Wartime issue 51 feature article: The EMU: getting the bloody job done
Flying a helicopter in Vietnam was demanding and dangerous. By Elizabeth Stewart
Sub-Lieutenant Andy Perry had had a long day. After flying for eight hours in the skies above South Vietnam, the 21-year-old navy pilot from Tasmania answered a call to assist in a night mission, landing South Vietnamese soldiers in the middle of enemy territory. In his US Army Iroquois helicopter, Perry led a group of nine aircraft to the landing zone, taking heavy enemy machine-gun fire a couple of kilometres from their destination. He remembers that his aircraft received its first hit "at about 500 feet. It came in under the seat. Then, just before we hit the ground, a bullet came through the windshield and I felt blood on my face." Perry watched as "the troops jumped out from my side and they all fell over – dead – from fire from a heavy machine-gun." A piece of shrapnel bounced off the pedals, hitting him in the foot. "By this time," he says, "I was sure I was in something of a state of disrepair." Perry took part in three more landings that night and eventually nursed his damaged aircraft back to base. The nearly-new Iroquois was damaged beyond repair, and for his efforts Perry was Mentioned in Despatches, recommended for the American Silver Star, and awarded the South Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
Actions such as this were common for members of a unique Australian unit in Vietnam. The Royal Australian Navy's Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV) was formed in response to a request from the United States for more helicopter pilots in South Vietnam. Because of Australia's other Vietnam commitments, the only available pilots were from the Navy's Fleet Air Arm. In July 1967, it was announced that the RANHFV would be created and combined with the US Army's 135th Assault Helicopter Company. The first contingent, led by Lieutenant Commander Neil Ralph, consisted of eight pilots, four observers, four aircrewmen, 24 maintainers and six administrative staff. When the RANHFV was fully integrated with the 135th, the whole company comprised 70 officers, 230 men and 30 Iroquois helicopters, divided into three platoons. Because the unit was experimental in nature, it acquired the nickname EMU (Experimental Military Unit), but Lieutenant Commander Ralph remembers another reason for the name: the Americans wanted to name the company after an Australian bird, and knew only that the emu was a big bird, renowned for its speed and aggression. They were unaware that the emu was unable to fly and were disappointed when they were told, but decided to stick with the name regardless. The unit's motto was indicative of its nature: to "Get the bloody job done".
Between 1967 and June 1971, four contingents of the RANHFV served in South Vietnam, one of only two Australian units to be fully integrated into an American company (the other was the First Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, serving with the 173d Airborne Brigade in 1965–66). The intention was, in part, to see how well the armed forces from the two countries could function together and, as it eventuated, it worked remarkably well. The company's role was simple – to provide transport and support for units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the United States Army and Marine Corps, and the Australian Army – but carrying out that role was anything but straightforward. Initially based in Vung Tau (later moving to various American bases, including Black Horse and Bear Cat), EMU pilots were almost immediately involved in flying troops into operations. Within a few months, each pilot was averaging between 120 and 130 flying hours per month, the equivalent of a year's flying time back in Australia.
For the pilots, long flying days began with briefings before dawn. A daily complement of crews for the command and control helicopter, plus four Iroquois gunships and ten troop-carrying Iroquois (known as "slicks"), received their operational orders before taking to the skies. Initially flying in support of the US Army 9th Infantry Division and the 1st Australian Task Force in and around Phuoc Tuy province, the range of operations gradually broadened to cover ARVN operations in the Mekong Delta. Lieutenant Commander James Buchanan, who flew with the RANHFV in 1970–71, remembers the fatigue and confusion resulting from some missions:
I found the mayhem of hot insertions/extractions very confusing, primarily because of the stunning racket. As well as the gunners' M60s hammering away, the troops would be firing their M16s while the two or three gunships would be blazing off with mini-guns, rockets and sometimes 40-millimetre grenade launchers. The racket was devastatingly confusing.
As the number of flying hours increased, pilots and crew began to suffer chronic fatigue and stress. Commanders did their best to rest the men as often as possible, realising the consequences of having an overstretched unit.
