In Their Own Words

Note:  from our President John Carroll

A few personal contributions from our members - and others - which may be of varying degrees of interest to the membership.  I have noted those whom I know are no longer with us in red.(RIP)  Maybe this interesting epistle of sorts, will bring back memories - both good and bad - for some.  Some contributions are quite detailed, as I have noted at the start, and some are quite short, but, in a way, very poignant.

This chapter attempts to convey a sense of immediacy and of direct involvement of the participants and the cathexis with which such close contact leaves them. Some of their observations are quite detailed, and most are very critical of the harsh conditions under which they served. But despite the conditions, protests against the Vietnam War and the often-militant attitude of dockyard and maritime unions, members of the RAN worked to a very high standard. They need to be properly acknowledged, without reservation, for the role they played in supplying and transporting the land based forces in the field.

L W ‘Bill’ Eggins

‘A young man’s memories of his first few years in the RAN began in 1963, after a wealth of work experiences in a very short space of time. Born and bred a sugar cane farmer, working on old farm equipment in the cane fields of northern New South Wales, then at 19, on to the steel works at Port Kembla at the blast furnaces making molten steel. Little did I know then how both these occupations would prepare me for the hell of engine and boiler rooms of the RAN’s fleet of obsolescent ships, first one HMAS Anzac, training ship of the fleet, plugged up guns, and held together only by the sheer guts and determination of her crew.

‘Next there was HMAS Sydney, just out of ‘mothballs’, and being made ready for life as a troop carrier. Little did we guess what fate had in store for her and us. Although, I only did the workup and her first deployment to Borneo in May 1964, I left her in February 1965 for HMAS Parramatta and the Far East for nine months, cut short on compassionate grounds, bugger.

‘But I have digressed. We are interested in conditions as they were at the time. What can I say, I don’t have to worry about going to hell, as I’ve already been there, living conditions in Sydney were appalling - hot, closed in, and sleeping in stifling hammocks - the stokers’ mess was above the engine and boiler rooms, and adjacent to the main galley, the two hottest and most humid places in the ship. We not only worked in hell, but slept there as well.

‘The engine and boiler rooms were indescribable; all metal parts, hand rails, ladders, and every bit of machinery could only be handled with leather gloves, if and when you could get them; the alternative was to wrap your hands in ‘rags old’. Four hours on watch and eight hours off, under normal steaming conditions, but in dangerous or restricted waters you were also closed up at defence watches, which were usually in hot and confined spaces as well.

‘Life was one endless round of watches, punctuated with very short breaks of comparative sanity, no wonder we went berserk when we finally got to a port for a short break. Even then, we had to ‘turn to’ and attend to the never-ending maintenance and repairs that needed to be completed before we could head back out to sea and do it all over again. Fresh water was always at a premium, we had to distil all our potable water with antique evaporators once we were away from port, and these were more temperamental than any woman I’ve ever known. This was where my experience with farm machinery was useful.

‘Temperatures of 100-140 deg. Fahrenheit were common. You could not exist without the forced draft fans bringing in air from the upper deck, which was not always cool either. As the boilers were open front, the whole boiler room was under pressure to force the sprayer flames into the furnace. If by chance this pressure was lost, the flame would come out into the boiler room with catastrophic results. This could only happen if both airlock doors were opened together, which was known to happen from time to time. In short, the working and living conditions would not be tolerated today, but back in those days we knew no better.

‘Two of my voyages to Vietnam were in HMAS Duchess as escort to Sydney, which was almost in the same condition as the troop transport.  Both ships were ex Royal Navy, built primarily for service in the north Atlantic. Heaters aplenty, but not needed in the tropics, where we spent 80 percent of our sea-time; conditions were not much better in Duchess, but we made the most of what we had. Letting off steam when we went ashore, to make life just a little more bearable; always counting the months, weeks, and finally the days until we sailed into the most beautiful harbour in the world – Sydney.

‘This was straight from the heart, and vividly remembered with clarity to this day, as I’m sure you do as well. Some things will never be forgotten, along with the people we served with.’[i]

Barry Howard

‘I served in HMAS Sydney for the first two voyages to South Vietnam in1965, as an Ordinary Seaman, spending most of my time as flight deck party under the watchful eye of POQMG ‘Mad Dog’ Mills. The conditions in Sydney were terrible - overcrowded and bloody hot and humid, I used to cart my hammock all over the ship looking for a cool place to sleep - sometimes I slept underneath the vehicles secured on the flight deck, only to get a wet arse when we got closer to Vietnam. Unloading at Cap St Jacques was full on - 24 hours around the clock for three days in very humid conditions. During daylight hours, I found it fascinating to watch and hear all the aircraft and ‘choppers’ around us, also the continuous explosions ashore; night time was full of flares and tracer.’[ii]

Bob Grandin

‘In mid-1965 our crew was a part of the support mission for HMAS Sydney as it transported 1RAR to Vietnam. We flew to Lae in Papua New Guinea and operated from here, fully armed with live torpedoes, as we escorted the convoy through the straits to the south of the Philippines. During this experience, our electronic counter measures operator intercepted a signal that could have been the attack radar frequency of an enemy submarine. Everyone went to battle stations, the ships started weaving through the water, troops were stood on alert, and we searched down the line of the signal. Everyone was chattering away about what could happen next. Were we about to start the third world war? Intelligence had indicated that that the Russian fleet had submarines that may have been in the area. After several hours of tension had elapsed everything settled back down. It turned out that one of the squadron aircraft that was positioning to the Philippines to take over from us had tested its attack radar with a couple of sweeps.’[iii]

Stan Oversby

‘I can’t remember feeling in danger during the voyages to and from Vietnam in either Sydney or Jeparit. The main ‘danger’ came from when my wife went to the local MP and then had a question asked in Parliament about the mail service - or rather the lack of it - for Sydney and her escorts. This caused me to be hauled up and told to keep my wife under control - they didn’t know my wife! However, I distinctly recall my inner feelings of apprehension when conducting night patrols in the ship’s motor cutter, dropping one pound scare charges around Sydney and her escorts while at anchor in Vung Tau.

‘As far as living conditions - we all know they were terrible, very hot in the mess-decks and thousands of rampaging cockroaches. It was not uncommon to suffer cockroach bites during the night. My feelings at the time were that it was what it was and put up with it. Going to the Jeparit with a one-man air conditioned cabin was totally acceptable.’[iv]

Bob Breen

‘Like many improvised troop ships before her, HMAS Sydney could only provide cramped and uncomfortable living conditions for its passengers. However, morale among the soldiers was high and the cooperation with the sailors was good. Chaplain Gerry Cudmore reported that the purpose of the journey had a good steadying influence on everyone. He was a robust young Catholic priest from Melbourne who became very popular among the soldiers of the 1 RAR group. His aim was to provide the men with every opportunity for spiritual reflection and understand the evils of communism. During the voyage, he presented 50 hours of instruction on the subjects of the necessity of character and character development, and the philosophy and history of communism. Religious services conducted daily were well attended. Gerry Cudmore had done a good job of putting the fear of God and the fear of communism into the soldiers aboard HMAS Sydney.[v] 

John Ingram

‘Of the eight ships of the RAN and RN in which I served in my naval career two, namely Anzac and Sydney, etched special memories for various reasons. Both had aged prematurely, had been superseded by technology, and were distinctly uncomfortable vessels in which to live and work, for neither was air conditioned, or stabilised, contained masses of asbestos and other carcinogenic materials, and their turbines were driven by steam from boilers fired by heavy black sulphurous oil.

Sydney was not well prepared for potentially ‘warlike’ operations. Her ship’s company invariably contained a large percentile of Part 3 Ordinary seamen trainees and midshipmen, both experiencing ‘sea-time’ for the very first time. Sydney had a very pronounced training role. In addition, she was a common repository for reservists undertaking 13-28 days of Annual Continuous Training (ACT). Sydney’s Nuclear, Biological, Chemical & Damage Control (NBCD) and life-saving equipment was antiquated. In my time as Supply Officer (Naval Stores), I had ongoing issues with out-of-date or shortfalls in numbers of inflatable life rafts. Garden Island Dockyard (GID) was always late in repairing or validating 10/20-man life rafts. In addition, the stowages were badly corroded, and in the event of an emergency, doubt existed as to how many would actually operate as designed.

‘All Army vehicles were near fully fuelled upon embarkation. In the tropics the fuel would expand, resulting in spillage. Hence the clanging of the fire bells, the mustering of fire and emergency parties, and ‘no smoking throughout the ship’ warnings from the bridge. Such events were a daily occurrence and constituted an ever present and dire threat.

‘As Secretary to Sydney’s then Commanding Officer, Captain E J Peel DSC RAN, I was cleared to process the highest levels of communications and correspondence. As such, I was fully aware of the operational status and threats involving HMA ships and Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel involved in the theatre, including passages to and from Vung Tau, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

‘The first few voyages were especially difficult from a ship’s habitability aspect, in that the command arguably overplayed the situation. One objection I voiced at the time was the rigging of canvas screens over major exits to maintain darkness. On this particular occasion this began on departure from Manus Island. The result was the ship became a pressure cooker at night as fresh air flow trickled to nought with all hatches and doors locked down. 

‘My first few times (voyages 2,3 & 4) anchored off Vung Tau, we were there for three days and nights unloading and loading, and all the while being in a very high state of awareness, especially at night at slack water. Delays were caused by the inability of the American contractor to supply and position barges alongside, which caused a lot of angst. I recall the loss of a very large and heavy front-end loader and its subsequent salvage. In the first of the 1966 voyages, I counted 56 merchant ships at anchor in Vung Tau, waiting their turn to enter the river. One had been mined and was resting on the seabed with only its kingposts and crow’s nest visible.

‘I was one of several officers assigned on a four-hourly watch basis to the ship’s 32-foot motor cutter to tow the primitive anti- swimmer device around the ship at about 2 to 3 knots (if achievable) night and day. We were equipped with a vintage Thompson sub machine gun, a brace of ammunition, and a box of one pound anti-personnel scare charges. Those of us in the cutter knew that if we snagged a mine or its cabling, we were on a suicide mission, as there was no escape. The primary purpose of our mission was to pose a visual threat by day to a ‘swimmer’ intent on floating or activating a mine. At night, our role was to patrol the ship and report and/or destroy any untoward persons or objects. The methodology was crude by any stretch of the imagination. The corpses of bloated pigs were an occasional concern, especially when initially detected by torchlight in the gloom of muddied tidal waters.

‘Thanks to the transistor radio - most of us in Sydney owned at least one of these small portable radios - it was our contact with the outside world. At night at sea one could get short wave reception from nearby countries. Even Radio Australia was possible at times - weather permitting - and if one was located in a gun sponson or boat space with a clear view of the heavens, for the metal of the hull seriously affected reception of radio waves. I well recall Sydney closing the SVN coast one evening, and along with other messmates, cooling off on the quarterdeck after dinner. Our attention was caught by ‘Hanoi Hannah’s’ ranting on a North Vietnamese radio station proclaiming, ‘Sydney would be sunk for we Australian sailors were nothing but lackeys of American Imperialism’. Rather cleverly, her nightly rants were broadcast on a frequency immediately adjoining that of Radio America. Clearly the enemy was well aware of our presence off or in South Vietnamese waters. I doubt any of us took her seriously, but rather she focussed our attention on the need to perform as professionals in a genuine threat area of operations.

‘I did learn from the US Marine Corps (USMC) that the greatest danger to Sydney lay in the floating mine which was made by the Viet Cong (VC) using unexploded US ordnance, typically the 500-pound steel bomb. The bomb would be placed inside a 44-gallon drum and the lid re-sealed. Two long ropes would then be attached to the drum with fishing net floats keeping the ropes afloat. At night, the VC would set this device adrift in the lanes where allied merchant ships rode at anchor. The ropes would snare the anchor cable, drawing the drum to a ship’s side, whereupon the contact with metal would activate the detonator. Alternatively, the detonator could be activated by time fuse or wireless. Such devices were devastatingly effective. Hence, shipping companies quickly learned to utilise their most decrepit ships when servicing Saigon.

‘At anchor at night with working lights on her upper deck, Sydney - in 1966 and 1967 - was exposed and vulnerable not only to mines but especially to mortar attacks. We were aware of potential rocket and larger calibre gunfire, but mortars were the most feared, as they could be lobbed into the hangar decks, causing fatal damage to the ship. Initially we tried to keep both lifts in the upper position whenever possible, but such action curtailed air flow and delayed the unloading process. In the end, we simply accepted reality. In later years, the danger was considered too real, hence the decision to exit the exposed harbour before nightfall.

Sydney’s tanks were vast and corroded; they had not been properly cleansed and preserved when she was placed in the Reserve Fleet in 1957. When reactivated six years later for Borneo operations, time had precluded proper restoration, her fuel tanks contained heavy black FFO predominately, but she also required significant quantities of distillate and aviation fuels for the Wessex helicopters.  Over time the tanks accumulated rust, sludge and contaminants, and their periodic removal, tank cleaning and repainting was known to be one of the most difficult and dangerous tasks imaginable.

‘While at anchor off Vung Tau we could see multi-engine aircraft fly low over the delta country, especially early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the prevailing winds were passive. Our understanding then was the Americans were spraying DDT to control mosquito infestations. We had absolutely no idea the chemicals were defoliants designed specifically to kill vegetation and in theory deny the enemy protective habitat.

‘Before Sydney’s arrival in Hong Kong I had complained to the deputy MEO and the MEO about the quality of the ship’s potable water following complaints from various members of the supply department, especially the ship’s cooks and the victualling officer, Lt. Bill Green. The water had a distinctly unpleasant chemical odour, not unlike kerosene. I recall jokingly accusing Lt. Cdr (E) Jack George of ‘treating’ the water to discourage us from using it in food preparation, to wash clothes, even shower in, for the soap would not lather properly. Jack saw my point and assured me no kerosene had been added to the tanks. Many years later we were to learn what we were experiencing was not kerosene in our potable water, but the dreaded Agent Orange, which had been sucked in and passed unhindered through the ship’s evaporators and condensers, and was now quietly accumulating in and contaminating the fresh water storage tanks. Little did we know the fresh water made at sea from uncontaminated (blue) sea water was being used exclusively for the ship’s boilers, while the fresh water made from the heavily contaminated estuarine (brown) waters of the Saigon River delta was declared unsuitable for boiler ‘feed water’, but fit for human use! [vi]

Bob Buick

‘We surely must have been a pain in the arse to the matelots; always getting in the way when they moved about the ship on their daily tasks. It took us a couple of days of wandering about to find our way from one part of the ship to another. Large naval ships are like ants’ nests, a maze of passageways criss-crossing the length and breadth of the vessel.

‘A lesson we quickly learnt was to get out of the way when the ‘man overboard’ drill was practiced. To avoid being knocked down by the scrambling Zodiac crew, everyone hugged the wall (bulkhead), as they raced to launch the ‘rubber duckie’. A naval diver stationed permanently at the stern was always ready to leap over the side to rescue any dickhead digger who either fell or jumped off this ‘steel city’ moving through the water at about 19 knots.

Sydney always had an escort, usually a frigate or a destroyer. Our escort from Viet Nam to Darwin was HMAS Stuart. This class of ship had a twin 4.5-inch dual purpose gun turret forward, and I suppose they could be called the ‘whippet of the oceans’. The escort was always moving around Sydney. I would watch Stuart move off to a flank to a distance of several thousand yards, then come back in closer, and then move ahead or astern of Sydney as we steamed along. It was as if we aboard were a mob of sheep and Stuart was a lone sheep dog guarding and keeping us safe. As we approached Singapore HMAS Duchess, a Daring class destroyer - ‘the greyhound of the oceans’- joined us for the return voyage to Australia.

‘Every few days there was Replenishment at Sea (RAS) for the escorts. It seems that naval vessels need to be ready at all times to do other tasks such as search and rescue. To enable maximum time and distance for likely tasks, ships like our escorts must maintain a minimum fuel level. This required them to be bunkered - refuelled - from Sydney. I would watch, admiring the skills of all those who had the job of driving these ships, at speed and manoeuvring in such close proximity. It was probably easy for the sailors who do these things as a matter of routine, but I was in awe.

‘The journey home was about two weeks and it allowed all of us to really unwind. I was happy not to have flown home on the Qantas ‘Freedom Bird’ as most non-infantry blokes did. We went away as a battalion and it was good to come home the same way.’[vii]

Frank Simmonds

‘A few days after sailing from Sydney on 8 April 1967 on voyage five to Vietnam, Furnace Fuel Oil (FFO) heavily contaminated with sea water was detected coming from a main fuel tank forward. This was a serious problem; Sydney was already starting to use excessive amounts of fuel due to the growth of weed on the hull, caused by the long period since the last dry-docking. The ship had been unable to enter dry-dock due to ongoing industrial action at Garden Island; as a consequence Sydney’s refit program had been reduced considerably.

‘The ballast tank forward of the affected fuel tank was pumped out, and a large split was located low down in the main transverse bulkhead separating the two tanks. Entry to the compartment was through a very limited entry hatch, so any materials used to effect temporary repairs had to be small. A patchwork of marine plywood was firmly secured to the bulkhead by vertical shoring held in place by steel brackets bolted onto the ship’s structural cross members. The work had to be done quickly, as it was not known for certain how long the bulkhead would hold without temporary repairs and sealing. Sydney’s small team of shipwrights completed the job in 14 hours, working in extremely hot, nauseating and physically draining conditions.

‘Up to mid-1967, HMAS Sydney had completed six or seven voyages to Vietnam and was way behind schedule for an engine and boiler overhaul and a general refit. An RAN warship usually does an annual refit, and Sydney being an all riveted ship was way overdue for major works - thousands of rivets in her hull needed replacement. The ship was also to be fitted with six landing craft and three new cranes to speed up troop and cargo changeover times.

‘To the surprise of all in the ship, it was decided to do the refit at Cockatoo Island Dockyard instead of Garden Island. In late June Sydney was ‘cold moved’ to Cockatoo Island. On the day of the move all non-essential crew were sent on early leave - not shipwrights. Half an hour before time to move, one section of dockyard workers went on strike, postponing dry- docking by one day. This happened seven more times before we made it into dry-dock. It seemed that on any flimsy excuse the dockyard workers went on strike, delaying everything they could.

‘About this time, many people in Australia were becoming very disenchanted with the Vietnam War and protests were being held all around Australia. HMAS Sydney was targeted in particular because of her role in the war, and the Communist influence was very strong in maritime and dockyard unions. 

‘For the crew retained on board, life was more difficult than normal refits, being on an island. If we wished to go ashore we had to go by 6:00pm to catch ferries to Circular Quay, after this time they were few and far between until midnight, none until 6:30am. Our living conditions were also very difficult during the refit period, all galleys were shut down except one, and messdecks were being worked on. We had to clean around the work being done then sleep in the area. Bathrooms were very limited and congestion resulted at knock-off time. As if to add insult to injury, there were no ‘heads’ on board. ‘Murphy’s Law’ came into play usually about 1:00am, freezing cold or pouring rain we were still required to be fully dressed and cross to the dockyard toilets which were well away from the ship.

‘As the refit drew to a close we became aware of many jobs which would not be completed, and that there would not be any extensions of time for the refit. This concerned us as we were scheduled to leave for Vietnam before Christmas. We left Cockatoo and had another ‘cold move’ to Garden Island to take on the six-landing craft. These were to be lifted into the new davits and secured into position by chains. No eye plates had been fitted to the hull during the time in dockyard hands, so Sydney’s shipwrights turned to in deteriorating weather to weld eye plates to the hull and secure the landing craft for sea. The same day we found that many bathrooms and heads throughout the ship, which were supposed to have been retiled, had not been finished and were unusable. We had to complete this work in a hurry. In 12 years with the RAN and 14 years’ merchant service, this would be the worst refit I ever experienced. We eventually completed all the outstanding work - which was supposed to have been done by dockyard - this meant we were able to leave for Vietnam on 11 December, as programmed.’[viii] 

Peter Blenkinsopp

‘Yes, I was onboard Sydney for the CODOCK refit, although Jackie and the family were living in Sydney at the time where I became a reluctant train commuter from Caringbah to Circular Quay other than on duty nights. The ferry trip was always interesting, but the ‘dockies’ having spent the time waiting for the ferry at the ‘early openers’, were not the best of company and totally ignored the sailors onboard the boat. This attitude did not alter throughout our time in dock. Sydney was reduced to minimum manning at the time and duty watches in the silent echoing ship were quite eerie experiences. Naval working parties came and went as self-contained parties with no commitment to the ship, while boxed lunches were the only meals available to the few naval personnel on board, most waited until they got ashore to have a proper meal.

‘In spite of my earlier remarks about the dockyard workforce, my attitude towards them moderated somewhat during the time I was directly exposed to their quiet and unassuming professionalism, as they cut off gun sponsons, installed landing craft hoisting gear and erected three new cranes on the flight deck; although the one placed just forward of the bridge became the bane of my existence as a bridge watch-keeper during the rest of my time in Sydney. As parting comment, the sounds of one’s own footsteps on the steel decks of the silent empty ship when the day workers had departed would have tested the stoicism of your average sailor - like me!’ [ix] 

Tony Ey 

‘While serving as a unit of the Far East Strategic Reserve based in Singapore, HMAS Yarra was ordered south to rendezvous with HMAS Sydney north bound for Vietnam, laden with men from 3RAR with their stores and equipment. Yarra was to escort the troop transport on the remaining legs of the voyage and into the port of Vung Tau. We decided to give the soldiers something to tell their grandchildren about, so while the Vung Tau Ferry (Sydney) was still approaching us on a reciprocal course from over the horizon, we loaded the triple barrel anti-submarine mortar with food and vegetable scraps and whatever other colourful concoctions we could find. As we came abeam of Sydney our skipper increased revolutions, accelerating, and turning in towards the carrier. All the diggers were on the flight deck waving and cheering as Yarra quickly closed the gap from astern on a parallel course which would take us to within 25 to 30 metres of Sydney. What we hadn’t suspected was that they were prepared for us. As Yarra’s bow drew amidships the diggers let fly with eggs and various toiletry items. We added more revolutions and as we began a gentle turn away let loose with all three barrels.  For those hundreds of soldiers laughing on Sydney’s flight deck their day quickly changed from brilliant sunshine to an, albeit short, very overcast day.

