Unsure whether he had been seriously wounded, Perry kept flying into the maelstrom to deposit a dozen or so South Vietnamese, or Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), troops onto the battlefield. The enemy fire was so intense that as the men piled out of the machine most of them were hit.
In the darkness Perry had landed right in front of an enemy bunker during a combat assault mission with the US Army. ‘They [the enemy] were dug in, they had trenches, they had bunkers, they had lots of automatic weapons and they had a big force,’ he recalls. ‘As I’m flying in there are tracer coming up, and I could hear [pilot] Dave Farley telling me that he was taking 50 cal [calibre] fire, so he just kept on climbing. I think he was at 5000 feet in the end to stay away from the 50s.’
‘Usually you are already in the flare before they open fire and sometimes they even wait until the skids hit and you are most vulnerable, you are stopped, but I started taking fire at like 1000 feet. I was still miles away. ‘It was all coming at me … the whole flight was yelling about taking fire from everywhere. Anyway we went in, and we put it down and I put the machine down, but the biggest problem I had was that one of the pilots down the back turned his landing light on.
‘They were air cavalry and they weren’t used to [combat assault] so they pulled out. “We’re not up for this, f*** off, we’re going home,” and they did. That was after the first assault and, yeah, we took a lot of fire. I landed, there was a bunker in front of me, troops got off, most of them were hit, the machine was hit all over the place.’
As he bent down to check the damage to his right foot, a burst of automatic fire peppered the Plexiglas windscreen and tore through exactly where his head had just been. ‘I thought I’d taken a round through my foot, but it was just where it struck the pedal and my foot is on the pedal. That sort of made me bend down and when I came up there were all these holes right across the windscreen … so I think that was lucky. Nothing was damaged and I was still flying, so that’s all you care about.’
A 30-calibre round had hit the rudder pedal, creased his boot and lodged in his seat. Miraculously the bullets that penetrated the windscreen missed any vital equipment and Perry and his crew made two more sorties into the hot landing zone that night.
Acting Sub-Lieutenant Perry of the Royal Australian Navy was seconded to the 135th Assault Helicopter Company of the US Army’s First Aviation Brigade, known as ‘The EMUs’, short for Experimental Military Unit. Their motto was ‘Get the bloody job done’. And that usually meant flying hard and fast under fire into hot landing zones, dumping troops and getting out as rapidly as possible. The EMUs were the only fully integrated multi-national helicopter company fighting in Vietnam.
More than 200 Australian navy pilots, plus observers and maintainers, were posted to the US unit on 12-month cycles between 1967 and 1971. ‘For an adrenaline junkie it is the ultimate, because every single time you are doing it, you are betting with the highest of stakes — your own life — and when you come off, when you come out of there and go “Phew!”, and you look at your mate, you’ve got this shit-eating grin on your face. “Wow, far out, we are all alive, everybody OK?” “Yeah, we took a few rounds today, is anything dripping or anything like that?” “No, no, we are good sir.” “OK, we’ll go back and do that again.” ‘
For his efforts on the night of 18 May, Perry was recommended for the US military’s Silver Star. This is the highest American award that can be given to non-Americans and the third highest award for bravery in combat behind the Medal of Honour, the American equivalent of the Victoria Cross, and the Distinguished Service Cross. By contrast, the Australian Government presented him with a Mentioned in Despatches — the same award given to the postal clerk at Vung Tau for good service.
But thanks to politics, quotas and bureaucratic incompetence it would be a quarter of a century before the Silver Star would be pinned to Perry’s chest. In mid-1970 a senior US officer arrived at the EMUs’ base in Vietnam for a medal presentation ceremony. ‘The whole company stood down for the day and they were going to have an American medal ceremony,’ Perry recalls. ‘A bunch of guys were going to get air medals, and purple hearts and everything. I don’t know who the general was. It might have been the boss who flew in to shake everybody’s hand.’
But during the Vietnam War, no Australian serviceman was permitted to accept and wear an individual military decoration from a foreign country. When the American general was told that he wouldn’t be able to pin the Silver Star on the young Australian pilot, he called the whole thing off so there was no medal ceremony at all.
