Misunderstanding God

Gods politics

Politics and religion in the USA

book review by Fred Lane

Wallis, J. God’s politics: Why the right gets it wrong and the left doesn’t get it. Harper: San Francisco. 2005. 384pp. $40.

Naval officers traditionally sidestep discussions about politics and religion, for very good reasons. Jim Wallis agrees that these topics are avoided in polite company (p. xvii), then he goes on to supply some very good ammunition in support of this position.

Wallis is one of those evangelical preachers that America produces so prolifically. Their fundamentalist factions wield increasing political power, both through direct intervention with the population at large and by lobbying elected officials. Wallis’s opening salvo in this book is challenging: “Many of us feel that our faith has been stolen, and it’s time to take it back … How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American?”(p. 1).

Along with the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King, Wallis rails against the neglect of the poor and powerless while the mainstream agenda of the right focuses on issues such as homosexuality, abortion and war. His response to all these is to say, “How are the kids doing?”

He makes a strong point that people who are honest and eager to work hard should not have to struggle to bring their children up in poverty, anywhere. America, and by inference Australia, has the wherewithal to raise armies and make some people very rich, but, “How are the kids doing?”

Randal Balmer

Wallis is not alone. At least half a dozen books on the same subject were published in 2005. Randal Balmer, the highly respected evangelical Professor of Religion at Barnard College, wrote one. He points out how 19th century evangelicals campaigned for issues such as abolition of slavery, universal suffrage and public education.

Now, Balmer says, these issues have been replaced by abortion, gay marriage, intelligent design and other agenda virtually indistinguishable from that of hard right American politics. The evangelical movement regularly mobilised millions of votes for President G.W. Bush and the Republican Party, he stated.

Laurie Goodstein is the national religion correspondent for the New York Times, and before that reported religion at the Washington Post. She won many important awards for her coverage of religion. She makes the same charge, but shows how opposition to mainstream policies can be costly.

I lie for a living

I spy book cover

Spies and counterspies

book review by Fred Lane
Shugar, Antony. I lie for a living: The greatest spies of all time. National Geographic: Washington, D.C. 2006. 189 pp. (US$14.40, paperback)

This book is required reading for all those interested in espionage and national level whistle blowing. It is an enthralling but very brief description of 60-odd spies and their various contributions to the history of spying. Peter Earnest, the Director of the International Spy Museum and ex-case officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, with “some 25 years” in “the company”, wrote the foreword. The book is full of insights into how professional spies regard their craft. It pulls no punches in praising good spy craft of any political persuasion and it shows clearly how stupidity knows no borders.

Logically, the book starts with a description of spymasters such as Sir Francis Walsingham, of Elizabethan times, and Cardinal Richelieu. It shows how these master manipulators gained and passed on information that influenced their cause. In more modern times it looks at the methods used in spy rings set up by George Washington and Allan Dulles. The latter, according to the book, was implicated in the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s leader, Mohammad Mossadeq, when he attempted to nationalise the oil industry, and Jacobo Arbenz, the Guatemalan President, when he threatened the huge American conglomerate, United Fruit, in 1954.


It is interesting to explore the motivation of spies. Some, like Aldrich Ames, appear to have spied simply for the money. Others, like Richard Sorge and Vitaly Yurchenko had higher motives. Then there is the “Oxbridge group”, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean, who together severely compromised British and American intelligence in the Cold War years for a host of reasons, ranging from communist dedication to maybe just the thrill of it.

Then there was Dimitri Polyakov, the highest-ranking GRU officer ever known to cooperate with the West and to earn the title of “crown jewel of US Intelligence”. After almost 20 years, he was betrayed by two little rats: Aldrich Ames of the CIA and Robert Hanssen of the FBI. Dimitri seemed to spy for his beliefs in that while he ardently loved his country, he did not love its communist leaders. The leaders executed him in 1986, six years after he retired.

Not overlooked are the cryptanalysts, like the brilliant Alan Turing, who led an outstanding Bletchley Park team and invented the first computer on the way to cracking the German Enigma code. Homosexual by nature, but against the law at the time, Turing was charged with “gross indecency and sexual perversion” after he reported a burglary in 1951. He tragically committed suicide in 1954 by eating a cyanide-laced apple.

