Operations conducted between June 1970 and February 1971 placed constant pressure on the VC infrastructure, were far more significant in terms of restoring government control in the province. By 1971, the provincial enemy forces had been pushed out of Phouc Tuy, and relied on North Vietnam for vital reinforcements to make up their numbers, while Highway 15, between Saigon and Vung Tau, was opened to unescorted traffic – the enemy had largely lost the initiative.
Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)
If it was one sound that characterised the war in Vietnam – one noise that every combat soldier instantly recognised – it was the flat, shuddering rhythm of approaching helicopters. The ubiquitous ‘whap-whapping’ Hueys filled the skies and lifted units swiftly into combat and lifted in artillery, ammunition, supplies and gunships provided that invaluable supporting fire with rocket and mini-gun. Long-range SAS patrols were flown many kilometres to be ‘inserted’ by chopper, then ‘extracted’ once the mission was accomplished. Every battlefield soldier knew that if he was hit, chances were that a medivac chopper (Dustoff) would soon be there to speed him to a hospital. Air mobility they called it, and the ‘choppers’ performed every task the military mind could conceive. RAAF sent No 9 Squadron, equipped with Iroquois helicopters (Hueys). No 2 Squadron, which flew Canberra bombers out of Phan Rang and flew over 11,900 combat sorties, and No 35 Squadron, which provided logistic support with its Caribou aircraft and was known accordingly as ‘Wallaby Airlines’. Air force personnel took part as well in logistic support flights from Australia using Hercules aircraft and as aero-medical evacuation flights. Also an attachment to US Air Force squadrons as FAC and in fighter squadrons, in which latter capacity a number took part in operations over North Vietnam.
Royal Australian Navy (RAN)
RAN involvement began in 1965 when HMAS SYDNEY now converted to the role of fast troop transport, carried the first Australian battalion of troops to the war zone. She completed 23 voyages to Vietnam carrying thousands of troops and fighting vehicles, earning herself the affectionate sobriquet of the ‘Vung Tau Ferry’. Her efforts were supplemented by two merchant commissioned ships into the RAN, the Jeparit and the Boonaroo. While the RAN carried out vital logistical support to Australian troops in the Vietnam War in the like of escort duties such as the Anzac, Derwent, Duchess, Melbourne, Parrarmatta, Quiberon, Queensborough, Stuart, Swan, Torrens, Vampire and Yarra. The Navy’s direct involvement in the war began with the development of its Clearance Diving Team 3 to work with the United States Navy in explosive ordnance disposal. Another unusual facet of the Australian Navy’s service was the formation of the RAN Helicopter Flight, Vietnam, The Flight was allocated as a part of the US Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company and during the seven years of daring flying duties the unit suffered four killed and seven wounded in action. A small number of navy pilots also flew on attachment to the RAAF’s No 9 Squadron. Its duties were to crew ‘slicks’ and ‘gunships’, or troop carrying and assault helicopters – it was a far cry from their specific role of locating and destruction of submarines. Australian destroyers reaffirmed their Navy’s reputation at sea by providing naval gunfire support to the troops ashore and assist in interdiction of seaborne traffic as part of tile US 7th Fleet. Four ships were involved, the guided missile ships Hobart, Perth and Brisbane, and the Daring Class destroyer, Vendetta.
Occasionally into this small world of barbed wire and canvas came the refreshing concert parties from Australia. For an hour or so in the 1 ATF or ALSG areas, under the boiling sun or a monsoonal rainstorm, the artists would entertain a large crowd of jungle-green-clad troops sitting in front of makeshift but nevertheless adequate stage. For that special moment in time, the Aussies were ever thankful to the entertainers who gave them a taste of home.
Other Australian Contingents
The Australian Red Cross, Salvation Army, Everymans Welfare Organisation, Australian Services Canteens Organisation and the Civil Medical Teams impressive efforts and sacrifice to all who served in the Vietnam continues to resound in all our memories. Some Australian Army Citizen Military Force (CMF) officers and soldiers visited logistic and combat units in Vietnam for short period attachments.