‘He said, “If we can’t do the big one we are not doing any of it,” ‘ Perry recalls. ‘He came over and we had our cucumber sandwiches with the rinds cut off and we stood around and he shook me by the hand and said, “Bloody good job, son,” and “Piss poor on your government’s behalf, it’s a bloody shame and one day we might get over it, and get it sorted, but right now I can’t do anything. That’s what the politicians have told me; it’s come down from even higher than me.” ‘
Andy Perry was unhappy that his medal could not be presented but the war went on and the next day it was back to flying and ‘getting the bloody job done’. That job included clandestine and highly illegal flights into neighbouring Cambodia carrying a variety of American passengers, many of them dressed in civilian clothing.
The government had ordered Australian personnel not to enter Cambodia or Laos, or even go within a certain distance of
the border, under any circumstances. The Australian Embassy in Saigon had reinforced the point just before the EMUs began operations into Cambodia, but Perry says he and other RAN pilots working with the 135th regularly flew across the frontier on secret missions for the US 5th Special Forces or Navy SEALs who were infiltrating the southern end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran from North Vietnam into Laos and Cambodia and then back into South Vietnam. US forces ran an undeclared secret war in both countries in a bid to stem the flow of supplies along the trail.
‘They even gave me the uniform, bits of which I’ve still got. They were marines mostly, but they did all kinds of stuff. Their callsign was Cheap Tricks. We also worked with the SEALs, and the SEALs had the odd Australian with them as well,’ he recalls. ‘They did phoenix jobs and stuff like that, all single ship work, people dressed in civilian clothes, and they’d want to go somewhere — “We’ll tell you when we get there.” ‘The special forces boys would often request pilots by name and Perry was popular because he was willing to have a go at most things, regardless of what the government said.
Fortunately Acting Sub-Lieutenant Perry, who celebrated his 21st birthday in Vietnam, survived the cross-border missions physically unscathed. So after an eventful ten-month deployment he was back at HMAS Albatross, at Nowra on the NSW south coast, trying his best to transfer out of the training base.
His US Silver Star citation sat in a safe at Defence Headquarters in Canberra for years during one of the most shameful periods in Australian political history, when Vietnam veterans were being vilified and treated as pariahs.
In January 1985 the Defence Minister, Kim Beazley, responded to one of Perry’s many representations through his local member of parliament, Peter White, with a flat denial that the award had ever been given. ‘Mr Perry’s service records contain no evidence of a Silver Star being awarded to him,’ Beazley’s letter said. ‘Enquiries have revealed that it is now difficult, and in many cases impossible to validate claims by individual Australians for United States awards which were made in the field. In these circumstances I regret that it is not possible to establish whether the Silver Star was awarded to Mr Perry.’
By mid-June the following year the American citation had been discovered in a separate honours and awards file. But the Minister for Sport, Recreation and Tourism, John Brown, in another letter to Peter White, stood firm about the government’s policy. ‘Given that the traditional British awards were available to our servicemen, there is no justification for granting permission to formally accept and wear these foreign awards,’ his letter said.
Three Australians serving with the EMUs were granted Member of the Order of the British Empire, eight received the Distinguished Service Cross, five the Distinguished Flying Cross, one the British Empire Medal and 25 were Mentioned in Despatches. This was more than half the honours awarded to navy personnel during the entire conflict.
But he makes no secret of his pride in the professionalism of the EMUs. ‘If they wanted the best people for the job, the EMUs got the job because we could do more with less and we could fly faster, harder, whatever it took, because we were into it. You are there to do the mission, to “get the bloody job done” and we were really imbued with that philosophy.’ He says that he was just a 20-year-old kid from Tassie doing his job and having the time of his life.
In April 1995 the medal injustice was finally corrected when Andy Perry received his Silver Star in Townsville. The commander of the US 7th Fleet, Vice-Admiral Archie Clemins, complete with an honour guard, pinned the medal to his chest aboard his flagship, the USS Blue Ridge, in Townsville Harbour.
Extract from the book ‘Too Bold To Die’ By Ian McPhedran. Published: 1 September 2013. HarperCollins
The following material by David Farthing was published in a collection of essays collectively entitled “Sea Power Ashore And In The Air” edited by David Stevens and John Reeve (Halstead Press ISBN 978 1 920831 45 5). It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the RAN Sea Power Centre.
