Wartime issue 53 feature article: After the fall

With the war in Vietnam almost over, there was still plenty for the Royal Australian Air Force to do.

By Steven Bullard

The last Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) combat personnel left Vietnam in February 1972, but this did not signify the end of Australian air force involvement in conflicttorn south-east Asia. From March to June 1975, immediately before and after the fall of Saigon, up to ten aircraft and several hundred RAAF personnel contributed to the international effort to bring humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced by the war.

Flight crew from No. 37 Squadron tending to orphans at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon prior to the Operation Babylift flight on 17 April 1975. AWM P01973.002

Flight crew from No. 37 Squadron tending to orphans at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon prior to the Operation Babylift flight on 17 April 1975. AWM P01973.002

The Paris Peace Accord, which was intended to bring an end to war in Vietnam, was signed on 27 January 1973. By that time, the only Australian military presence in the country was a single platoon that would remain in Saigon until June, guarding the Australian embassy. Neither the North nor the South, however, honoured the terms of the accord, and in March 1975 North Vietnamese forces began a concerted push south. Early victories by communist forces led to a widespread loss of morale among the troops of the ARVN, the South Vietnamese army. The speed of the advance took all parties by surprise, and on 30 April, with Saigon occupied, the remnants of the South Vietnamese government unconditionally surrendered.

In late March, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) made a call for international assistance to provide relief to hundreds of thousands of civilians who had been displaced during the fighting. The Australian government responded by providing several substantial donations to the UNHCR, ultimately contributing about $3.4 million to United Nations organisations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for humanitarian assistance in the region.

As a more practical measure, the government also provided direct assistance to South Vietnam in the form of a detachment of C-130 Hercules aircraft for humanitarian tasks. Detachment S, as it was known, was led by the commanding officer of No. 36 Squadron, Wing Commander John Mitchell, and comprised on average seven aircraft and about 100 air and ground crew based in Saigon. The overall mission, which included Bristol Freighters and later Hercules from the Royal New Zealand Air Force, was coordinated by USAID, which had undertaken a substantial "hearts and minds" aid program in the country during the war; the mission was directed by the South Vietnamese Ministry of Social Welfare.

The initial plan was to use the Australian Hercules to evacuate civilian refugees from Da Nang, but the city fell to communist forces before the detachment could be mobilised. The focus then shifted to the next major centre in the path of the advancing North Vietnamese troops. Australian aircraft flew their first mission on 2 April, evacuating more than 1,100 refugees from Phan Rang airfield to Can Tho, south of Saigon.

Flight Lieutenant Brian Young from No. 36 Squadron piloted his Hercules that day with more than 100 refugees crammed onto the seatless flight deck for each trip of about 150 kilometres. When a rocket landed some 400 metres from the airfield, another Australian aircraft was mobbed by the anxious crowd, causing one of the soldiers to fire several warning shots into the air. Unfortunately, he fired them into the tail of the aircraft.

Cramped conditions inside a Hercules from Detachment S, transporting Vietnamese refugees from Phan Rang airfield fleeing from advancing North Vietnamese forces. AWM 05608.005

Cramped conditions inside a Hercules from Detachment S, transporting Vietnamese refugees from Phan Rang airfield fleeing from advancing North Vietnamese forces. AWM 05608.005

A number of South Vietnamese soldiers fleeing the fighting apparently made their way onto the Australian aircraft during this airlift. This led the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, to direct that only humanitarian supplies be carried on subsequent flights. The majority of these flights took food, fuel, canvas for tents and other relief supplies from Saigon to An Thoi, on the southern island of Phu Quoc, to assist more than 40,000 refugees who had earlier fled North Vietnamese forces by sea.

The members of Detachment S were accommodated in the Embassy Hotel, just along the street from the Presidential Palace in Saigon. Mitchell and a small staff also established an office in the Australian embassy in the nearby Caravelle Hotel. On 8 April, as members of the detachment were eating breakfast in the hotel dining room, several 500-pound bombs were dropped on the nearby palace by a defecting South Vietnamese pilot. The blast smashed windows and glass doors in the dining room, covering the room with broken glass, without causing serious injury.

After security conditions in the capital deteriorated, the detachment was moved to Don Muang airport in Bangkok, with personnel staying at the Sheraton Hotel.

Aircraft would fly into Saigon's Tan Son Nhut airfield each day for taskings within the country, before returning to Thailand in the evening. Airport loading facilities in Bangkok were rudimentary. It was not unusual for an aircraft to take many hours to load by hand, as only a limited amount of mechanical loading equipment was available.

With North Vietnamese forces drawing closer to Saigon, the last three Hercules flights on 25 April evacuated the Australian ambassador, embassy staff, several journalists and a limited number of Vietnamese refugees. Four Australian airfield defence guards were the last to leave. The earlier aircraft were packed with luggage from the embassy, obliging the guards to wait for a reserve aircraft, which had been circling off the coast for such a contingency.

Aircraft of Detachment S accumulated a total of 465 hours of flying time during the mission. Apart from evacuating more than 1,100 refugees to safety, the detachment transported more than 900 tonnes of essential relief and medical supplies from Bangkok to Saigon, and from Saigon to refugees at An Thoi. Apart from minor problems, all aircraft remained serviceable during the mission and returned to Australia from 20 to 28 April.

Earlier, on 2 April, the Australian government announced a plan to transport from Saigon to Australia some 200 orphans, in line with the US government's announcement of Operation Babylift, which would evacuate some 2,000 orphans and children of American servicemen. The first Australian flights on 4 April were hastily arranged: four Australian aero-medical evacuation teams, each consisting of a nurse and a medical officer, were rushed from Butterworth air force base in Malaysia to accompany 194 children on two Hercules from Detachment S. As with many who fly on a Hercules, the young passengers had to sit on the floor of the flight deck. Infants were strapped to medevac litters, as many as five to a litter, and given bottles of water to suck to help them cope with changing air pressures during the flight. The Hercules flew the infants to Bangkok, where they were transferred onto a chartered Qantas aircraft with three doctors and 20 nurses for the flight to Sydney.

As the aircraft were waiting to leave Saigon, disaster struck a US C-5A Galaxy aircraft that had on board the first load of 243 Vietnamese children. A faulty cargo door damaged control lines in the rear of the aircraft soon after takeoff. As the pilots attempted to return to the airfield, the plane crashed short of the runway, killing some 200 of the children and crew. Two Australian volunteers on board, Margaret Moses and Lee Makk from Adelaide, also died in the crash.

A further planned evacuation of orphans on 7 April was cancelled after the South Vietnamese government temporarily banned such flights. Although the Australian government limited the evacuation of orphans to cases that met strict criteria, the operation faced strong criticism. The North Vietnamese government accused the Australians of taking part not in humanitarian operations, but in "an American plot". Nevertheless, two Hercules aircraft made a final evacuation of 77 orphans on 17 April, although sadly an eight-monthold boy died during the flight.

The humanitarian aid offered by Detachment S assisted Australia's ally in the Vietnam War, namely South Vietnam. Neighbouring countries, however, were also facing humanitarian crises – Australia offered assistance. In early March, the RAAF participated in one such mission when a Dakota aircraft from the transport flight in Butterworth assisted for a week and relocated more than 500 refugees from Vientiane to the Plain of Jars in Laos.

With the imminent fall of Saigon, Australia's Whitlam government, which was critical of Australia's previous role in the war, wished to provide humanitarian assistance to all sides of the previous conflict in south-east Asia while remaining sensitive to public opinion and without offending anticommunist countries of the region. To this end, the Australians offered the United Nations the use of two Hercules aircraft to transport humanitarian supplies into and within southeast Asia, under the auspices of the UN.

The offer was accepted by the UN on 22 April, and approved by the Australian government the following day. Headquarters Operational Command N, or Detachment N, was formed from two Hercules in No. 37 Squadron, and led by the commanding officer of the unit, Wing Commander Stewart Mitchell. The detachment was assigned to the UN coordinator of relief assistance for Indo-China, Sir Robert Jackson, a former Australian soldier and now a senior official with experience in UN development and relief programs.

To ensure the neutrality of the mission, all national and military markings were removed from the two Hercules. The UN initially requested that the aircraft be painted in UN colours, a job that would take about three weeks; in the end, the RAAF roundels were covered with decals depicting UN symbols, and the aircraft were renamed UN177 and UN181. The crew wore UN armbands over their standard service dress, although there had been some discussion of requests that RAAF personnel wear civilian uniforms or UN peacekeeping uniforms while piloting the aircraft. The detachment left Australia on 29 and 30 April, with three aircrew, two ground crews, an air movement officer, a supply officer, an administration officer, and six airfield defence guards. Several other crews rotated through the detachment, which initially was to operate until 20 May.

The first flight on 3 May, carrying a load of canned milk from Bangkok to Vientiane in Laos, was the start of a deployment in which the two aircraft amassed 207 flying hours in 91 sorties. These flights transported about 450 tonnes of relief and medical supplies, tents and blankets from Bangkok to Vientiane, as well as a variety of cargoes between Butterworth, Singapore and Hong Kong. The mission was extended beyond 20 May, but only until early June, when the aircraft returned to Australia and embassy staff from Vientiane were also evacuated.

Most of the supplies delivered into Laos by Detachment N were forwarded to Hanoi on aircraft chartered by the UN. Whitlam's stated policy was to provide humanitarian assistance to all sides of the conflict, so the government may have wanted the RAAF aircraft to deliver relief supplies directly to the North Vietnamese capital. The government in Hanoi, however, maintained a strict policy of prohibiting the arrival of military aircraft and personnel, even under the auspices of the UN.

The Whitlam government was criticised in some quarters for the small number of refugees it allowed into Australia in the period leading up to and immediately after the fall of Saigon. The UN estimated that by early June, more than 140,000 South Vietnamese had fled the country, but by the end of September only a little over 1,100 had been accepted into Australia. Nevertheless, from March to June 1975, RAAF personnel had played their part in providing tangible assistance to alleviate the suffering of thousands who remained in the region.

Dr Steven Bullard is a Senior Historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial.