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Royal Australian Air Force in South-East Asia

In August 1955, No. 2 Airfield Construction Squadron deployed to Butterworth to rehabilitate the airfield prior to the arrival of Canberra bombers from No. 2 Squadron in June 1958. Sabres jet fighters from Nos 3 Squadron arrived at RMAF Base Butterworth in October 1958 followed by more of these aircraft from No. 77 Squadron in February 1959.

There were moments of tension in the South-East Asian region between January 1963 and, in August 1966, the Indonesian policy of 'confrontation' against the nascent Malaysian nation involved the RAAF. Units were placed at readiness at Butterworth to meet possible enemy incursions and Sabre fighters from Nos 3 and 77 Squadrons flew border patrols over Borneo from the airfield at Labuan. The RAAF also committed a single squadron of Sabres (No. 79 Squadron) to meet South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) commitments to the air defence of Thailand from June 1962 until July 1968.

Royal Australian Air Force units were also an important element in the Australian military commitment to the Vietnam War. The initial involvement was the Caribou aircraft of RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam (renamed No. 35 Squadron on 1 June 1966) that arrived at Vung Tau on 8 August 1964. The unit operated 'in country' until 26 February 1972. 'Wallaby Airlines', as the unit was affectionately called, operated a variety of missions ranging from daily freight runs to Saigon to the support (sometimes under enemy fire) of special forces units. Three Caribous were destroyed (one by enemy mortar fire at That Son on 29 March 1970) and another two had to be returned to Australia for major repairs.

Protecting the aircraft from the sky. Photo by Graham DrinkwaterThe second RAAF unit to deploy was No. 9 Squadron, which arrived at Vung Tau with Iroquois helicopters during May 1966. Operations undertaken by No. 9 Squadron included troop insertions and extractions, 'dust off' of wounded soldiers, reconnaissance, fire support missions and aerial spraying. In 1968, Squadron Leader Brian Dirou and armament personnel modified their aircraft to carry a forward-mounted 7.62 mini-gun, a rocket launcher and two M60 door-mounted machine guns. In December 1971 No. 9 Squadron severed its connection with Vung Tau and returned to RAAF Base Amberley. During the course of their involvement in the Vietnam War, No. 9 Squadron suffered six fatalities and lost six helicopters.

The final operational squadron to deploy to Vietnam was No. 2 Squadron. The squadron flew Canberra bombers out of Phan Rang Air Base from April 1967 until June 1971. During its service with the United States Air Force's 35th Tactical Fighter Wing, the squadron accounted for 16% of the wing's assessed bomb damage. Missions were radar directed (Skyspot) and low-level visual bombing; the latter proved to be most effective. However, there was a price.

Canberra A84-231 and crew (Flying Officer M.P.J. Herbert and Pilot Officer R.C. Carver) went missing on 3 November 1970 while flying a Skyspot mission. Wing Commander F.J.L. Downing and Flight Lieutenant A.J. Pinches were shot down by a surface-to-air missile on 14 March 1971. Both were rescued.

Logistic support and medical evacuations were supplied by Hercules from Richmond, NSW. Air Defence Guards secured RAAF facilities at Vung Tau and Phan Rang that had been developed by detachments from No. 5 Airfield Construction Squadron between 1966-68.

Other RAAF personnel in Vietnam flew as forward air controllers within the US Tactical Air Control System. Working with all the allied air forces, their role was to call in and control artillery and air strikes against enemy ground forces, and to carry out visual reconnaissance. While flying these dangerous missions, the 36 RAAF pilots in this role won, among other awards, 15 Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Distinguished Service Orders. RAAF pilots served in the US Air Force in other roles too. Between 1965 and 1971, six officers flew F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber and reconnaissance aircraft, and all received British or US awards.

Overall, RAAF personnel earned 333 bravery awards during the Vietnam War. Two are of special note. Sergeant Gordon Buttriss was awarded a George Medal on 18 October 1966 and Corporal J.D. Coughlan a Conspicuous Gallantry Medal on 3 October 1967, both for life-saving bravery extracting crewmen from crashed helicopters.

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