Conscription – National Service/Officer Training Unit (OTU)
The commitment to Vietnam was the subject of the greatest level of domestic political dissent seen in Australia since the conscription referendums of the First World War. Conscription had been introduced in November 1964, not as is sometimes claimed for service in Vietnam since at that stage no regular units had been committed but in response to the worsening strategic situation in the tensions between Indonesia and Malaysia. Also with the fear that the Indonesians might extend the fighting to the border with New Guinea. The expansion of the Army to cope with a number of commitments simultaneously and the decision to do this with national service caused the Australian Government to reintroduce conscription, this time for overseas service. Roughly 800,000 men of military age were registered for National Service between 1965-72, about 63,000 were actually called up into the Army and only 17,424 served in Vietnam. As a general policy, infantry battalions were maintained at a strict 50-50 mix of regulars and national servicemen (Nasho’s), and some selected national servicemen were commissioned after graduating from the Officer Training Unit (OTU).
‘Big Red Rat’
From Anzac Cove Gallipoli to Nui Dat our fighting men and women upheld the Australian tradition of larrikinism in Vietnam. The Task Force symbol of the red kangaroo, better known as the ‘Big Red Rat’, was painted onto everything the Australian and allied forces owned, It was a symbol of mate-ship and a tribute to the Australian spirit.
Honours, Decorations and Awards
Due to the rationing system for British/Australian awards for Vietnam it was perceived by many ground combat army personnel as grossly unfair in comparison to the awards to both RAN and RAAF. The furtherest away from the actual combat received the most number of awards and Headquarters of the Australian Forces, Vietnam (HQ AFV) was the second most highly decorated Australian unit. Both the governments of the United States of America and Republic of Vietnam were constantly confused by the Australian Government’s policy, which allowed acceptance, but not the wearing of foreign awards especially in the early years of Vietnam. This resulted in members of 6 RAR, after the Battle of Long Tan 1966, being presented with Vietnamese dolls, cigarette lighters, cigarette cases and the like in lieu of gallantry decorations. The then policy governing the acceptance and wearing of foreign awards for the Vietnam War could only be described as extremely controversial. However, the following foreign awards were allowed to be received and worn by Australian units:
US Presidential Unit Citation (Army)
D’ Coy 6RAR (18Aug l966)
US Army Meritorious Unit Commendation
1 RAR (l965-66)
US Navy Unit Commendation
HMAS Hobart (Mar-Sep 1968)
HMAS Perth (Sep 67-Apr 68)
US Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation
RAN Clearance Diving Team 3 (Feb-Jun 1967)
HMAS Perth (Sep 68-Mar 69)
US Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Combat ‘V’ Device
2 Sqn RAAF (1967-71)
Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm Unit Citation
8 RAR (1969-70)
2 Sqn RAAF (1968-70)
Ratio of awards – RAN 1:36 – Army 1:58 – RAAF 1:17
In 1997, the Australian Federal Government announced guidelines for the wearing of officially recognised foreign awards. Providing documentary evidence supported the honour or award, members were given permission to wear the foreign award along with other Imperial and Australian service medals. In order to rectify the failure at the time to award various Imperial Honours and Decorations, the Federal Government announced a “Vietnam End of War List” and proposed recipients were offered the equivalent award in the Australian Honours and Awards system.
By 1970-71, with successive, highly visible moratorium demonstrations in all Australian capital cities and the increasing radicalism of many protesters, the government had lost the argument, at least on the streets. By 1970 many Australians, like many Americans, had concluded that despite such local successes as their troops had achieved, Vietnam was an un-winnable war, and in 1971 the announcement was made to withdraw 1 ATF.
Casualties of Vietnam War
Approximately 50,000 Australians served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1973 and the ratio of casualties indicates that service which was most involved in combat:
|RAN – KIA 8||non-battle deaths 4||WIA 20|
|Army – KIA 415||non-battle deaths 79||W1A 2348 – MIA 4|
|RAAF – KIA 14||non-battle deaths 11||WIA 30 – MIA 2|
|Australian Civilian – non-battle deaths 7|
Like most unpopular or lost wars, Vietnam has left a legacy of bitterness and mistrust, especially among that proportion of the veteran community who feel aggrieved at their treatment is often bound up in the twin issues of Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD)). The futility of it all is that the politicians lost the Vietnam War not the Australian servicemen and women.
Signs of popular acceptance, such as the Sydney 1987 ‘Welcome Home March’; the unveiling of the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial, Canberra 1992; and the 18th of August dedicated as Vietnam Veterans Day have gone some way towards incorporating Vietnam into the national pantheon of ‘ANZAC’…