Feminists will take pride in noting that there were a large number of highly successful female spies, of all political persuasions, and they were just as brave and resourceful as their male counterparts. Some, like Mata Hari and Ethel Rosenberg, were executed for their pains. Others, like Virginia Hall DSC MBE, were highly decorated.

Spy catchers

No modern spy book would be complete without a discussion about counterintelligence and the role of spy catchers. So were more proficient that others. The first of these, William Melville, is conjectured by some to be the model for Ian Fleming’s “M” in the James Bond series. Melville joined the new Special Irish Branch of the London Police Force in 1882 and stayed with it as it mutated into the Special Branch. Others discussed in the book include the obsessive James Jesus Angleton with his perceived “wilderness of mirrors” and long-time FBI head J. Edgar Hoover.

Clearly, the spies mentioned are only a very select few who have contributed to the craft of spying and spy catching. By the very nature of their trade, there are probably thousands of active spies known only to their handlers. There must be very few national secrets of any import not known to the “other side”.


Salvo book cover


Book review by Fred Lane

Edwards, B. Salvo: Classic naval gun battles. Naval Institute Press: Annapolis 1955. 184pp, 36 photographs, track charts, bibliography and index. US$23.36. (Cheaper new and secondhand books may be found at remainder counters and on the internet.)

In yet another gripping book, CAPT Bernard Edwards RN describes 18 classic naval gun battles that date from the Yalu River action in 1894 to the Battle of the Surigao Strait in 1944. This book is one of a series of a dozen or more by the same author, all describing naval actions and the ways of the seafarer. In this instance, he has chosen well. His battles range from massive fleet engagements, such as the 1915 Dogger Bank battle, to the single ship Sydney I versus Emden engagement in 1914 and the mysterious Sydney II versus Kormoran action in 1941. As befits a navigator, his many track charts clearly illustrate the various battles without extraneous clutter.

Edwards explains in his introduction that before the Yalu River action, the all-important naval gunnery tactic was not much advanced from the broadside with muzzle-loading cannon, often at ranges of 100 yards or less. The RN-trained Japanese at Yalu, in their Dreadnought-era ships, defeated a strong Chinese fleet supporting an invasion force. They used modern guns and fired them at much longer ranges. It might be noted, however, that the Japanese fleet withdrew, not because it had sunk all the Chinese warships, but because it was running out of ammunition.

Coronel and Falklands

On the other hand, the overwhelmingly decisive battles of Coronel and the Falklands Islands in 1914 resulted in the virtual annihilation of the enemy fleets. First the British, under RADM Cradock off Coronel, lost the heavy cruisers Good Hope and Monmouth in a 40-minute action on 1 November 1914 without inflicting serious damage on any German ship. Then the victorious RADM Von Spee’s German squadron met its nemesis off the Falklands, losing both battlecruisers and two of his three cruisers at the hands of a vastly superior Royal Navy fleet commanded by RADM Sturdee. Dresden was the only German cruiser to escape and even her end came three months later when HMS Kent and Glasgow caught her coaling in the Pacific.

In a well written chapter about SMS Königsberg‘s blockade and destruction (Newsletter 68, March 2007, pp 11-18) there is an excellent description of the German cruiser’s successful Zanzibar sortie where she destroyed the anchored British cruiser HMS Pegasus.

Edwards confirms that on 6 July 1915 this Rufigi Delta “operation entered the history books [as] the first combined air-sea operation.” He also confirmed that the spotter planes were “obliged to fly low and were forced to take violent evasive action to avoid the fierce concentration of small arms fire coming up at them,” and that without “aerial observation [the monitor’s] bombardment was a waste of ammunition.” These important points are frequently overlooked in modern descriptions of the action.

Last big gun battle

Edwards describes the last big gun battle, the Surigao Strait slaughter, 25 October 1944 when, in a series of interconnected bloody battles, the Japanese lost two 36,000-ton battleships, two heavy cruisers and three destroyers. The Allied force lost one PT boat and one destroyer damaged by friendly fire. In one 20-minute period, RADM Oldendorf’s ships, which included five battleships and eight cruisers, fired no less than 3,250 shells at the approaching Japanese force.

