Helicopter Flight Vietnam 50 years on

This article has photo gallery Published on Ms Dallas McMaugh (author), ABIS Steven Thomson (photographer)

Location(s): HMAS Albatross

Topic(s): HMAS Albatross, Ceremonial Sunset, 723 Squadron

Members of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Helicopter Flight Vietnam, Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, AO, CSC, RAN, dignitaries and guests attend the memorial plaque dedication at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Nowra, NSW for the 50th anniversary of the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam.  (photo: ABIS Steven Thomson)
Members of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Helicopter Flight Vietnam, Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, AO, CSC, RAN, dignitaries and guests attend the memorial plaque dedication at the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Nowra, NSW for the 50th anniversary of the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam.

Almost 200 veterans and their families gathered in Nowra on 15 October for three days of activities marking the 50th Anniversary of the formation of Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam.

The busy schedule of events included a church service, memorial plaque dedication a tour of HMAS Albatross, a seminar, an official reception and Ceremonial Sunset and a march.

Commander Peter Wynter, Commanding Officer 723 Squadron, was thrilled with the success of the events.

“For 723 Squadron this has been a really important commemoration,” he said. 

“It was great to see the veterans sharing their experiences with current aircrew and maintenance personnel, who now have a great appreciation of the service and sacrifice etched into the Battle Honour Vietnam 1967-71, which hangs proudly in the Squadron passageway.”

For the veterans, the Navy Iroquois helicopter perched at the entrance of Nowra is a very familiar sight. Now a popular tourist attraction and declaration of Nowra’s status as a ‘Navy town’, it was one of the seven Iroquois helicopters the Vietnam Flight aircrew trained on before their arrival in Vietnam on 16 October 1967.

While the image and distinctive sound of the Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter are among the most instantly recognisable symbols of the Vietnam War, the role of the Fleet Air Arm in that war is not so widely known.

That first contingent consisted of eight pilots, four observers, four aircrewmen, 24 technical sailors and six support staff was formed under command of the then Lieutenant Commander Neil Ralph (now Rear Admiral retired), in July 1967 as part of 723 Squadron at Albatross.

Between 1967 and 1971 the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam was fully integrated with the US Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company, flying Iroquois helicopters in both utility and gun-ship configurations.

The relationship between the Royal Australian Navy and the US Army was a unique one, they were officially designated EMU - Experimental Military Unit - and since a unique unit needs a unique motto, they chose “Get the Bloody Job Done” as theirs.

Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, described their role as “anything but straightforward”.

“EMU pilots and crews were almost immediately involved in flying troops into operations and within a few months, each pilot and crew was averaging between 120 and 130 flying hours a month, the equivalent of a year’s flying time here in Australia,” he said. 

“The work as you would expect was extremely dangerous.”

The company's first major operation, Operation Santa Fe, was a lift of 9th Infantry Division troops into northeast Phuoc Tuy in early November 1967. This operation involved more than 80 helicopters flying in support of a combined allied sweep against the 5th Viet Cong Division. It was one of the largest operations any contingent participated in. 

Rear Admiral Ralph described some of the challenges they faced.

“Being at low level in the air close to the scene of action made the aircraft vulnerable to ground fire,” he said.

“In my year we lost 10 aircraft to ground fire, 41 were damaged; and we lost eight personnel killed in acton.

“These operations made great demands on aircrew and tested every aspect of their training, experience, situational awareness, personal commitment and resourcefulness.

“There were many situations such as ammunition resupply to the forward elements which required aircraft and crews to act independently or operate in smaller formations, often at night.

“Involvement in actions of this sort brought out the best in people and very brave and courageous acts which involved risk to survival were frequently a part of the day’s operations.”

Throughout the Helicopter Flight Vietnam’s deployment there were many acts of bravery and sacrifice. Their gallantry and distinguished service was recognised by the award of three Members of the British Empire, eight Distinguished Service Crosses, five Distinguished Flying Crosses, one British Empire Medal, twenty-four Mentioned-in-Dispatches and numerous Vietnamese and United States decorations.

723 Squadron, the Flight’s parent unit, was awarded the battle honour Vietnam 1967-71 on 22 December 1972.

Australian Navy pilots ceased flying on 8 June 1971 and the maintenance section were stood down on the same day. During its four year deployment more than 200 Fleet Air Arm personnel had rotated through four contingents. The Unit was continuously engaged in offensive operations earning not only the aviators, but also the maintenance and support staff, a reputation second to none - a reputation for “getting the bloody job done.”

The Memorial Plaque unveiling by Vice Admiral Barrett was followed by a fly past from 723 Squadron in missing man formation with one helicopter breaking away in memory of the fallen.

“There weren’t many of us but we made a difference,” Rear Admiral Ralph said.