The RAN and Air Mobile Operations: The RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam
AFTER ITS CRUSHING ELECTION victory in December 1966, the Holt Government began openly to canvass further involvement in the Vietnam War. Among other problems, the United States was acutely short of helicopter pilots and one of its pressing requests was for support in this area. The RAN was the only Australian service which conceded that it could spare some pilots – although not without consequences in other areas – and it was initially proposed that these pilots would be deployed with RAAF 9 Squadron which commenced operations in Vietnam in June 1966. This was not, however, what the US wanted. It wanted the Australian Navy pilots to operate with the US Army and, after much discussion, it was agreed that the naval pilots would fly with the 135th Assault Helicopter Company of the US Army (to be known as the EMU’s: not as a flightless bird, but,as an Experimental Military Unit) under US operational control. The original preference of the Australian Chiefs of Staff, that the RAN pilots would only operate within the general area of the Australian Task Force in Phouc Tuy province, also went by the board.
The RAN then took a quite remarkably sensible step in the training process and sent the Officer in Command (OIC) designate of the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV) for an in-country reconnaissance. This far-sighted action enabled the implementation of an effective training program to equip the Flight for the unique experience of operating within the massive and often baffling structure of the US Army. The success of this ongoing program was clearly demonstrated to me, as OIC third contingent RANHFV when, after we had been in country for a few weeks, one of my junior sailors said to me ‘it’s just like they said it would be’.
Thus, in October 1967, the first contingent of the RAN Helicopter Flight arrived at Vung Tau. The make up of the Flight was eight pilots, four observers, four aircrewmen, 24 technical sailors and 6 other personnel. With minor adjustments, this structure was preserved for the four contingents which served in Vietnam until June 1971. The Australian OIC became the Executive Officer of the 135th Assault Helicopter Company, and other members of the Flight assumed positions commensurate with their rank and experience. Inevitably, because of the enormous difference in training and experience of the Australian regular service personnel when compared with those of the typical short service US serviceman, most of whom were conscripts, the majority of the key leadership positions in the Company, both flying and maintenance, were filled by Australians. This had good and bad consequences: the 135th was undoubtedly the elite aviation company operating in the Delta and whenever a crisis arose the cry went out ‘call for the EMUs’, but the political constraints imposed, increasingly rigidly, by the Australian government resulted in operational limitations for the Company in some circumstances.
This problem was highlighted starkly by the operations into Cambodia in May 1970, which the EMUs were nominated to lead. This operation, an excellent example of the strategic use of air mobile operations, was unfortunately in a geographical area into which Australians were forbidden to go. 1 was tempted to ignore the constraint, but the order was reinforced the night before the operation by a message from the Australian Embassy. My Flight Commanders and I then had the forlorn experience of watching our Company head off for this most important operation without us. The problem was overcome after Day 1 of the operation, which incidentally was most effective in reducing the enemy war-making capacity in the Delta, by returning the EMUs to tasks wholly within Vietnam and allocating other Companies to continue the task in Cambodia. It reflected nevertheless an appalling piece of political cowardice.
Air Mobile Operations
The major task of the 135th Assault Helicopter Company was the provision of air mobile capability to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in the Delta of South Vietnam, designated as IV Corps. The aviation company was not organic with the units it was supporting and thus operations carried out by the EMUs could, hypothetically, just as easily have been launched from a naval platform as from our distant airfield. A typical daily commitment of one Command and Control aircraft (Charley Charley), eight troop carrying helicopters (Slicks) and three Gunships could have been provided from a light carrier.
To provide this force, the Company had thirty Slicks and eight Gunships. Typically, on any given day, 50 percent of these aircraft would be unavailable due to battle damage and major maintenance.
Unfortunately, the aims of air mobile operations to use technical superiority to gain a force multiplier effect and to achieve tactical (and occasionally strategic) surprise were sadly corrupted in Vietnam. Too often the helicopter was used as a tool of convenience, as an airborne truck, to make the soldiers’ lives more comfortable and to avoid the hard slog of occupying territory.
Our standard operation in the Delta was for the Flight to depart its base at Bearcat an hour before dawn, fly 100 miles to the Delta, pick up an army unit and conduct a combat assault, usually reasonably close to their base. This operation, depending on the opposition and the numbers involved, would take from one to four hours. Then the Flight would revert to stand-by before extracting the same army unit before dusk and returning them to their base. Thus the soldiers returned to a ‘warm lee’ for the night, but any territory gained during the day was immediately ceded back to the enemy As a result, the long suffering peasants in the Delta hated the government forces, who pillaged them during the day and the Viet Cong (VC or colloquially ‘Charley’), who pillaged them during the night, with equal intensity This was a major factor in the eventual disaster. When in mid-1970 all the military indicators showed that the war in the Delta was being won, the political ground had long since been lost: the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people were gone.
It was not all bad news. In 1970 overall command in Vietnam was assumed by General Creighton Abrams who, at his first meeting with his operations staff, announced ‘Gentlemen, this fucking rocketing is going to stop’. At this point, the practice of ground forces retiring at night into enclaves surrounded by earthen ‘berms’, where they were at the mercy of every raggy-arsed guerilla with a two-inch mortar or a primitive rocket, ended, and a policy of aggressive patrolling did, indeed, stop the rocketing.
At about the same time, the commanders of the 7th and 9th ARVN Divisions were replaced by much more aggressive successors. As a consequence, although the routine of dawn insertions and dusk extractions continued, other tactics were adopted which were much more conducive to the concept of air mobile operations.
To overcome the problem of the VC owning the night, we started night ‘hunterkiller’ operations. This involved a tactical unit of one Slick rigged as a flare-ship, Charley Charley rigged with a powerful searchlight and a twin 50-calibre machine gun and two Gunships. This was intensive flying, all at low level and often terrifying, but it was remarkably effective. The enemy, who had been used to moving in the dark with impunity, suddenly found himself being illuminated and engaged by rockets and guns at close range. We also began flying night combat assault missions and these, too, could be rather frightening, especially since there were often no pathfinders on the ground. Flying in an eight Slick formation into a pitch-black paddy field was a good test of skill and nerve but, again, it was effective and the result was that ‘Charley no longer owned the night’.
We also commenced operations with a detachment of US Navy SEALs – special forces who were a bunch of ruffians you would not want to bump into on a dark night, or allow to consort with your teenage daughter. But, they were very good at their job and remarkably effective. Their modus operandi was counterterrorism based on operational intelligence. They would identify a house, for example, in a village where a VC leader was thought to be residing and then use a small EMU element of Charley Charley and four Slicks to launch a surprise raid. After a very low level approach, designed to minimise the warning given by the noise of the helicopters, the Charley Charley would pop up and identify the target with smoke, and the Slicks would then surround the target. We did not always succeed – target identification was the most difficult part – but we had sufficient successes to more than justify the effort, and intelligence feedback indicated that both these and the night operations were having a significant effect on enemy morale. Above all, we were at last taking the initiative away from the enemy.
We also worked with the SEALs when an Intelligence Officer on General Abrams’ staff, defying explicit orders, went for a joyride in an Army Mohawk fixed wing aircraft and had to eject near the mouth of the Mekong after the aircraft was hit by enemy fire. He was promptly captured by the VC and, as you would expect, all hell broke loose and maximum effort was made to retrieve him before he could be interrogated. The chase was absolutely implacable and, after three days, the VC decided that he was simply too hot to hold and, sadly, they killed him. It was a bit like a Hollywood Western with a tragic outcome: a constant series of leap-frogging insertions and an equal number of frantic evasions.
Our main aircraft was, of course, the ubiquitous Bell Iroquois, UH 1H ‘Huey’ (or UH 1C in the case of the Gunships). A wonderful aeroplane; robust, easy to fly and easy to maintain. With its big doors on both sides it was ideal for the insertion of an infantry platoon, and eight Hueys could lift a company. On the easy to fly aspect, it should be noted that there is a much greater differential in capability between individual pilots in helicopters than you would expect to find with fixed-wing aircraft. My best pilot could lift about 1000 pounds more than my worst pilot; this in an aircraft with a nominal lift of 4000 pounds. This can be an important consideration when planning special operations.
In Vietnam we flew two-hour sorties interspersed with refuelling with the engine running. Spending fourteen hours airborne in a day was not unusual. For the first assault with full fuel, the Slicks would be too heavy to hover and would have to slide along the runway for a hundred metres or so until they gained translational lift. If there was only a short flight to the first landing, the aircraft would still be too heavy to hover, requiring a zero-zero landing which was a test of pilots’ skills; we lost a few aircraft that way.