The last significant surface ship vs surface ship action of WW II, and perhaps of all time, as Edwards observes, was the successful attack by five RN destroyers led by CAPT Manley Power on the Japanese cruiser Haguro, 16 May 1945. Haguro sank after three almost simultaneous torpedo hits.

Air-launched guided missiles, starting with the German Henschel Hs 293A-1 success on 23 August 1943 and the Ruhrstall/Kramer SD 1400 Fritz-X a few days later in WW II, add an entirely new dimension to the face of this kind of naval battle.

Collision Course

Collison Course book cover

 ADML Ray Lygo

Book review by Fred Lane
Lygo R. Collision course: Lygo shoots back. The Book Guild: Lewes 2002. 551pp plus glossary, index and photographs.
Internet cost: $50 incl postage.

Ray Lygo, worked as a printer’s copyholder before joining the RN as a Naval Airman Second Class in 1942 . He never sat for a School Certificate but coerced his way past the Recruiting CPO’s desk by insisting that his Air Training Corps Cadet service was sufficient for aircrew. A distinguished career followed, as a Fleet Air Arm fighter pilot, Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) and Commanding Officer of a number of ships and squadrons. He retired at age 51 as ADML Sir Raymond Lygo, KCB, First Sea Lord, joining British Aerospace and becoming chairman of a number of illustrious British companies.

Choppy start

He starts his book with an unfortunate fancy-schmancy literary device used by writers of lesser ability of suddenly chopping back and forth from his collision as Captain of Ark Royal with a Russian destroyer in the Mediterranean to negotiating important contracts as Chairman of British Aerospace a couple of decades later. He also makes minor errors, like reversing the RN/USN Landing Signals Officer (Batsman) signals. Bear with him. The rest of the book is worth these painful Lorenz-style imprinting events.
Dozens of names familiar to Australians pop out of the pages. Ex-FOCAF Chas Eccles is mentioned and Mike Fell, 20th CAG Commander and Sydney CAG Commander in Korea, appears from time to time. Corky Corkhill is another. Barney Barron, later CO of RAN 805 Squadron in 1959-60, is correctly identified as one of those highly competent “terrible twins of Culdrose” in 1953.

Lygo’s autobiography spans an important period in the RN’s history. He describes how the RN finally shook itself clear of the 1930s Fleet Air Arm malaise, at considerable cost, then slumped from a potent carrier-backed force into a mere rump of its former self. He shows how the RN lost three of its four big aircraft carriers early in WW II due, in no small measure, to mismanagement. As a Seafire pilot in the Pacific during WW II, he learned the hard lessons about operating a land-based machine converted for carrier use, compared with American purpose-built carrier aircraft like the F4U Corsair.

The Seafire (left), despite its Battle of Britain reputation, was inferior to American carrier purpose-built
aircraft such as theF4U Corsair in durability, range, endurance and other important factors.

He graphically describes the almost constant RAF aircraft versus RN carrier battles inside Whitehall that ranged from sniping to downright lies. Tragically, when the dust settled and the RAF won their case, the RN lost their proposed new aircraft carrier and the major capabilities that went with it, but the RAF did not get their TSR2 and other expected aircraft. Neither did the non-aviation admirals, who frequently supported the RAF position, get their anticipated cruisers and destroyers. The money simply disappeared into general revenue. “Aircraft carrier” became such a pejorative term that awkward semantics like “through deck cruiser” had to be invented.

Importantly, as Lygo says, the eminently obvious but overlooked solution was “a larger class of aircraft carriers, built to commercial standards and therefore much cheaper, concentrating all their build into the flying facilities, leaving it to the escort vessels to provide protection apart from point defence,” (p315).

In Lygo’s post-WW II era, frigates and destroyers not only performed their war-related duties but also important diplomatic missions. Lygo describes how he participated in at least three of these in command of ships as a LCDR and CMDR, during visits to Grenada in the Caribbean, Waterford in Ireland and Algeciras in Spain, all without a “Minister-for-Everything” peering over his shoulder.

