O’Brian Cedric Phillips was born in Patna, India, of British and Indian heritage. He joined the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1960, became a petty officer in 1965, and served as a sonar operator in Wessex anti-submarine helicopters flying from HMAS Melbourne. In 1967 he joined the first contingent of the RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam.
This unit was created to provide more helicopter pilots to support US and Republic of Vietnam ground forces. The Australians integrated fully into the US Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company (AHC), the only such integrated US–Australian unit in the Vietnam War. Known as the EMU (Experimental Military Unit), it took the flightless bird as an ironic mascot and call sign. The motto of the company also had an Australian ring: “Get the bloody job done.”
Pilots of the 135th AHC flew US Army Iroquois “Huey” helicopters in two configurations: the gunship and the troop transport, or “slick”. Phillips flew on board a gunship as the sergeant of the gun platoon.
In December 1967, the 135th AHC moved from the increasingly crowded base at Vung Tau to the American Black Horse fire support base near Xuan Loc. As second-in-command of the working party that expanded Black Horse to fit the EMUs, Phillips showed his ingenuity; he also served as a pathfinder attached to Australian Army infantry units. He participated in enough patrols to entitle him to the Army’s Infantry Combat Badge, a unique honour among naval aviators in Vietnam.
From Black Horse base, the unit flew troop lift, combat assault, and support missions in Phuoc Tuy Province and the Mekong Delta. This included insertion and extraction of US, Australian, and Republic of Vietnam soldiers into and out of battle, with helicopters and crews often coming under heavy ground fire.
On 21 August 1968, Phillips was a door gunner in the lead helicopter of a light fire team of gunships. Flying at tree-top level from Black Horse to Nui Dat, the helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed in a clearing. Phillips and the pilot, fellow Australian Lieutenant Anthony Casadio, and the two American crew members were killed on impact.
The loss of the four men was keenly felt among the close-knit EMU contingent at Black Horse, who held a memorial service at the base. Phillips was 32 years old and was survived in Australia by his wife, Margaret. He is buried at Karrakatta Cemetery in Perth.
By Thomas Rogers
Historian, Military History Section