The Huey also had some disadvantages, the main ones being vulnerability and noise. All helicopters are vulnerable to heavy weapons, although modern helos have much better protection than the Huey. One or two hits from 50-calibre machine gun rounds would cause a Huey to break up in the air: a sure way to ruin the whole day. More importantly in the Vietnam context, it was also vulnerable to small arms fire. The doctrine in Vietnam was that you were immune to small arms fire above 1500 feet, although Lieutenant Commander Pat Vickers, RAN, was killed by an AK47 round above that so-called safety height.
Towards the end of my tour, when I was conducting an assault in a supposedly secure area of eastern Kien Hoa province, a VC soldier emerged from a small haystack, armed only with an AK47 rifle, and shot down five of the flight of eight aircraft. To add insult to injury, he got away. I hope that his boss gave him a medal! In this case he was acting alone and we suffered no casualties, but had the enemy been present in force it could have been a major disaster. As it was, all five aircraft had to be hooked home by Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.
A further vulnerability of the Iroquois was only apparent in the wet season when the rice paddies were flooded. The protective ‘stinger’ on the rear, which prevented the tail rotor from striking the ground, was not effective in water and we lost a few aircraft through this cause.
The Huey was very noisy We have all heard the Bell two bladed rotor noise on the Iroquois and Jet Ranger – a very distinctive sound and audible for miles in the right atmospheric conditions. This noise was inimical to the air mobile aim of surprise and, although we adopted various tactics to minimise it, we never overcame the problem.
Finally, on vulnerability; it is my view that enemy capability in the form of heavy weapons, and particularly simple guided weapons, would have made helicopter operations as practised in Vietnam impossible or, at least, prohibitively expensive. It is for more current aviators to comment on modern helicopters, but I observe that if you can disrupt the rotating parts of even the most sophisticated helicopter, it will quickly beat itself to death.
Command and Control
The 135th Helicopter Company was part of an enormous military machine which, it is ironic to note, was not ultimately successful. We were part of the 1st Aviation Brigade which boasted 3000 aircraft and 30,000 men. I understand that this was the largest aviation brigade in history.
Our chain of command came through Group commanded by a colonel, and Battalion commanded by a lieutenant colonel. Each day’s tasking came from Battalion, but as the task was crystal clear we had remarkably little interference in the actual operations. The only problems occurred when we became engaged in a major battle, which might quickly involve 1000 troops on the ground, immediate support from artillery and a flight of AH 1H Huey Cobra Gunships and, a little later, support from the US Navy OVIO Broncos, based at Can Tho, and then, if the action continued, from a flight of USAF Phantoms. On one occasion we even received support from the 16-inch guns of USS New Jersey ; everyone gave them a very wide berth indeed!
All of this considerable force was fairly routine for Charley Charley and his embarked Ground Commander to manage until the ‘goofers’ (Navy parlance for sightseers) arrived. We would be going about our business without too many problems when suddenly we would be confronted with a near mid-air collision with another Huey or two. There were the Battalion and/or Group Commanders arriving on the scene for a share of the action. I had been warned by my predecessor of this hazard and was prepared, but it was still pretty alarming to miss another Huey by only a few yards, and the passengers in the back were not too impressed either. After a while I would impose strict height separation and things would settle down, but they always wanted to be close to the action!
As a national commander, I had a separate chain of command to the Commander Australian Forces Vietnam (COMAFV) through the Naval Liaison Officer in Saigon, an RAN commander. I only used this line once during my tour, which would seem to indicate that the command arrangements in this unique situation were remarkably successful.
We were inclined to be critical of our American comrades, but had to remind ourselves constantly that we were a tiny, albeit highly trained element in an enormous conscript army. When I arrived in the country in September 1969, there were 550,000 American troops in country and over 1,000,000 in the ARVN. The entire Australian force was about 8000.
Nevertheless, many of the age-old lessons were reinforced. Most important, of course, was that there is no substitute for thorough training and that experience is nice too! US Army Aviation had expanded so quickly that training was often sketchy, and even many of the senior officers had very little aviation experience.
Most of the US pilots were young Warrant Officers who would arrive with, typically, 100 hours total experience. Training for two vital emergencies – tail rotor failure and engine governor failure – had ceased in the rush to save time in the training program and the result was that either of these not uncommon emergencies resulted in the loss of the aircraft and sometimes loss of life. On one occasion a young Regular Army Captain was posted to the Company as our Flying Instructor, a vital position in any aviation unit, but doubly so when so many of your aviators are straight out of flying school. Inquiries revealed that our new Instructor had only 125 hours in total. This situation caused the only real argument in my time with the EMUs: I said that he did not have sufficient experience to instruct (observing that none of the Australian pilots had less than 1000 hours), but my American CO did not agree. Sadly, the new Instructor managed to kill his first student the next day and the CO was sacked for something which was really the fault of the system.
The eight Australian pilots (actually nine because two were rotated due to serious wounds) flew an extraordinary amount: over 12,000 hours in the course of the year. The Deputy Australian Commander, Air Commodore C.H. Spurgeon, sent for me and gently told me that what I was doing was dangerous, that we were flying too much. But we did not have one accident or incident involving an Australian pilot other than those directly caused by enemy action. We operated under a nominal limit of 140 hours per pilot per month, which could and did go up to 160 hours in case of necessity. Individual pilots reacted in different ways to this demanding regime, and I found that management required individual assessment rather than a blanket rule. The record speaks for itself.
Our Technical Sailors also performed heroically in arduous and primitive conditions. It was always hot and either muddy or dusty and there was only rudimentary aircraft hangarage, but we always had enough aircraft to meet our daily mission (sometimes only just). Junior Sailors found themselves supervising major maintenance and repair tasks that would have required a Senior NCO in peacetime, and our Senior NCOs provided quite outstanding leadership throughout the Maintenance Platoon. We often had aircraft forced down by enemy action, but very rarely through any maintenance inadequacies.
What did we learn from this rotten war which we probably should not have fought but, having fought at such enormous cost, should have made damn sure that we won? The answer is ‘not much’. We affirmed the professionalism of the Fleet Air Arm, as well as the ability of our people to adapt to new and unexpected challenges, and we contributed a small chapter of successful cooperation with our most important ally. But as for incorporating any of the lessons into future planning, the page is blank. I discussed this aspect with Lieutenant Commander Neil Ralph, OIC of the First Contingent RANHFV (later Rear Admiral Ralph, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff) and his response was that every time he tried to incorporate some of the lessons into planning the response from all three Australian services was that ‘they did not want to know’.
And so we are left with the propensity for ignoring the lessons of history which is not, of course, uniquely Australian. In Vietnam the Americans wilfully ignored the lessons of the French experience. When I raised this point with a senior American he replied: ‘the lessons have no relevance to us; we are better than the French’! When I read Bernard Fall’s great book, Street Without Joy, I wept at the repetition of the French folly. I have read and re-read David Halberstam’s superb analysis of the politics of the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, and I have no confidence that our political masters will ever stop making the same mistakes, discarding unpopular advice and ignoring the lessons of history.
About four weeks after arriving in Vietnam, at the end of a long day’s flying, my two young Flight Commanders, Peter Clark and Dick Marum, asked if they could have a word. Over a cold VB (Victoria Bitter) they expressed their concern ‘that the war could not be won the way it was being fought’. This was from two young officers, brilliant pilots, but with no other military background, and a conclusion I was already fretting about myself. It coincides with Halberstam’s observation that the majors and lieutenant colonels in the field knew only too well that the war was not being won, but that knowledge never made it back to the halls of power.
I would like to think that this volume will do something to preserve and examine the lessons of history, but I note that none of our political masters attended the 2005 conference. In the 1980s, Kim Beazley, then Minister for Defence, said to me ‘if I can get one or two members of Cabinet to show any interest in Defence matters I feel that I have had a victory’. I fear that the situation has not changed.
Jim Buchanan’s DFC
LEUT J. C. Buchanan, RAN Helicopter Flight-Vietnam, fourth contingent,was awarded the Distinquished Flying Cross for conspicuous gallantry. On 4 December 1970 Buchanan performed an extraordinary act of flying skill whilst operating in the U Minh Forest area. RANHFV which at this time was based at Dong Tam in the Mekong Delta region,was called to evacuate a crewman of a South Vietnamese patrol boat, when the two patrol boats were located the evacuation began. while the second boat stood off. Lt Buchanan began the extraction of the crewman. Suddenly the group came under a heavy enemy attack. the patrol boat standing 50m away took a direct hit from an enemy rocket and was blown out of the water. Realising that the boat with which he was operating was disabled and drifting towards the enemy-held shore Lt Buchanan pressed the skids of his helicopter onto the deck of the vessel and pushed the boat to safety. All the while, his aircraft was receiving heavy automatic weapons and 82mm mortar fire. For his coolness, determination and courage under fire in the face of a determined enemy, Leut Buchanan was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Setting History Straight by Errol Shelly.
I thought it about time I corrected a story about me and a trip to Veng-Tau in the motor pool truck in 1969 whilst a member of the 3rd Contingent of the R.A.N.H.F.V.
Many history books including GET THE BLOODY JOB DONE, A BLOODY JOB WELL DONE. AUSTRALIAN NAVY IN VIETNAM include the following paragraph,….“The risk to the maintenance and support personel carrying out supply runs to the Australian Army Base at Vung-Tau already well known – was highlighted in the most forceful way on 23rd December, 1969 when Leading Seaman Errol Shelley’s RAN supply truck was ambushed whilst returning to Bearcat. Engaged by mortar and small arms fire, the truck was hit and the driver wounded in the neck which resulted in him making another – this time unplanned – trip to Vung Tau. Here he found himself a patient in the 1st Australian Field Hospital and not fit for duty untill 26th January – Australia Day 1970”.
This is not entirely true….On 22nd December, Chief Petty Officer Barry Grainger received word his wife Pam had delivered their baby. Much celebrating was had into the early hours of the next morning. Someone during the night had taken up a collection, some eighty something dollars, to send flowers to Barry’s wife. Next morning Leading Seaman Peter Ruhle and myself fronted our CO to get permission for time off to go to Vung Tau to send these through Inter-Flora. The CO agreed as long as it was called a stores run.
The motor pool Sargent William A McAtire, American Army had said we would use his truck…Now no-one was allowed to drive The Motor Pool Truck except Bill. As it turned out Bill was too hungover to drive so I was elected.
We had an uneventful trip down to Vung Tau. When we went to the Inter-Flora and asked for $80.00 worth of flowers to be sent to Pam at the Nowra Hospital he said “He had sent $10.00 worth to his wife last week and they just about needed a semi to carry them”.
After that being done, it being pretty thirsty work, we decided we’d better have a couple of beers for the long trip back to Bearcat.
We were a little late leaving for home and thought we would not make it by curfew time. This turned out to be true. Dead on five oçlock an R.P.G (Rocket Propelled Grenade) landed about 20 metres to the right of the truck. Bill and Peter got down on the floor but I had to keep my head up to drive . Next thing another R.P.G. landed right behind the truck and lifted it up in the air. This is when I felt a jolt at the back of my head and saw stars, then my whole life flashed before my eyes. It must have only been a split second as I woke up and the truck was sideways heading for a ditch. I swung the steering wheel to adjust and get on the straight and narrow. Then the V.C. (Viet Cong) opened up with rifle fire.
We got to a village up the road where there was a South Vietnamese Army Patrol and one of their medics dressed my neck. Bill then took over driving the rest of the way to Bearcat, where they took me to sick-bay. Our S.B.A. John Sitki got some x-rays done, then they called a chopper to medivac me to Long-Bihn where there was an American Hospital. I was parked in a corridor where doctors were doing minor ops..One soldier had one eye on his cheek and the doctor was working….very gut wrenching.
I joined the long line and slowly made my way to the operating theatre. At this time I had a beard and they only shaved half before I went in. I woke up in the ward with my half beard. I stayed there for a week and in that time the patients got front seats to see THE BOB HOPE XMAS SHOW. Some of the boys came across from Bearcat with an esky full of VB, but I couldn’t have any because of the strong antibiotics. But it didn’t stop them drinking it in front of me.
After a week in the American Hospital, they flew me to the first Australian Army Hospital at Vung Tau. The day I arrived there the doctor asked for another x-ray to see how things were going.. Low and behold it was the same as the one taken at Bearcat. The shrapnel was still there; it seems the Americans could not find it and sewed me back up.
The doctor said they would have to open me up again, it would take a half hour. It turned out to be a two hour operation as they had trouble finding it, but they got the two pieces out. I remained in hospital for another week then had another week recouperating at the PETER BADCOE CLUB before returning back to Bearcat on light duties.
This is the true version of the story. We were not doing a stores run, but sending flowers to Barry Grainger’s wife, Pam.