‘Things settled down to a more serious note as we neared the coast of South Vietnam. Due to the threat of swimmer attack, the time spent at anchor in the port of Vung Tau was kept to the absolute minimum. Even though CDT3 was now operating there permanently, all ships’ captains were very nervous about the safety of their multi-million dollar charges. It was the only time I remember the ship closed up at maximum readiness while still at anchor. Both propellers were kept turning slow astern as a deterrent to underwater attack, armed sailors patrolled the upper deck and of course the ship’s diving team was on full standby. I spent my time in the ship’s seaboat making large sweeps around Yarra. Trailing astern of the boat was a towed anti-swimmer device consisting of wire traces and large shark hooks. My job was to toss one pound scare charges overboard at regular intervals to deter any would be swimmer sapper. All in all, Vung Tau anchorage was probably not the best place to take a relaxing afternoon swim. My responsibilities to Yarra’s swimmer defence kept me from any chance I might have had of saying hello to my fellow CDs in Team Three, who were assisting in the defence of Sydney. Little did I know then that I would be returning to South Vietnam as part of CDT3 some two and a half years later.

‘The minute the unloading and back loading was completed, the two ships weighed anchor and were speeding seaward. Once clear of the coast, Sydney turned south for home and we headed north for another welcome visit to Hong Kong.  As we steamed north along the coast of Vietnam, the crew were kept fully closed up at defence stations. Sitting in my Ikara loading station, I couldn’t help but wonder, if we came under attack by the North Vietnamese, what good was my torpedo carrying missile going to be?’ [x] 

John Foster

‘I do remember it was unwritten policy for ships to keep a broad listening watch for NVN traffic when passing the coast of Vietnam. AJ, [Captain A J Robertson] as you know was a very cautious man who played things by the book. I think that is how he approached the passage. Remember, we escorted Sydney into Vung Tau over Christmas. I wound up spending Christmas in the harbour looking for limpet mines.’[xi]

Peter Cardwell

‘After we met up with Sydney, all of us ordinary seamen were mustered together and given a talk by Lieut. Bolen - our divisional officer. He impressed us with the seriousness of the mission that we were undertaking and that even as ordinary seamen, we were part of the essential team that was Yarra, and that anyone who screwed up would be crucified. It was further pushed at a lower level by Petty Officer Sappelli and Leading Seaman Gourley in the mess that we would be going into danger, and that Yarra’s task was to protect Sydney. I never felt in danger during the trip.

‘However, in Vung Tau it was different - we could feel the tension. We were warned of swimmers, and because my action station was the mortar projectile magazine, I felt that if a swimmer wanted to disable a ship he would most likely place his charges near the rudders or the propellers, and we were sitting on top of 40 or more projectiles just forward of the A brackets. We felt concerned, to say the least. I did state this to Petty Officer Hope, who talked the threat down and told us that we would be ok. As ordinary seamen, we believed what we were told.  After we went to defence watches I was rostered as upper deck sentry on one deck aft, starboard side for two hours, self-loading rifle (SLR) in hand and scared of anything that moved.

‘Later, after Vietnam, I was in Sydney’s paying off crew. Living conditions were grim to say the least. I was in 4CA mess and worked mainly on the forecastle. There was virtually no ventilation at all, crowded to say the least. Yarra was a palace compared to Sydney, but I felt happy in both ships.’[xii]

Tony Blake

‘During my battalion’s move to Vietnam on HMAS Sydney in February 1970, the atmosphere on board was one of quiet professionalism, with everyone going about their duties. During the trip, we all worked hard on our physical training and shooting skills, firing at balloons with SLRs and M60s from the aft end of the flight deck.

‘The relationship between the two services was better than anything I had seen up to that stage, and the sailors in Sydney impressed me as hard working and proud Australians. As we got closer to Vietnam, the easy-going nature changed a great deal. You could feel the tension, and we were given warnings of what not to do when in hostile waters.

‘It was clear that those who had been to Vietnam before in Sydney were worried about the possibility of action against the ship, and they were keen to make it clear to us that this was not a game, it was deadly serious. They wanted to get us ashore safely, and would do everything in their power to do just that.

‘While the ship was full of its own noises, the chatter of the diggers was fairly constant in my messdeck. This all changed when Sydney went to Defence Stations, and we took our lead from the sailors. The darkness as the ship got closer to Vietnam heightened the sense of danger as the blackout screens were rigged. This was similar to the blackouts you see in old WW2 movies for the planes flying overhead.

‘While diggers don’t take much notice of other units, there was an understanding that we were in the hands of these sailors - some just kids - and we did as we were told. It was absolutely critical that no light be shown by anyone, no smoking outside or opening doors without the blackout screen in place.

‘I just had to get outside and take a look at Vietnam. Getting out on deck - not the flight deck, but the deck outside our mess, making sure the blackout screen was in place - I spent some time with a sailor who was on watch. We discussed some of the anti-Viet Cong measures taking place. I did not feel comfortable, apart from being trained to track the enemy on land, I felt like a sitting duck. If someone wanted to have a crack at us, how could they miss? I was reassured by the skill of the sailors, who, being in their element, had obviously trained hard at these drills. I was surprised to see a few sailors with SLRs as well - this was my weapon - and I had absolute faith in its capacity to hit hard. It was a great weapon to have when checking the water for signs of the enemy from the upper deck of Sydney.

‘Getting off Sydney when it was light was a relief, because, being on land and in Vietnam, I had more control over my circumstances, plus I was now armed with my own SLR and ammo.

‘March 1971 - some 12 months later - I flew from Nui Dat via Chinook directly onto the flight deck of Sydney, where we were quickly moved to our messdeck and given a briefing about where our lifejackets were and how to put them on correctly. Looking over the sides, you could see the small boats going around Sydney, and again there were sailors on watch keeping an eye on the water and the immediate surrounds. Sydney was unlike the old infantry adage of ‘hurry up and wait’, we were in ‘hurry up but no panic’ mode to get back out to sea. It was not until we had cleared the harbour, and the coastline of Vietnam was just a blur, did I at last feel safe. 

‘You could almost feel the crew and diggers relax with the order to stand down from defence stations. I never again saw a sailor armed with an SLR while at sea. The atmosphere was professional and relaxed once away from the Vietnam coast. While being nervous on the ship about any action against it, I was sure that if anyone did try, the Navy would have made them pay dearly.’[xiii]

David Highnam

‘I was serving in Sydney from May 1966 to January 1970, completing some 13 voyages to Vietnam. I did feel that we were in danger on the voyages to and from Vietnam. There were constant exercises, which we assumed were for a real reason. We did not know the extent of the danger until we were advised. Submarines were suspected that were not identified to us. It was instilled in us that that all actions were to be treated as real - and they were.’

‘I did feel that we were in danger in Vung Tau. Sydney made a hasty exit from the port during one of these voyages, as there were supposed to be hostile divers in the water. The ship returned to Vung Tau later. There was a constant vigil by shooters on the flight deck with orders (on approval) to shoot at suspicious objects in the water. Ship’s motor boats were used; dragging grappling hooks motoring around the ships to deter or snag enemy swimmers (was a crew member).  I sighted a merchant ship that had been hit by a mine motor ashore so that it did not sink. Cargo was then unloaded and repairs made while the ship was aground.

‘Conditions in HMAS Sydney were deplorable as reviewed now and very poor at the time, but were normal for a ship of her era. As I understood it, Sydney was constructed for service in the North Atlantic. The machinery spaces were open stokehole and painfully hot. No air-conditioned control rooms similar to those that were fitted in HMAS Melbourne. The soldiers’ accommodation (sailors’ messdecks) was abysmal, overcrowded and grossly under ventilated.’[xiv] 

R Malcolm Baird

‘Screening darkened warships is inherently dangerous, and the ease with which it was done during this period was a testament to good training and a determination to ensure our soldiers were as safe as we could make them. There was plenty of potential for things to go wrong, whether by misadventure such as friendly fire, from attacks by submarine or mines, or from a miscellany of small craft, any of which could be hostile.

‘Warships and their crews are employed to go in harm’s way and to survive. Entry to the approaches to Vung Tau required a dawn arrival at which hundreds of fishing boats were about and active. None of these cared much about the niceties of navigation, and any of them could have carried out an attack, such as that which crippled the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, on 12 October 2000, where 17 sailors were killed and 39 injured.

‘The foreseeable dangers were adequately prepared for, but it was the ever-present danger of the unexpected which bothered us most. Of course, there was danger; if there was none we would not have expended tax payers’ money defending against it. You may, for instance, recall the vicious actions taken by those opposed to Australia’s troop deployments which made Sydney’s loading in Sydney such tense affairs, and which led to the ship sailing at all odd hours.

‘Ships were vulnerable at anchor in Vung Tau, and were prey to mines being floated towards them using the outgoing tidal stream. The technique was to have the weapons on a line between floats, as the line would snag the anchor cable and the explosive would be drawn alongside the hull - hard to predict and harder still to deal with.

‘Ship’s divers were kept busy in high states of ‘Operation Awkward’, and the ship remained at immediate readiness. Boat patrols and scare charges were used throughout the period at anchor. Inevitably, there was room for misunderstanding and mistake, and such incidents heightened tension. Unidentified ships, as we cleared harbour, were another source of concern. Until they could be persuaded to identify themselves, they remained hostile. We in HMAS Yarra had one such incident.

‘Regarding living and working conditions; noise, smells and people are the defining elements of life in warships. That so many good men endured conditions which today would be regarded as inhumane, is a tribute to their courage, single minded devotion to duty and their indomitable spirit of service.

‘Their work was done at sea without regard for the consequences, and with little expectation of reward, other than the knowledge that the ship had done her duty. For the most part it was undertaken away from the eyes of the nation, and the absence from Australia for months at a time was accepted as part of one’s duty. That the RAN could continuously maintain two destroyers in the Strategic Reserve, another on the ‘Gunline’, a fast troop transport doing the Vung Tau ferry run, and a carrier group deployed each year, is remarkable.

‘In conclusion: Danger to Sydney and her escort was ever present. Warships are inherently dangerous places, and only good discipline reduces the danger to acceptable levels.’ [xv] 

Bruce Hathaway

‘I was 17 years old and never been anywhere, let alone in the world. When we were first told we would be going to Vietnam to deliver and bring back soldiers, my first thoughts were we were going to war and I had no idea what that involved. But we were all excited about going to war; I mean that was why we were in the navy. I cannot remember exactly on what voyage the memories recited below occurred or in what sequence, but they did happen.

‘My first recollection of arriving in Vietnam was the number of ships anchored off the port of Vung Tau. There seemed to be dozens of ships all around us. I remember a large hill on a promontory where there was a large radar installation on top. The countryside was thick with trees, but did not seem to be anything out of the ordinary. It looked just like anywhere in northern Australia.

‘As soon as we dropped the ‘pick’, we started to unload the soldiers and equipment. I remember standing on the flight deck and watching a Chinook helicopter land. I could see the twin barrels of a twin 50 (maybe 30) calibre machine gun with its bandolier of bullets ready to be fired. There were also the lines of soldiers ready to be taken off the ship to their new home, wherever that was.

‘One of my duties was that of bowman in one of the ship’s boats which used to circle the ship. The main purpose was to look out for divers or any suspicious flotsam coming down on the tidal stream into the harbour. Someone else in the boat was detailed to let off scare charges. These looked to me like oversized threepenny bungers we used to use on cracker nights. They were about eight inches long and square in shape. The charges were thrown over the side every now and again to sink down and then explode under water. The purpose I suppose was to scare off any enemy divers that might be lurking around. I also remember while onboard hearing the thump of these charges when they exploded.

‘One time I saw an American patrol boat speeding here and there, bristling with machine guns. I was told they could do upwards of 50 knots forwards and backwards. During the day, not far inland I could see plumes of smoke coming from two or three different places. I also saw American planes dive bombing around where some of the smoke was coming from. It was obvious that there were enemy soldiers fighting our forces not far from where we were anchored.

‘My last recollection was one time when we came back, that radar installation on the hill had gone - it seems that it must have been destroyed.’[xvi]

Dennis Jones

‘… the cabin I shared with Bob Richards was declared uninhabitable and watch-keepers eventually were allocated a sleeping area on the Quarterdeck. The Surgeon Commander was the then Commander Geoff Bayliss RAN, and I have included three medical forms to substantiate the fact that I suffered from an extremely uncomfortable skin condition as a result of the heat in the cabins.

‘Lt. Cdr Len Anderson was my superior, but invariably he was not on board during the voyages, as he organised the shore side logistics for embarkation and disembarkation at the various ports. During cargo operations, I was invariably on the flight deck or in the hangar, and after having been involved in cargo operations during five voyages I knew my job quite well. It was during the course of carrying out my duties on 3 February 1968, that it was obvious to me and everyone else on the flight deck that A1 Skyraider and A4 Skyhawk aircraft were very active in the area as a result of the Tet offensive.

‘It is ludicrous to suggest that a ‘make and mend’ would even be contemplated while the ship was at anchor in Vung Tau harbour, especially when the ship was at Operation Awkward State Two. Every time the ship anchored, loading and unloading operations were always in progress, and securing cargo for sea was invariably still being carried out as the ship got underway. In addition, Army personnel had to be assimilated as part of ship’s company for the voyage home.

‘… a sonar contact was reported by HMAS Stuart on lines 210 (tactical UHF) and on 213 (reporting UHF). In accordance with standard operating procedures for the ship, I took the actions laid down when an escort reported a sonar contact with a ‘possub’ classification. This required evasive measures, which included ordering maximum speed. At the same time, I ordered the Bosun’s Mate to pipe for both Lt. Cdr. Thomson and the CO to contact the bridge, which they both did by returning there. Soon after, the contact was re-assessed as a non-sub, and the ship resumed its mean line of advance (MLA). Captain Clarke indicated that I had done the right thing, and gave me some warm words of encouragement in his inimitable way, to the effect that there might be some hope for me yet.  It is not the responsibility or the duty of an Officer of the Watch (OOW) to decide whether a contact report is real or not, his duty is to react in accordance with the CO’s instructions.’ [xvii]

Jim Dickson

‘In the late 1960s Sydney’s Commanding Officer was Captain Domara Andrews Heap (Nobby) Clarke - one of the real characters of the post WW2 generation of officers. Loud, flamboyant, volatile and extrovert, Nobby was much loved by his ship’s company because of his never flagging interest in their well-being and happiness. He was also a keen sportsman with a very competitive spirit. In Sydney, he captained his own volley-ball team in the hotly contested tournament regularly conducted during passage to and from Vung Tau. Winning was important to Nobby.  He was a master at gamesmanship, and the use of unconventional tactics. Should it be necessary - which it was on more than one occasion - Nobby had no hesitation in altering course to ensure that the sun was shining directly into the eyes of any opposition which looked as if it might beat his team. His team - strangely known as ‘the Cheats’ - won a remarkable number of tournaments during his time in command’ [xviii]

John Lord

‘HMAS Anzac was no longer a front-line combatant warship but a ship now committed to sea training. For three months a year it was devoted to taking the future graduation class from the Royal Australian Naval College to sea for their first experience in a ship at sea. During this time, the cadet midshipmen lived in a messdeck, slept in hammocks, were employed across all sailors’ duties, and completed seagoing navigation training.

‘However Anzac only became available for the second half of our 12-week sea-time. Once again excitement mounted as the ship’s forward gun turret was reported to have been repaired and brought back into service; the first time in many years. There was even more excitement when we were informed that we were not doing the standard coastal cruising with navigation training, but that Anzac would be the escort for HMAS Sydney’s next troop deployment to Vietnam. The reason for the gun turret being repaired became instantly apparent, and was being reported as such within and outside of the Navy. Thus, was the value of deceptive PR in wartime!

‘In fact, the gunbay remained our beer and spare gear store, as the RAN had only repaired the turret sufficiently to enable it to train and elevate so as to make the casual observer believe it was operational. Anzac was indeed escorting Sydney with no main armament, and with only its usual 40/60 anti-aircraft guns operational.

‘The deployment north was not particularly noteworthy, although we young cadets felt quite important being in a ship going to a warzone and escorting Sydney. This bravado was quickly extinguished when we anchored in Vung Tau harbour, as rather than being allowed to be part of anti-swimmer boat patrols or upper deck sentries, we cadets were relegated to the duties of scrubbing out the charthouse, cleaning boiler plates and other less glamorous tasks. However, the thrill and bragging rights for 17-year-olds when we returned to HMAS Creswell with sea experience was immeasurable.

‘Following graduation in July 1968, my class of midshipmen were posted throughout the fleet as was the norm at that time for 12 months’ sea training prior to going to the United Kingdom for Sub Lieutenants’ courses. I along with three of my year was lucky to be posted to HMAS Derwent. In Derwent, we undertook a South East Asian deployment, assigned to the UK forces based in Singapore, and attached to the Flag Officer Far East Fleet. I cannot remember much about Derwent and Vietnam. However, I do recall the quarterdeck locker man falling overboard as he was part of our rugby team, and served with me again as a leading seaman. I seem to recall he was reaching over to get a mop he had been cleaning by towing it astern. I can recall that as we came to pick him up he proudly demonstrated that he still had the locker keys, which he waved above his head.

‘Towards the end of the 12 months at sea all my class of midshipmen were then posted to the Navy’s senior training ship HMAS Sydney. During our posting to Sydney we undertook another troop deployment to Vietnam in 1969. This was far different from the deployment in Anzac, as, although still being under training as midshipmen, we were part of the ship’s company and therefore assigned meaningful ship’s duties. We were also near completing our 12 months’ sea training so were very close to being able to undertake watch keeping duties on the bridge.

‘On anchoring in Vung Tau harbour, our duties were very different to those we were given in Anzac. Midshipmen were deployed in many and varied roles. The most sought after was as coxswain of the ship’s landing craft that ferried troops, stores and vehicles ashore. Touching the beach in a war zone! Other midshipmen were coxswains of the ship’s small boats that circled Sydney at anchor, towing anti-swimmer devices and looking out for mines floated down river by the enemy. These were far more exciting times for young officers.

‘I would comment also that the focus and professional approach by all on board from the Captain down to the most junior sailor was total. Sydney was highly efficient at what it did, and the many voyages to and from Vietnam on these troop deployments had allowed the ship to develop an expertise that ensured the operation was done quickly and efficiently.

‘My next deployment was in HMAS Brisbane in 1971. As a billeted officer on board to train for my Officer of the Watch ticket, I was well and truly part of the ship’s company. The workup was very thorough and highly structured, as the fleet training team had the experience of working up destroyers for Vietnam deployments over several years. It was a very professional and rewarding time. The ship’s company was always highly focussed on operations, and the time spent on R&R in either Hong Kong or Singapore, approximately every six to eight weeks, was undertaken with the same gusto as we conducted operations.

‘My main role in Brisbane was assistant bombardment navigating officer - which in brief meant I plotted the ship and gave ranges and bearings of targets to be checked against those of the ship’s navigating officer who was responsible for setting up the gunnery system for the initial salvo. It was always engaging, although the heat and glare during the day was sometimes totally overwhelming as I was always on the bridge or the bridge wing. In later years, I thought about our naivety in that we had officers and sailors standing out in the sun and the heat for eight hours’ day after day, and at that time there were no service issue sunhats, sunscreen, or sunglasses. This does explain why many sailors of that era have skin cancers in their later years, and suffer from sight problems.’[xix] 

John Head

‘I know nothing of naval matters or their procedures, but let me tell you what I saw and felt at the time I arrived onboard HMAS Sydney by helicopter. We disembarked to a beehive of activity. When I heard an explosion alongside the ship, we all looked like we wanted to run for cover, but were told that it was the noise was from charges being dropped to deter or stun sappers from putting limpet mines on the ship’s hull. Not until many hours later were we told that this was a routine procedure, and this went on nonstop until Sydney sailed. The ship’s engines and propellers were also turned over every so often to keep enemy sappers away from the hull.

‘We were shown where to bunk down, and our allocated area was below the waterline. This made you think every time a charge went off. I noticed the sailors were at some sort of action stations, as I saw several of them watching from the ship. They had on what appeared to be flak jackets, and were armed with SLR rifles, the Bofors guns were manned and ready, and they were doing their sailor stuff while the ship was being loaded. I and many others felt we were vulnerable, being seen from all angles from the shore. I even thought that an RPG could reach us, or a sniper could pick us off.  Trying to find out what the alertness was all about was hard, as the sailors wanted to do their jobs and not be distracted. It was obvious to me that the sooner we left Vung Tau the happier the sailors would be.

‘With night approaching I witnessed some of the most spectacular events that have stayed with me, even to this day. If you can imagine that Sydney is a seat in a picture show, and the hills of Vung Tau harbour are the screen, it was like watching a movie in ‘Cinemascope’. On one side, there were helicopters flying around, then going in at a hill releasing rockets and gunfire, red tracer in a continuous line from chopper to ground, and in different areas of the bay there were artillery explosions, mortars and small arms fire from various engagements, tracers flying in all different directions, some red, green, blue, yellow. This was a strange sight to witness, as it was not one engagement but many.

‘To think that I had left the land and was now on a ship waiting for the enemy to attack us while charges were being thrown in the water, and while the clearance divers did their stuff. Looking at the sailors, I wondered what effect this experience might have on them for the rest of their lives, working on a great big steel box in Vung Tau harbour which was a floating bomb. They must have watched TV and read about the war, and here I was with them watching the real life and death struggles of the firefight, waiting for our turn.  And to think that only the sailors on the upper deck could see this, while those at their stations below decks could only hear some of it. To them, every noise from outside the ship would have been terrifying.

‘When would that dormant Russian mine activate and blow up sending Sydney to the bottom, or had this already happened as Hanoi Hannah had said, and Sydney had been razed? No wonder the turnaround times got shorter. I don’t think it mattered where Sydney was anchored in Vung Tau harbour as she was a Class A target, full of sailors, troops, and supplies. If Sydney could have been sunk, she would have been. It was the sailors who prevented this by being on a war footing. They knew they were a target. They foiled any attempt to sink their ship by doing very well what they had been trained to do.’[xx] 

David Dwyer 

‘Joined HMAS Anzac in October 1967. Early May, the ship had been full of rumours regarding escorting Sydney the entire way to Vietnam. The buzz circulating was to the effect that that we had to be the escort as the two ships serving on the Far East Strategic Reserve (FESR) that usually met up with Sydney in the South China Sea and travelled in company to Vietnam, had both blown boilers, and were alongside in Singapore effecting repairs. It was also rumoured that HMAS Queenborough had been considered but it too had blown a boiler.

‘We were told nearer to the time that we would be escorting all the way. This was greeted as somewhat of a joke, seeing that ‘A’ turret had no breech blocks, and the barrels were stopped with plugs to prevent water entering, however, the turret could train and elevate. When trained facing aft, with the turret hatches open, we had the biggest wind scoop in the fleet.

Anzac departed Sydney 20 May 1968 as escort to Sydney for the entire voyage to Vietnam. The ship had escorted Sydney in the past, but usually only to Manus Island where another escort awaited. When the ship entered the tropics, the main galley was a reasonably comfortable part of ship to work in, unlike the stifling main galley I was to experience two years later in HMAS Sydney. 

‘The ship had not long left Williamstown Naval Dockyard after a long refit. The steering motors and the Squid anti-submarine mortars had been under repair for the duration of the refit and put back together in a great hurry prior to our departure. The dockyard workers were the beneficiaries of a swag of overtime to get us ready for sea.

‘Some time after passing Singapore the steering motors jammed to starboard, and the ship proceeded to go around in circles; as a consequence, Anzac was forced to heave to. It was then decided to remove the defective parts of the steering motors and hoist them over to Sydney and effect repairs in their larger engineering workshop. We were underway in less than 24 hours, a fantastic feat performed by both ships engineering departments, with due credit going to Lieutenant (E) Len (Polly) Pollard, Anzac’s engineer officer.

‘While Sydney anchored, and unloaded we did the things an escort does. Once back loading was completed, both ships sailed for Australia together, splitting up later, Sydney proceeding alone for Port Jackson and Anzac stopping off at Darwin

‘In writing about my nine voyages in HMAS Sydney I still to this day would not like to repeat the experience. With the absence of air conditioning, Sydney was extremely hot and very uncomfortable for the ship’s company. Temperatures in the main galley and bakehouse at times reached 45-48 deg. C, and if the ship sailed and returned during an Australian summer it seemed to retain the heat while tied up at Garden Island.

‘The temperature in my mess was only slightly better at 35-40 deg. C, and was doubly uncomfortable in your hammock. Upon waking I would find that a fine asbestos dust had settled on me and my messmates as we slept. This was a common occurrence at sea especially when the ship was steaming along at 18 or 19 knots. The messdecks were crowded and 3M2 cooks’ mess contained 30 cooks in a space no bigger than your average suburban lounge room.

‘Cockroaches were prolific, and even spraying with various noxious chemicals did little to reduce their numbers. During the voyages, I would wake up in a lather of sweat, and it was not uncommon to have one of these little blighters on my chest drinking my perspiration. A young ordinary seaman had a small cockroach enter his ear and when he tried to remove the cockroach it broke off in his ear. He was rushed to the sickbay, where it was syringed out.

‘The ship’s company worked hard and long hours in trying conditions, but we got the job done. I posted off the ship in 1972 and weighed in at a mere nine stone three pounds, my wife said I looked like a former POW. The sailors of today would not put up with the living and working conditions that existed at that time. Over the past four decades since posting off, many of my former shipmates are extremely ill or in poor health and I wonder if it was not as a result of our service in the Sydney.’[xxi] 

Peter Weyling

‘I did nine voyages to Vietnam in HMAS Sydney and with respect to the question of feeling in danger while underway during those voyages, my answer has to be no. Mind you, I was a young ‘tiffie’ type and considered myself well trained and as I was young I was indestructible anyway. My prime concern was to find my way through the various levels/steps/exams that had to be negotiated to achieve higher rank and more pay.

‘Similarly, during time at anchor at Vung Tau, I considered that the security precautions we had in place would be sufficient to prevent any attack directly aimed upon the ship.

‘Living conditions were well known and understood. The machinery spaces were bloody hot. The accommodation areas were bloody hot. Being in the hangar deck (where I used to put my stretcher) was bloody hot - even with both hangar lifts half way down to allow a breeze to flow through. Anywhere below the flight deck was bloody hot. On our off-watch times many ‘tiffies’ used to gather on one of the gun sponsons to get some fresh air and sunbake - seems a silly thing to do now in hindsight. The idea of swallowing salt tablets with water didn’t appeal to me, so I didn’t do it - I just made sure that I drank a lot of water to keep hydrated.

‘Food on board was adequate, but it never made me salivate with keen anticipation before each meal. I remember that each time I returned home after each trip, my wife remarked about how much weight I had lost.

‘But I do remember getting a sudden fright when a scare charge was dropped overboard directly in line with my position against the engine room hull where I was clearing the strainer of a water cooling inlet valve. I immediately realised it was a scare charge and continued doing my job.’[xxii]

Rod Bain

‘Prior to my time in HMAS Sydney as the Senior Medical Officer (SMO) on her final two voyages, I’d done two previous tours of duty during the Vietnam conflict. The first was ashore on secondment from HMAS Vampire to RAAMC at First Australian Field Hospital at Vung Tau, and the second as the MO in HMAS Hobart. The first tour was bloody, exciting and depressing all at the same time. This was the period of the Long Hai hills mine encounters by Australian troops, and the casualty rate was particularly high. The second was a six-month deployment on the ‘Gunline’, providing naval gunfire support from March to September 1970.

‘Deaths at sea were uncommon, with the exception of friendly fire, but accidents, illness and injuries are inevitable. By 1972, my time in the ‘Vung Tau Ferry’ was relatively peaceful medically, plus the Army provided a medical officer. I was at the time, however, most mindful of the environmental circumstances under which the ship’s sailors were required to work and socialise for prolonged periods. This was an old vessel with inherent health issues and everyone did their best to remain informed, cope and compensate as far as possible. Many personnel would eventually carry chronic diseases with them as a result of workplace exposures during this time at sea.’[xxiii]

R Geoffrey Loosli

‘There is no glory or glamour in logistics, but without an effective and efficient support and supply system, fighting forces would be unable to sustain their operations. Just as Australia relies on sea transport for 95 percent of its trade imports and exports, so it is that the Australian army task force in Vietnam came to rely on a motley collection of vessels for the transportation of 95 percent of its supplies, and its ever-increasing needs in personnel and equipment over the seven long years of the war.

‘HMAS Sydney was no longer capable of operating fixed wing aircraft, but with minimal structural alterations, proved to be a capable vessel for the sea transportation and logistics task. Jeparit and Boonaroo were merchant ships manned by a mixture of navy and merchant seamen. Between these three ships - along with the occasional army water craft - they formed the sea transport and logistic support force which kept the Australian task force in Vietnam supplied with the vast bulk of its men and materiel needs. 

‘The very mention of logistics can be met with a lack of enthusiasm by operational staff officers, as they can get too involved with operations then underway. It was expected that the ‘system’ would load and offload - on time, and in the right place - all the vehicles, stores and equipment needed, and personnel joining or departing the task force, without any fanfare or fuss.

‘In the case of Australian forces involved in Vietnam, the lack of appreciation of logistic support was amply illustrated by the need to define the conditions required to be met by individual servicemen in order to qualify for Repatriation benefits in the years ahead. The first anomaly was the decision that a soldier going to Vietnam would qualify from the day he left Australia in Sydney for the voyage to Vung Tau - but the ship’s crew would not. Then it was decided that a serviceman could qualify if he spent one day in Vietnam, but only if he had been ‘allotted’. RAN logistic support personnel would not be ‘allotted’, because it was deemed that they did not actively face the enemy, and therefore there was no danger of being attacked.

‘Next there was the need to define ‘Operational Service’ and to decide whether or not naval personnel would qualify for the Returned from Active Service Badge (RAS-B), as well as who would receive the Vietnam Medal. Somehow, it was reasoned that naval logistic support personnel would qualify for the RAS-B but not the Vietnam Medal.  A separate medal would be struck - the Vietnam Logistic & Support Medal.

‘Before Sydney undertook her first voyage to Vietnam, RAN intelligence staff assessed the threat which could face the ship with its precious cargo. It was determined that escort ships must accompany her for protection for at least the last four to 500 miles of the voyage, and into the anchorage off Vung Tau, anchoring nearby at a state of readiness which would detect and deter any action by air, water or land based enemy forces. These tactical measures are fully recorded, as are the intelligence reports defining the possible threat, which did not change throughout the conflict.

‘By 1975, Sydney had been scrapped. Her role as a logistical support ship was eventually replaced by two 25-year-old US Navy LSTs - renamed Kanimbla and Manoora - purchased in 1994, and operated by the RAN for 16 years, after which they too were scrapped. From 2011, two amphibious Landing Helicopter Dock (LHDs) ships are presently under construction as replacements. It would seem that the lessons of logistics in support of the Task Force in Vietnam have at last been well absorbed by those in the Department of Defence, and by those who hold the purse strings in Government.’[xxiv] 

John Van Gelder

‘The point is, why did it take more than twenty years for the sailors of HMAS Sydney in its many voyages to Vietnam to obtain any Repatriation benefits, or indeed any recognition from Defence or Government? They were in an operational area where a threat was assessed, and acknowledged by Federal Cabinet. If this were not so, why was a Directive for Rules of Engagement necessary and why was it considered necessary to escort the ship to Vietnam? Again, why did the United States Navy maintain such a considerable anti-submarine force in the Gulf of Tonkin if there was no threat? It should also be noted that two merchant supply ships, one the MV Jeparit, the name of the other I do not recall [Boonaroo], had to be commissioned into the RAN and manned by naval personnel because the Australian Seaman’s Union refused to man the ship and enter the operational area.’[xxv]

Andrew Robertson

‘In fact, HMAS Sydney continued to perform most important tasks, until paid off with only 24 hours’ notice in July 1973. A voyage to Indonesia and Singapore to deliver and return Army from Malaysia was followed by moves to develop the ship similar to HMS Bulwark, the RN commando carrier, with a battalion and helicopters. We took a battalion to New Zealand, plus three helicopters for an exercise at Wairoa in the North Island. We gave the operational control of the helicopters to the Colonel, and a most successful exercise was carried out with the NZ Army and Air Force. After the exercise, we carried out a landing exercise with the battalion, helicopters, and landing craft before returning with them all to Sydney. We had also done a landing logistics exercise in company with HMAS Tobruk at Jervis Bay.

 ‘Later, our Prime Minister had us stand by to sit in the middle of the French nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll! Unbelievable! Finally, just as our remarkable government was shaping up to get rid of us overnight, we were preparing to go to Texas to pick up the RAAF Chinooks! They had to be dismantled - crated up - and shipped out at huge expense. The Navy lost its main training ship, and Australia lost its capability to transport and support the Army! Of course, the coming of the two huge Spanish built landing ships (LHDs), are the modern equivalent of - and owe their purchase in part to - the RAN’s experience with, the great ship HMAS Sydney.’[xxvi]

This chapter has viewed those anxious and wearisome times, through the eyes and memories of members of ship’s companies, and ‘passengers’, from teenage trainees to very experienced commanding officers. There is a common thread, and a consistent one at that.



[i] Correspondence from former R59777, WOMTP* LW (Bill) Eggins, served in HMA Ships Parramatta 1965, and Duchess 1969 & 1971.

[ii] Correspondence from former R62867, LSUW B A Howard, served in HMAS Sydney 1965.

[iii] Bob Grandin, The Battle of Long Tan, as told by the Commanders to Bob Grandin, (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2004), p. 40:  Bob Grandin, Flight Lieutenant RAAF, O43221, served 11 Squadron RAAF 1963-65, flying Neptune LRMP aircraft, and 9 Squadron RAAF 1966-67 flying UH1B Iroquois helicopters.

[iv] Correspondence from former R55900, LSPTI Stan Oversby, served in HMAS Sydney 1965-67.

[v]  Bob Breen, First to Fight: Australian Diggers, NZ Kiwis &US Paratroopers in Vietnam, 1965-66, (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1988) p. 23.

[vi] Correspondence from former O1747, Captain GLSU John G Ingram RAN (Rtd), served in HMAS Sydney 1964 - 67.

[vii] Bob Buick, with Gary McKay, All Guts and No Glory, the Story of a Long Tan Warrior, (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2000), pp. 204-207:  Bob Buick, 55106, Sergeant, served in 6RAR 1966-67, awarded the Military Medal for his part in the Battle of Long Tan. He returned to Australia in HMAS Sydney, May 1967.

[viii] Correspondence from former R42289 NS1 Frank J Simmonds, served in HMAS Sydney 1967-1969.

[ix] Correspondence from former O61513 Lt. Cdr Peter J Blenkinsopp RAN (Rtd), served in HMAS Sydney 1966-68

[x] A L Ey, Posting to Yarra,  former R 64620 ABCD A L (Tony) Ey, served in HMA Ships Melbourne 1966, Yarra 1967-68, & CDT 3 1970-71

[xi] Correspondence from former O386 Lt. Cdr John D Foster, served in HMAS Yarra 1967-68

[xii] Correspondence from former R95220 ABUW Peter L Cardwell, served in HMAS Yarra 1967-68 as a 17-year-old.

[xiii] Anthony (Tony) Blake, in Nott, R T & Payne N (Eds), The Vung Tau Ferry & Escort Ships. (Essendon, GAM, 1999) pp. 97-8. Anthony Blake, 2792530, Private, served in 7RAR 1970-71. He sailed to Vietnam and returned to Australia in HMAS Sydney.

[xiv] Correspondence from former R42544 ERA1 David C Highnam, served in HMAS Sydney 1966 -70

[xv] Correspondence from former O31 Cdre R Malcolm Baird AM RAN (Rtd), served in HMA Ships Sydney 1968 & Yarra 1971.

[xvi] Correspondence from former R95116 ABFC Bruce W F Hathaway, served in HMA Ships Sydney April-June 1967 & Duchess November 1968-69.

[xvii] Correspondence from former O2427 Cdr. Dennis A Jones RAN, served in HMA Ships Melbourne 1966 & Sydney 1967-68.

[xviii] Correspondence from former O296 Cdre James S Dickson AM MBE RAN (Rtd), served in HMA Ships Melbourne 1965, Perth September 1967 - April 1968 & Sydney February - November 1970.

[xix] Correspondence from former O2420 Rear Admiral John R Lord AM RAN (Rtd), served in HMA Ships Anzac 1968, Sydney 1968, Derwent 1969, and Brisbane 1971.

[xx] John Head, in Nott R T (Ed), The Long Haul, (Brisbane, Self-published, 2004), pp.109-10. John Head, 219046, Corporal, served in the Royal Australian Army Provost Corps 1970-71. He returned to Australia in HMAS Sydney in May 1971. 

[xxi] Correspondence from former R62631 L/CK David G Dwyer, served in HMA Ships Anzac 1967-68 and Sydney 1970-72

[xxii] Correspondence from former R43160, ERA2 Peter Weyling, served in HMAS Sydney 1970-72.

[xxiii] Correspondence from former O2755, Surgeon Lt. Cdr. Rod G Bain RAN (Rtd), served in HMA Ships Vampire 1969, Hobart 1970, & Sydney 1972.

[xxiv] Correspondence from former O700, Rear Admiral R Geoffrey Loosli CBE, RAN (Rtd), served in HMA Ships Stuart 1967-68 & Brisbane 1971.

[xxv] Correspondence from former O1193, Cdr. John P Van Gelder, RAN (Rtd), Van Gelder wrote the original Directive (Rules of Engagement) which were signed by the Chief of Naval Staff and the Chief of Air Staff, passed to the Department of Defence who in turn presented it to Federal Cabinet. It was approved unaltered and released Top Secret (Exclusive) just before Sydney sailed for Vietnam on the first Vietnam voyage leaving Sydney early morning on May 27, 1965.

[xxvi] Correspondence from former O987, Rear Admiral Andrew J Robertson AO DSC RAN (Rtd), Robertson was the last Commanding Officer of HMAS Sydney 1973, he also served as ‘Fox One’ in HMAS Yarra when that ship escorted Sydney December 1967-January 1968.