No. 35 Squadron - RAAF in Vietnam


UPDATED: 28 Dec 04

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No. 35


Royal Australian 

Air Force

No. 35 Squadron "Wallaby Airlines" Caribou at Butterworth in 1972



No.35 Squadron was formed in early March 1942 as a transport unit with a motley collection of light aircraft, but by 1943 it was equipped with the Douglas C-47.  After World War II it suffered in a shrinking Air Force and was disbanded in 1946.

 During 1964 the Australian Government decided to deploy an Australian transport unit to Vietnam to support their ground forces in the region.  The first of the rugged RAAF DHC-4A Caribou (known in the US Army as the CV-2 and on transfer to the USAF as the C-7) aircraft were in the process of delivery and three of these aircraft (A4-171, -179 and –185) were diverted direct to Vietnam , arriving Vung Tau on 8 August 1964 .

 These three aircraft became RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam (RTFV) and operated as part of the Southeast Asia Airlift System and under the operational command of the the 315th Troop Carrier Group (Assault) of the 315th Air Commando Wing, 2nd Air Division; eventual strength was seven aircraft.  RTFV was designated 35 (Transport) Squadron on 1 June 1966 with fifteen aircraft.  The commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Chris Sugden, had flown the A-20 Boston in WWII and Meteor jet fighters in Korea

 RTFV/35 Squadron undertook a variety of missions, usually short-haul transport, though they did drop paratroops and flew flare missions for night-time battlefield illumination.  The squadron developed its own special tactics to minimise being hit by small arms fire when landing; they remained at 3000 feet until virtually over the field and then made a very steep approach; departures utilized a steep climb.  Another procedure initiated by the CO was the take-off on one engine of an empty aircraft which had suffered an engine failure at Phan Thiet; no facilities existed for an engine change and the field was secure only during daylight hours.  This event was not recorded in official records.

The unit earned an enviable record for efficiency, the Caribous universally acknowledged as the best maintained machines in Vietnam , and the uplift such that it was thought the unit had about 25 aircraft. 

With the squadron crest containing a wallaby (basically a small kangaroo), the unit operated with the in-country callsign of Wallaby and was generally known as Wallaby Airlines.  A sign proclaiming this identity was carried on the cockpit bulkhead.

On 18 November 1964 , A4-185, out of Da Nang , crashed on landing at A Ro, a special forces camp in the mountains some fifteen kilometres from the Laotian border.  The squadron salvaged the wings and engines, but the nose was sandbagged and used as an OP by the local troops.  It was four months before the loss was replaced.

The squadron suffered a major accident in May 1965 when A4-173 touched down just short of the very short strip at Hai Yen, collapsing the nosewheel, and the subsequent crash damaged the starboard wing, engine and propeller.  An RTFV crew repaired the aircraft sufficiently in four days to allow it to be ferried back to Vung Tau for further repairs, despite a US Army supply drop putting an ammunition case through one wing, necessitating a new wing being helicoptered in.

A4-171 was also damaged in May, and a 38 Squadron Caribou (A4-208) was borrowed to cover the shortfall.  Despite the special procedures mentioned, often unable to be used because of weather, 35 Squadron Caribous were hit numerous times by small arms fire, sometimes sustaining quite serious control or engine damage and some passengers and crew were wounded.  Rockets or mortars were occasionally fired at Vung Tau airfield, and on one occasion a mortar fell through the 35 Squadron hangar, damaging two aircraft in the explosion.

The aircraft often carried livestock, often parachuted in, and one bizarre incident occurred when a crate containing a cow broke apart shortly after the load left the ramp.  From the official history:

……although the crate came down beautifully by parachute, the floor kept on going with the cow still standing on it.  According to the loadmaster…there was the cow, standing on a small wooden floor like a surf board, hurtling through the air with its nostrils flared, ears flapping in the wind and its tail streaming out behind it.  He claims the cow actually enjoyed it and swears he could see it grinning…At least it died happy and the South Vietnamese soldiers would still have got their steaks.

By late 1966 the structure of the USAF’s Common Service Airlift System was undergoing major change, and the new organisation was the 834th Air Division which began operating at Tan Son Nhut as part of the Seventh Air Force.  The 834th now also took control of the six companies of Army CV-2s (144 aircraft) and formed the 483rd Tactical Airlift Wing with six USAF squadrons of C-7s, two of which were based at Vung Tau with 35 Squadron.

In August 1966, A4-173 was again involved in a serious accident almost identical to that of May 1965; in this case it was the port side which suffered at Ba To.  This time it took ten days to get the aircraft airworthy and it was flown out within hours of an attack which would have destroyed it.  It took a further six months’ work to return A4-173 to service.  This particular aircraft is now in an Australian aviation museum.

In July 1967, A4-210 was damaged at Dalat when a newly constructed drainage ditch collapsed under the weight of the taxying aircraft.  Amongst other damage, the centre section was twisted, but after days of labour, the aircraft was flown back to Vung Tau where the US Army’s 330th Company put in 1400 manhours to repair the centre section.  After the aircraft was returned to the flight line it was found that there was still some distortion and the aircraft could not be rigged to fly properly.  A4-210 was sent back to Australia in July 1968 to have its structural problems corrected.  That this was never completely managed can be gauged by the fact that its RAAF callsign, VM-JMU, was usually translated as “Juliet Mike Useless”!

.The unit’s first total loss was A4-171 which flew into shallow water during the landing approach in poor weather to An Thoi on Phu Quoc island in August 1967.  A4-152 left the squadron in October when it suffered major damage to its undercarriage and wing centre section after veering off the runway on landing at Vung Tau.  It had to be shipped back to Australia and underwent six months of repairs.

During the 1968 Tet offensive the squadron was lucky not to lose other aircraft as close shaves were had with mortars and rockets at Kontum and Ben Het.  USAF C-7s were lost in attacks on Vung Tau, but the RAAF narrowly escaped.  In January 1969 A4-208 was badly damaged by at least eight rounds of mortar fire at Katum, but the pilot elected to take-off to prevent a total loss.  Both tyres on the port mainwheel were burst, the flaps and the hydraulic system were knocked out, but a successful flight & land landing were made at Bien Hoa.  In March 1970, A4-193 was destroyed by mortar fire at That Son.

In the face of increasingly hostile public opinion, the Australian Government began to wind back the Australian presence in Vietnam .  In June 1971, three aircraft (and 44 personnel) were transferred back to Australia , leaving just four aircraft.  These four aircraft, including A4-173 returned to Australia on 19 February 1972 , ending seven and a half years of RAAF Caribou service in Vietnam . 

Again from the official history:

In this period the Caribous (as both RTFV and 35 Squadron) had established an outstanding record of achievement for such a small unit, having flown nearly 80,000 sorties totalling 47,000 hours in the air, and carried more than 677,000 passengers, 36 million kg of freight and 5 million kg of mail.  In achieving such loads, the Australian aircraft, crews and ground staff had set standards of flying, flying maintenance and safety unmatched by either American or VNAF transport squadrons.

The RAAF’s other Caribou unit, 38 Squadron, remained in Australia, providing crew training, occasional replacement aircraft and ferry crews for aircraft to and from Vietnam.

 Note:  Article by Bob Livingstone (Australian Vietnam Veteran)



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