Neil Ralph's story

Neil Ralph AO AM DSC was born on 25 June 1932 in Carlton, Victoria.

Neil joined the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1952 as naval airman, also known as an observer. Early in his career, he did several training stints in England.

In 1958, Neil undertook pilot training and was posted to No. 724 Naval Air Squadron, which operated the Sea Venom and Sea Vampire fighter jets. This was the beginning of his flying career. Over the next few years, he embarked on deployments and exercises with the newly commissioned aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne.

Neil returned to England in 1961 to train as a helicopter pilot after some concern that fixed wing aviation would be discontinued. Back in Australia, he flew Wessex anti-submarine warfare helicopters and was promoted to Lieutenant Commander. He then took command of No. 725 Naval Air Squadron and deployed to South East Asia several times.

In 1967, Neil deployed to South Vietnam. He was selected to command the first contingent of the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam (RANHFV). The unit had 50 personnel from various squadrons and was attached to the United States (US) Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company. He remembered that the US commander had already decided on an iconic name for his unit: the ‘EMU Squadron'.

With the US forces, Neil and his pilots flew hundreds of missions, dropping troops into battle, and often under heavy fire. Sadly, 3 members of his unit were killed and several others injured. Some aircraft were destroyed or badly damaged from enemy fire or crashed during bad weather. Neil was an active member of his team in flying operations, and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in recognition of his services and bravery.

At the end of his tour, Neil returned to ship's duties aboard HMAS Sydney. He went on to become a Rear Admiral and the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff, and retired from the Navy in 1989.

During his distinguished naval career, Neil was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services in establishing the Royal Australian Navy Staff College. While serving as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff he became an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).

He was appointed Commissioner for Veterans' Affairs in 1995, a position he held for 6 years. In his retirement, he continued to advocate for veteran wellbeing as a patron of the Fleet Air Arm Association of Australia (Victoria Division) and the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia Inc.

Neil Ralph (Royal Australian Navy), Helicopter Pilot


In 1967, the Royal Australian Navy assembled a new helicopter squadron for Vietnam "" the RANHFV. The flight commander was Neil Ralph.

"We didn't know much about Vietnam and we didn't know much about the war. But, we had to come up to speed very quickly."

The Australians were attached to the U.S. Army 135th Assault Helicopter Company. The American commander had already decided on a name for their squadron - the EMU Squadron.

"The colonel, who was the commander, he told me about the emu "" 'EEMOO', and he said, 'We were looking for a fast, aggressive bird.' That's fine. And I said, 'The only thing is it doesn't fly.' 'Oh.' Anyway, that was glossed over.

Together with the 135th, the Australian pilots flew hundreds of missions, dropping troops into battle, often under fire.

"It's a very vulnerable situation, it's the most vulnerable when the formation of 10 is coming in to land, just before the touchdown and the guns stop, the door guns stop, that's the most vulnerable time. The troops get out very quickly, it's a matter of seconds and they're out. And once that's happened, off goes the formation.

Well they're more vulnerable to ground fire in the air, ten feet, twenty feet, 'Cos they make better targets there, than they are on the ground. But mind you, I mean they couldn't miss on the ground either."

The RANHFV was so successful as a unit that the USAF decided to award them military honours. There was just one problem.

"The American 1st Aviation Brigade commander called me up and said, 'Now Ralph, you get your troops into that thing because I want to pin medals on their chests.' And I said, 'But we're not allowed to accept them.' 'Cos that was the rule. 'I'm going to pin them on your chest and if you don't like it, put 'em in your pocket!'

Anyway they were that gung-ho, they were really good and they thought a lot of us and we thought a lot of them. And as one of my colleagues said, 'We were trained to do it and we did it.' And I think that's the attitude most people would take."

At the end of his tour, Neil returned to Ship's duties aboard HMAS Sydney. He would go on to become an admiral in the RAN, leaving the war behind.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Neil Ralph's story, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 July 2024,
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