Australia, move over

In one of the never-ending internecine Fleet Air Arm versus RAF carrier battles, the RAF claimed that they could comfortably conduct both surveillance and fighter duties over the oceans from existing (or planned) bases. Therefore aircraft carriers were unnecessary. The money would be better spent on RAF aircraft. This lie was exposed during Lygo’s watch as Deputy Director of Naval Air Warfare when he found the RAF using deliberately doctored maps. They had moved Australia some 200 miles west to bolster their Indian Ocean argument.

Later, in command of Ark Royal, he was challenged with attacking an RAF base while on passage from Gibraltar to the UK. The RAF had ample surveillance and fighter forces to defend against this attack as well as a good idea about its timing. Lygo simply detached his support group of replenishment ships and some escorts to look like a carrier force attacking from the west. He even sent aircraft out to simulate touch and goes on a big tanker. Meanwhile, keeping radar and radio silence, he closed from the south and launched an unopposed “nuclear” strike with a Scimitar, in effect wiping out the RAF base.

Biased decisions

One questionable decision during his Ministry of Defence watch was an expensive industry-related policy to design and develop new afterburning Rolls Royce Spey engines to replace the tried, true and sufficient Pratt and Whitney J79s in the American Phantoms purchased for the RN and RAF. On the one hand, money was squandered for no real military purpose, while vital naval concerns, such as a replacement carrier, were obfuscated. Another time, a big team visited the USA to investigate an offer of three ex-USN carriers at bargain prices. Not one naval aviator was on the team. Not surprisingly, the team declined the offer. Crucial operations-related decisions were sometimes delegated to totally unqualified but politically-connected “scientists”, contaminated by doctored or incomplete data.

He was also lucky. He was a passenger in a 12-seater naval DeHavilland Heron when the pilot flew it into trees during an instrument letdown to RAF Base Turnhouse, Scotland (p331). There was a “great deal of structural damage”, the wings were “almost in ribbons” and a small electrical fire started in the fuselage. However, a hole magically appeared in the clouds, with a runway straight ahead, so the pilot threw it on, flapless at 120 knots, without inflicting further damage.

Flash up checklists

Best of all, Lygo describes the era when flying was fun and the navy was not so much a bean-counter’s profession as an adventure. Lygo was responsible for brilliant practical jokes and other stunts, which kept everyone on their toes and built morale. At the same time it was Lygo who introduced a now-standard check list, like a pilot’s check list, for flashing up boilers. As an A1 QFI, Lygo adapted flying instructional techniques to the seamanship profession. As a pilot, he was always aware of the bottom line: know your limits, in the air and on the ground.

In civilian life he applied the lessons he learned as a divisional officer and commanding officer. Whether dealing with unions or negotiating major company takeovers Lygo always wanted to know what was the predominant aim and whether the data were true. He found no substitute for “clear lower deck “eyeball-to-eyeball talks” and shop-floor “rounds”.

Vung Tau ferry

Vung Tau ferry

HMAS Sydney: the Vung Tau ferry

book review by Fred Lane

Nott R.T. and N. A. Payne (2001) The Vung Tau ferry: HMAS Sydney and escort ships. 3rd Ed. Noel and Margaret Payne: Nerang. (168 pages plus 90-odd pages of addenda such as crew lists and escort ship details. Cost $29.95. Self published hardback.)

This 258-page book is a very readable anecdotal history of the involvement of HMAS Sydney in the Vietnam War, ranging from her first voyage to Vung Tau in 1965 to her last in 1972. The main thrust and about a third of the book, by volume, never strays far from the political and legal struggle surrounding the award of the “Return from Active Service Badge” and other benefits for her crew. About another third lists details of Sydney and her ships company, also data about other RAN ships, including Jeparit and Boonaroo, who shared the logistics, escort and gun line burdens in Vietnam. Excellent photographs and charts illustrate the story.

Unfortunately, the Australian politicians of the day seem in retrospect to have been more interested in feathering their own nests, through generous pay rises and pension entitlements, than recognising the hardships and danger that went with the job of obeying their directions to maintain Australian forces in the field.

Some politicians even argued that granting honours to Sydney’s sailors might risk some paltry millions of dollars to fund possible future Defence Force Housing grants. Other senior uniformed personnel seriously argued that any campaign medal would be devalued if it was awarded to logistics people, such as Sydney’s crew.

The Australian government finally issued the Return from Active Service Badge in 1986 in response to sustained efforts by groups such as the Vietnam Logistics Support Group that formed in 1985. In 1992 they authorised the award of the Vietnam Logistics and Support Medal.

Missed opportunities

The authors criticise unnamed “academic historians” for much of the government’s position. Unfortunately, they fail to present a detailed case and reasoned argument showing how they arrived at this conclusion or even rebutting the miscreants point by point. This is a pity. They probably had the ammunition.

The book seems to be not so much a substantially original work by Nott and Payne, but more an edited compilation of articles and data by a variety of authors, including Buster Crabb and Red Merson, with interspersed editorial comment by the nominal authors. Some accounts are very real, very personal and very exciting. Others lead to assertions which, without better supporting evidence, could be easily misinterpreted as reflections of paranoia at a number of command levels. Additionally, verbatim Reports of Proceedings and Temporary Memoranda are rarely riveting or necessarily convincing. Even Churchill, never the most erudite of authors, at least placed essential excerpts of these in appendices.

There is no doubt that the good ship Sydney performed to her usual “above and beyond” standards. Her crew, many of them young teenagers and barely out of recruit school, rose to the occasion under the able leadership of their NCOs and officers. It must have been sobering for them to see a massive real life firepower demonstration on their approach to anchoring at Vung Tau.

Sydney unloading
HMAS Sydney unloads at Vung Tau.

They were also reminded of their responsibilities by precautions such as the blackout as they approached the coast. In harbour, they had armed lookout sentries, boat patrols trolling anti-swimmer harpoons, divers inspecting the ship’s bottom and random scare charges detonating. Maybe Sydney was not attacked because the Viet Cong were just not interested in her as a target. Others might argue equally forcefully that the danger was there but the ship’s aggressive defence posture deterred the enemy from even thinking about attacking.

Not mentioned was the last Sydney Vietnam logistics trip, when she loaded retiring Australian troops and equipment from Singapore, rather than Vung Tau, in 1973.

Bibliography problems

The book has a short bibliography but, oddly, no citations to these references in the main body. Furthermore, in contrast to Steve Eather’s book, Get the bloody job done, which is mentioned in the text, but not listed in the bibliography, there is no index or systematic analysis of both sides.

In short, this is a series of great anecdotal yarns about a great ship and her even greater crew. The tale is worthy of greater effort and scholarship. With just a little more work it could have been made into something much more memorable. It is perhaps a reflection of the political and publisher apathy that surrounds the subject that such a book is yet to be written and published.


Eather, S. Get the bloody job done. Allen & Unwin: St Leonards, 1998.

Vietnam: Fire in the Hangar

Oriskanay fire

Fire in the Hangar

Book review by Fred Lane

Foster, W.F. (2001) Fire on the hangar deck: Ordeal of the Oriskany. Naval Institute Press: Annapolis. 175 pages including index, photographs and schematic drawings.US$26.95.

“Fire, fire, fire, fire in the hangar,” must be one of the most feared tannoy broadcasts ever in any ship that carries aircraft. It generates more anxiety in experienced aviators than the oft-called “Crash on deck”. With tonnes of volatile aircraft fuel, high explosives and aircraft oxygen nearby, it is almost axiomatic that more lives are about to be lost. The ship herself is in mortal danger. Only disciplined, fast and expert reactions can save a ship with a serious fire in the hangar. In the USS Oriskany fire, starting about 0720, 26 October 1966, many officers and sailors not only did the job they were trained to do, but also displayed superb individual and team initiative and bravery. This book by Wynn Foster should be required reading for every person in any ship operating an aircraft.

Wynn (Captain Hook) Foster, made two combat deployments in Vietnam aboard Oriskany, but was shot down in an A-4E Skyhawk and lost his right arm on 26 July, three months before the fire. His gripping account reflects his intimate knowledge of the ship, her systems and her crew. He also captures the drama of stark terror and confusion and the heroic responses to those challenges by his ex-shipmates.

