Vietnam: Get the bloody job done

Get the bloody job done

Vietnam: RAN helicopter flight

Book review by Fred Lane

Steve Eather  Get the bloody job done. Allen and Unwin: St Leonards, 1998. 160pp, including index and references, $19.95 (paperback).  

“Get the bloody job done” might be a great squadron motto and an even better book title. Except in Vietnam. The “bloody job” did not “get done” and the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV) lost five outstanding young men killed and others seriously injured in the process. Another entire crew died when their RAN helicopter flew into the ground at Beecroft Range during a Vietnam workup.

As Eather explains, there were four RANHFV contingents totalling 192 men and other RAN helicopter pilots served in Vietnam with RAAF 9 Squadron. The RANHFV, like the RAN’s 805 Squadron in the Korean War, reported the highest casualty rate per unit strength of any Australian unit engaged. In Korea, lives and aircraft might have been squandered under an American-led Joint Operations Command strategy, Operation Strangle, that in effect traded Australian naval aircrew and aircraft for farmers and ox carts. In Vietnam, it may be equally ironic that the American-driven strategy traded Australian lives and aircraft for a few more months’ life of a corrupt South Vietnamese regime. Yet, Australian professionalism, dedication and valour shone through in both theatres.

 US Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company

Between October 1967 and June 1971, as Eather explains, the four RANHFV year-long contingents of 45 or so integrated with the US Army’s 135th Assault Helicopter Company as an Experimental Military Unit (EMU). The 135th was one of 70 or more US Army helicopter companies in Vietnam and it was the 135th that initially introduced the “H” model Huey to the Vietnam theatre. RAN pilots filled only about ten per cent of the company’s aircrew billets but contributed significantly more with their operational skills and experience.

The US Army’s initial integration plans were perhaps not well thought out, but this may be understandable given the tempo of the Vietnam operations. Just before deployment from the USA the fully worked-up company had its commanding officer changed. Instead of a major, like all the other US Army equivalents, the company was now commanded by a lieutenant colonel. This was chiefly to accommodate the RANHFV commander’s rank and seniority. Normally the second in command, or Executive Officer (XO) in a US Army helicopter company, was responsible for administration. In the 135th, the RANHFV commander was appointed as the company XO, but instead of administration he took on a much more operational role and typically shared Command and Control missions with the Company CO. 

There were other internal changes made to accommodate the generally more highly skilled and experienced equivalent-rank RAN personnel. The Australians were usually placed into higher supervisory and technical positions for their rank than normally found in both the US Army and the RAN. Australian groundcrew, like their American counterparts, frequently flew by day as door gunners and maintained their aircraft at night.

Deep strategy considerations do not impinge much on the mind of helicopter pilots performing difficult flights under concentrated enemy fire in marginal weather. Deep strategy considerations also cannot gainsay the Australian’s outstanding bravery and skill. On the ground and in the air many of them performed at levels well above and beyond their American counterparts. Of course, most of the Americans were not career volunteers, like the Australians, but conscripted men, many straight out of school.

Night interdiction

Initially, the 135th was in the thick of the action, working with Australian, American and South Vietnamese divisions. They developed new tactics and standard operating procedures around their more powerful and larger H model helicopter. They explored night interdiction work. The Australians were at the forefront developing and evaluating new tactics.  

As Eather describes, they also came under enemy fire now and then from security-compromised operations. Some South Vietnamese groups they supported were excellent. With others they had to adopt a policy of firing on their own South Vietnamese troops should they attempt to return, with their arms, to the helicopter after an insertion into a Landing Zone.

The RAAF started replacing their Number 9 Squadron UH-1B helicopters with the larger and more capable UH-1H (H-model) in 1968. They remained in relatively comfortable Vung Tau quarters throughout the war but their aircrew, both RAN and RAAF, often flew with the 135th to gain experience. They found the 135th pilots flying many more hours and sorties per month in more intensive and risky missions and with larger numbers of aircraft.  

In time, as the RANHFV’s casualties mounted, some of the RAN pilots serving with 9 Squadron were loaned to the 135th until replacements could be flown up from Australia. “Thus, 9 Squadron, to some extent acted as an ‘in country’ reinforcement holding unit for the RANHFV,” observes Eather.  

Once were the lead company

Once the lead helicopter company with the latest model brand new aircraft in Vietnam and always in the thick of the fighting and developing new tactics, the 135th drifted off into comparative genteel, but no less dangerous, obscurity as priorities changed. Concomitant with Vietnamisation, brand new aircraft started to go to South Vietnamese squadrons. The 135th received reworked aircraft requiring a heavier maintenance effort. The Australian Government also objected to Australians operating inside Cambodia, but evidently not clearly enough or early enough to prevent at least one Australian sailor being shot down there.

The 135th gradually lost its “cutting edge” reputation and finally drifted off with its RANHFV component to Dong Tarn, a huge complex in the Mekong Delta area, in September 1970. There they operated mainly in support of three ARVN divisions. In June 1971 the fourth contingent of Australian sailors farewelled their US Army comrades for the last time, a little earlier than originally planned, and flew back to Australia without replacement.

Steve Eather takes no extreme position about Vietnam but seems convincing when he presents operational facts. He quietly lets readers draw their own conclusions and correctly points out the many instances of extraordinary bravery and skill of RANHFV personnel. His prior RAAF experience helps him to select and present the essentials, including direct quotes and photographs. However his final recommendations that peacetime RAN and Army Seahawk/Blackhawk aircrew should train so that they are virtually interchangeable seems to echo a fond but amazingly simplistic RAAF dream.  

On the other hand, he evenhandedly discusses the problems of small components, including the RAAF’s Empire Air Training Scheme aircrew, integrating with other forces. He also correctly criticises the RAAF’s original operational instructions not to “unduly risk” their rare and precious Australian helicopters. We can’t fight wars with kid gloves. If we are not willing to risk a bit if machinery when Australian lives are at stake, perhaps we should not be there.