Preparing for an exercise scenario in New Zealand quickly became a real life disaster relief effort for the ship’s company of HMAS Choules as a result of an active volcano.
Choules had embarked in Townsville troops from 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, 1st Combat Service Support Battalion and 10th Force Support Battalion, in addition to a platoon of His Majesty's Armed Forces Royal Tonga Marines, for Exercise Southern Katipo.
However, on 29 September, their plans changed when Choules was tasked to Operation VANUATU ASSIST 2017, the Australian Defence Force contribution to the whole of Australian Government mission to support thousands of evacuees.
The Vanuatu Government had ordered 11,000 residents of the Island of Ambae to evacuate due to fears of an imminent eruption of the Manaro volcano.
The impact on infrastructure was significant, as the population of some towns in Vanuatu doubled as a result of the evacuation.
Commanding Officer Choules, Commander Dave Graham realised their amphibious capability would be put to good use when humanitarian aid was loaded in Luganville Port on the Island of Espiritu Santo.
"Probably the biggest thing Choules can do is take a large load of equipment and stores and get in to remote villages and beaches,” he said.
“We then get all those stores ashore and distributed using embarked watercraft and vehicles.
"We don't need a jetty, we don't need a wharf; all we need is a beach.”
The bulk of humanitarian aid, in addition to an MRH90 helicopter from 808 Squadron, was delivered to Vanuatu from Australia via RAAF C17 Globemaster airlifter flights.
Initially some aid was delivered direct to evacuation centres on the Island of Espiritu Santo.
Then, over the course of three days, Choules delivered 50,000 litres of fresh water, 300 shelter kits, personal solar lights, kitchen kits, rice and tinned food to evacuees on Maewo, North and South Pentecost Island.
During the amphibious landings the embarked MRH90 helicopter transported Australian, New Zealand and Vanuatu government officials to help plan the distribution of aid.
Numerous members of the ship’s company and 808 Squadron assisted in helping unload humanitarian aid and engage with locals, providing a thrill for many junior sailors.
Able Seaman Aviation Technician Avionics Zacharie Wright-Hansen said the experience had been eye opening.
“Being able to help those in need, see the smiles on peoples faces when we bring them aid, bring them what they need, it's been definitely one of the highlights of my career," he said.
Operation VANUATU ASSIST was also the first humanitarian aid mission for Able Seaman Combat Systems Operator Mine Warfare Katrina Whittle.
''I've really enjoyed it, just seeing how happy all the locals are when we bring them help or just kick a soccer ball with them, it's been really good," she said.
Both junior sailors said this kind of mission was one of the key reasons they decided to join the Navy.
Choules’s contribution to concluded on 11 October, with the landing ship disembarking its MRH90 and some Army personnel ashore at Port Vila, Vanuatu.
Commander Graham said the operation had been very smooth.
“I am proud of the way Choules has performed - materially, it's just an excellent ship,” he said.
"Most importantly is how our people have performed.
“I am thrilled with the way that they have dug-in, they've kept their chins up, they've smiled they've really helped the people of Vanuatu.”
The amphibious capability of Choules and its ability to lift the Army remains in high demand following the tasking of Choules to Operation QUEENSLAND ASSIST earlier this year.
After a few hours alongside in Port Vila to take on some stores and supplies, Choules departed for New Zealand and Exercise Southern Katipo.