Essex class

Oriskany was an Essex class fleet carrier, modified to 27C standard, and nearly twice the size of the RAN Light Fleet carriers. She first saw action in Korea and in 1964, at the start of the Vietnam War, she was the youngest of the still-active WWII-era Essex class carriers.

In her 1966 Air Wing 16, she carried two squadrons of A-4 Skyhawks, one squadron of A-1 Skyraiders and two of F-8 Crusader aircraft. She also mounted detachments of E-1B Tracer AEW aircraft, A-3 Skywarrior tankers and UH-2 Seasprite SAR helicopters. She was on the second night shift, a midnight-to-noon operating cycle employing a 90-minute deck turnaround. At the time of the fire she was working up to launch her breakfast time 0730 strike.

Like the fires in Forrestal (134 dead, nine months later), and Enterprise (61 dead, 14 January 1969), the initial fire was probably caused by a breakdown in safety procedures, training and supervision. Bad weather cancelled Oriskany‘s scheduled night operations, so dozens of Mk 24 magnesium parachute flares and other ordnance were being unloaded from the night strike aircraft. A pair of young ordnance handlers were stowing the 25-pound flares into a ready use flare locker on the hangar deck when they inadvertently activated one. The seaman reflexively tossed the primed and hissing flare into the locker and slammed the door shut. Magnesium flares require no oxygen supply to burn, so the single flare ignited some 650 others in the ready use stowage locker.

Shared ventilation

The locker shared ventilation ducts with nearby officers’ cabins, so the resulting fireballs and explosions not only created havoc in the hangar, but also killed many officers in their cabin area. A total of 44 men died. At one stage the forward part of the ship, including the bridge, lost all electrical power (with 28 degrees of rudder on, of course).

“No great genius was required to deduce that under the pressures of round-the-clock combat operations, expedient departure from ordnance safety and handling was likely to occur,” says Foster (p 154).

Oriskanay fire
USS Oriskany on fire, 26 October 1966, off Vietnam.

The prescribed flare stowage in this essentially WWII carrier was unsuitable for the tempo demanded by Vietnam War operations. A ship-level decision to stow flares in a designated rocket-motor stowage was not unusual. However, this failed to take into sufficient account the increased danger of handling the more volatile flares and the shared ventilation trunk system that spread the fire.

Improper download

It was also likely that proper safety precautions, including making the flare safe for handling, had not been taken as it was downloaded from its aircraft. In this regard, the MK 24 flare design, its manuals, crew training and supervision all came in for criticism.

From the moment the flare’s fuse ignition sequence started, the handlers had some 18 seconds before the main charge ignited. This suggests that there was time to throw the flare overboard.

Forrestal fire
As the USS Forrestal was readying for a launch over Vietnam, on 29 July 1967, nine months
after the Oriskany fire, an even more serious fire claimed 134 lives and 62 injured (above, USN photo).

Damage to aircraft and the ship was severe. The primary cause, never conclusively established, was presumed to be a stray voltage input into a loaded F-4 Phantom’s firing circuit that fired a Zuni rocket into an A-4 Skyhawk’s drop tank. The A-4, incidentally, was hurriedly evacuated by the pilot, LCDR (later Senator and Presidential candidate) John S. McCain.

ADML J.S. Russell, a highly respected retired ex-aviator, headed a panel that reviewed the Oriskany and Forrestal fires. “Serious deficiencies (existed) in weapons technical publications and handbooks and munitions load-out specifications,” quotes Foster from this report (p160). “The problems were navy-wide,” summarises Foster. “(There are) dangers inherent in having to fight a full-time war with a peacetime manpower structure.”

However, there are two positive conclusions that must flow from these tragedies. Firstly, USN carriers can take a lot of punishment and still survive. Secondly, in an emergency, young sailors can be relied upon to distinguish themselves by unflinchingly risking their lives to save their shipmates and even the ship herself.


Carlin, M.J. Trial: Ordeal of the USS Enterprise, 14 January 1969. Tuscarora Press: West Grove,1993.
Freeman, G.A. Sailors to the end: The deadly fire on the USS Forrestal and the heroes who fought it. Morrow William and Co.: New York, 2002.

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.