The other invaluable component of the unit, also working extremely long hours, was the maintenance section. The men in these crews worked 24 hours a day to ensure that a full complement of aircraft was always ready to fly. Crews on day shift conducted major and routine repairs to aircraft, which were subject to constant damage from enemy fire. Night crews carried out non-routine repairs, sometimes amounting to rebuilding helicopters almost from scratch. The work was intense: on 6 January 1968, eight of the company's aircraft returning from operations had been hit by ground fire. Some were extensively damaged, and all had to be repaired and ready to fly by dawn. Petty Officer Bill Barlow, an aircraft mechanic, remembers the difficulty of working a 12-hour night shift, then trying to catch up on sleep on a busy airbase during the day. The maintenance crews' efforts were recognised: in June 1968 the Navy News reported that the Australian maintenance crews were "recognised by all similar US Army units as being the best maintenance people available, and the very high aircraft availability figures their Assault Helicopter Company has, attest ... to this fact."
The year 1968 was arguably the busiest for the men of the 135th. The company flew nearly 100,000 sorties for the year, for approximately 34,000 hours flown (a monthly average of 2,800 hours), transporting 193,000 personnel and 1,500 tons of cargo, and suffering damage to 115 aircraft from enemy action. It was also the year the RANHFV suffered its first death, and the first fatality of an Australian pilot in the war. On 22 February, Lieutenant Commander Patrick Vickers was fatally wounded while flying the lead aircraft on a mission to lift out troops of the 18th ARVN Division near Xuan Loc. As his aircraft descended to the landing zone it came under enemy fire and Vickers was hit in the head. His American co-pilot immediately evacuated Vickers to the hospital pad at Black Horse, but he died there. Patrick Vickers was posthumously Mentioned in Despatches.
It is no surprise that the RANHFV received the greatest number of casualties, and was one of the most highly decorated units, of the RAN during the war. The work was extremely dangerous: it was estimated in 1970 that EMU pilots carrying soldiers into an operation could expect to be fired at on every second mission. Some pilots were particularly unlucky. Lieutenant Richard Marum, who served with the RANHFV in 1969–70, acquired the nickname "Magnet" because of the amount of firepower he attracted. His aircraft was hit on 11 separate occasions, with one bullet piercing the windscreen and passing through his flying helmet. Other dangers came from boobytrapped landing zones, with at least one aircraft having its entire nose blown off while hovering over such a hazard. The two American pilots flying the helicopter found themselves sitting in the open with one rudder pedal between them, but were able to fly to a safe clearing and land. An unexpected danger came from the troops being carried by EMU pilots. Over time it became apparent that Viet Cong were infiltrating the ranks of the ARVN; when they landed, these soldiers would jump out, then turn back to the aircraft and open fire. They destroyed a number of aircraft and killed and wounded many personnel in this way. It became an unwritten rule among crews that if any deplaning Vietnamese soldiers turned back towards the aircraft with weapons in hand, they would immediately be fired upon.
On the whole, the integration of an Australian naval unit within the 135th Assault Helicopter Company was successful. The Australians usually held a number of senior positions within the company, with each RANHFV contingent leader appointed second-in-command. Former American company commander Major Paul Raetz commented in 1969, "It's worked out real well. The executive officer, the operations officer and platoon leader are Aussies. I feel they add a lot to the unit. It gives the Americans insight into a different country and different people." Lieutenant Commander Neil Ralph agreed with this assessment, saying in a post-tour interview that "integration ... started out well at the outset and remained that way. It remained sound because there was a lot of respect from among our American counterparts for the experience that the Australians had and their abilities in aircraft maintenance and operation."
The final contingent of the RANHFV returned to Australia on 16 June 1971, ending its four-year commitment. Its reputation as a very efficient navy unit was high, with its personnel having received eight Distinguished Service Crosses, five Distinguished Flying Crosses and numerous other Imperial awards. Many RANHFV members were eligible for American awards and were angered to find that they were banned by Australian government policy from receiving them. All members of the RANHFV were eligible for the US Air Medal and some for the American Distinguished Flying Cross, with a number of men receiving the medals informally and wearing them with pride, despite the ban. Because of the intense enemy fire to which the men were exposed, the RANHFV suffered the heaviest battle casualties of any Australian aviation unit, with five men killed in action and a large number wounded. An Australian memorial to the EMU was dedicated at Bomaderry, New South Wales, in April 2002, while the US Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, Alabama, was dedicated in May 2005 as a monument to all those of either nationality in the 135th who lost their lives between 1967 and 1971.
Elizabeth Stewart is a historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial.