for the long haul
ANNIVERSARY OF THE FIRST AIR FORCE DEPLOYMENT TO VIETNAM.
Transport Flight Vietnam – later No. 35 Squadron – was the first
Air Force unit in Vietnam in August 1964 and the last out in February
1972. During almost eight years of service, the Squadron developed
special tactics to beat enemy fire, its personnel were recognised
with awards and, most remarkably, no members were killed. Their
story is recalled here in the lead up to the 40th anniversary
of the deployment.
(MPEG video 4.60 MB)
Force A4 DHC 4 Caribou crews in Vung Tau, South Vietnam.
from RAAF Museum
in 1964 was an unknown land to the average, insular Australian
for whom beef and black bean was the sum of his Asian experience.
This was about to change.
On July 19, 34 No. 38 Squadron members boarded in Sydney a Qantas
flight to Butterworth. There, they were united with three Caribous
on their delivery flight to Australia from Canada and in early
August, as the RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam (RTFV), headed east.
Their boss was Squadron Leader Chris Sugden. About 20 years older
than his subordinates, SQNLDR Sugden was a seasoned air combat
veteran of World War II and Korea. He had been awarded a DFC for
his determination, leadership and courage in attacking North Korean
He would be awarded a Bar for his outstanding leadership in Vietnam.
The Squadron later received another DFC and three Mentions in
The flight was based at Vung Tau. It arrived on August 8, 1964,
in the hot, humid and pouring rain that characterised the monsoonal
Operations began on August 16 when the aircraft transported troops
and stores to various airfields (often little more than short
and rough runways hastily constructed from lengths of steel planking
left over from World War II).
RTFV – which later became No. 35 Squadron – over the next seven-and-ahalf
years increased to six and then seven aircraft with about 100
personnel. It was renowned for a can-do attitude, hard work and
innovation. It also quickly became known as Wallaby Airlines,
maintaining such a high rate of effort that many US observers
believed RTFV was operating 25 aircraft.
to be held
of RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam and No. 35 Squadron who
flew Wallaby Airlines Caribous in Vietnam are invited to
attend a reunion to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the
deployment to Vietnam. The reunion is planned for August
7-8 at the Opal Cove Resort, Coffs Harbour. For details,
Henderson on (02) 6242 9140 or
carried anything, including livestock, evacuees, battlefield
medivacs and USO shows. The Squadron conducted a minimum of four
flights each day, often as long as 12 to 14 hours a day. Pilots
were logging 80 to 90 hours a month, twice the Australian peacetime
standards. Each day five of the six aircraft would be airborne.
The ground crews worked round the clock, if necessary, to restore
and pre-flight it for service next day.
The authorised rate of effort for the aircraft was 50 hours per
aircraft per month. The RTFV was achieving 450 to 500 hours. It
is a tribute to the outstanding efforts of ground crew that this
was maintained throughout the entire deployment. Two aircraft
were tasked specifically to support Special Forces encampments
at Nha Trang and Da Nang. The camps frequently relied solely on
air supply and after October 1964 these flights became increasingly
dangerous because of enemy ground fire.
As well as the threat from the enemy and weather, many flights
were into extremely hazardous terrain, particularly in the swampy
Mekong Delta and the rugged mountainous terrain near the “Zee”.
In these conditions the short take off and landing characteristics
of the Caribous were ideal. However, the Australians came up with
techniques to make the deliveries safer. They developed a technique
of steep approaches and departures, which meant they spiralled
virtually over the landing site and away from possible enemy fire
until the last possible moment.
Demand for tactical support became so critical to the forward
areas near the Ho Chi Minh trails that Wallaby Airlines came up
with a novel drop system – the Low Altitude Parachute Deployment
System using the Caribou’s very low and slow flying capabilities.
They would fly a few feet over the drop zone and then deploy
the cargo using a small drogue parachute.
By the end of 1964, the Caribous had another, far more dangerous
mission as Viet Cong and NVA Main Army regulars launched night
attacks on towns and villages across the country. Acting as Pathfinders, the Wallabies would fly over the area, dropping flares
to illuminate the attackers for American Skyraider Ground Attack
aircraft. These were very effective but increasingly dangerous
as the enemy brought in anti-aircraft weapons to engage the vulnerable
Caribous. By January 1965, this mission ceased when SQNLDR Sugden
indicated Vietnamese DC-3 Dakotas could do the mission effectively
and more safely.
In March 1971, the Australian Government decided as part of the
drawdown of ADF personnel that 35SQN would be reduced to four
aircraft. The other three returned home that July. The final
four returned on February 26, 1972, the last Air Force assets
to come home.
Leader Chris Sugden is presented with a stuffed Caribou
head in May 1964.
from RAAF Museum
Wallabies could never have achieved their outstanding results
without the ingenuity, hard work and dedication under often dangerous
and invariably difficult conditions by the maintainers and other
The RTFV was based at Vung Tau because this was the base of the
US Air Force’s Caribou fleet. The US agreed to support the Australian
flight with accommodation, logistics and weapons until the Australian
Caribou support train was established.
The first accommodation comprised an open hangar and a series
of wooden open-sided huts for personnel by an open sewer. Undaunted,
the “groundies” set up offices and an operations area beside
the hangar while everyone skirmished the town, eventually turning
up two villa-style “motels”.
The “groundies” also initiated the tradition of scrounging from
US-damaged aircraft and scrapped parts dumps and, among other
items, eventually put together a replacement engine.
In Air Force hands, the Caribou proved a formidable transport
aircraft, however two of the first three never made it. One crashed
during a mission and the other was destroyed on the ground by
enemy mortar fire.
at an airstrip in South Vietnam in 1967.
from RAAF Museum
first awards for operational service in Vietnam were three Mentions
in Dispatches in August 1965 for courage under fire or the threat
of fire in support of operational forces.
awards went to:
Leader Christopher Sugden was awarded a Bar to go with his DFC
in December 1965. And in 1972, Squadron Leader Stanley Clark,
CO of 35SQN from November 1970 to November 1971, received a DFC.
Another possible record for RTFV/35SQN – during the deployment,
not one man was killed.
in these articles was largely provided by Kevin Henderson, with
additional research and stories written by Andrew Stackpool.