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History

In for the long haul
40th ANNIVERSARY OF THE FIRST AIR FORCE DEPLOYMENT TO VIETNAM.

RAAF 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.

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Caribou
(MPEG video 4.60 MB)

Air Force A4 DHC 4 Caribou crews in Vung Tau, South Vietnam.

Air Force A4 DHC 4 Caribou crews in Vung Tau, South Vietnam.

Photo from RAAF Museum

VIETNAM 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 convoys.

He would be awarded a Bar for his outstanding leadership in Vietnam. The Squadron later received another DFC and three Mentions in Dispatches.

The flight was based at Vung Tau. It arrived on August 8, 1964, in the hot, humid and pouring rain that characterised the monsoonal weather.

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.

Reunion to be held
MEMBERS 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, contact Kevin Henderson on (02) 6242 9140 or

It 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.


Ingenuity under fire

Squadron Leader Chris Sugden is
presented with a stuffed Caribou
head in May 1964.

Squadron Leader Chris Sugden is presented with a stuffed Caribou head in May 1964.

Photo from RAAF Museum

THE 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 ground crew.

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.

 


Awards for actions

Landing at an airstrip in South Vietnam in 1967.

Landing at an airstrip in South Vietnam in 1967.

Photo from RAAF Museum

THE 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.

The awards went to:

  • Flight Lieutenant Ronald Raymond, a pilot who participated in night flare dropping missions;
  • Leading Aircraftman Daniel Gwin, a loadmaster, for accurate return fire on a mission; and
  • Corporal Robert Wark, a member of the repair party that retrieved a damaged Caribou in November 1964 when under nightly ground fire and attack by Viet Cong.

Squadron 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.

 

Information in these articles was largely provided by Kevin Henderson, with additional research and stories written by Andrew Stackpool.

 

 

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