Sea transport duties of the Royal Australian Navy and civilian ships
During the war, the Australian Government used a mix of options to transport military personnel, equipment and supplies to and from the former Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). However, the Royal Australian Navy did the bulk of the work. HMAS Sydney (III) travelled back and forth so many times it was nicknamed the 'Vung Tau Ferry'. Another useful cargo vessel, MV Jeparit, was commissioned into the Navy to reduce the effects of some crew members' anti-war views.
During the Vietnam War, the task of moving, supplying and maintaining Australian armed forces in South Vietnam was shared between:
- the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)
- civilian aircraft – mainly Qantas
- ships from the Australian National Line (ANL)
- the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) – doing most of the work.
The vessel that carried out the most transport duties to and from Vietnam was the former aircraft carrier HMAS Sydney.
Sydney's first voyage to South Vietnam, escorted by HMAS Melbourne, HMAS Duchess and HMAS Parramatta, began on 27 May 1965.
For Sydney's crew, that first trip was a chance to establish routines for a logistics task, the like of which had not been undertaken by the Navy for 20 years. It was also a good opportunity to identify the risks facing a ship in hostile waters.
Throughout the war, the ship's many roles included:
- operating a fleet of helicopters to support ground troops
- carrying essential supplies, ammunition and spare parts for helicopters and other equipment
- providing naval support, including coastal surveillance and anti-submarine warfare
- helping to secure the sea lanes and prevent the infiltration of enemy forces through waterways
- acting as a logistics base and command centre for communication between different Australian units and allied forces.
However, the ship's important transport duties were the most memorable.
Vung Tau Ferry
The ship's run to Vung Tau and back became an increasingly speedy and smooth operation over the years. Nevertheless, each voyage required a great deal of hard work, particularly during the loading and unloading phase of the operation.
As the Vung Tau Ferry, HMAS Sydney brought together men from 2 distinct cultures: the RAN and the Australian Army.
In the days before leaving Australia, Sydney would be loaded with soldiers and their equipment. Crew members would be detailed to act as 'sea daddies' to groups of soldiers, helping them to get their bearings on the ship, showing them where to keep their gear and how to sling their hammocks – a novel, and often unwelcome, way of sleeping for most soldiers.
Apart from the unfamiliarity with shipboard life, or indeed with the ways of the navy, the soldiers often found Sydney to be uncomfortable, particularly in tropical waters when the heat below decks was intense.
During loading and unloading, their crews were prepared to counter any attacks launched from shore when Sydney and its escort ships were anchored off Vung Tau. The ship's divers carried out constant patrols, checking hulls and cables while armed sentries stood on deck with orders to fire on suspicious movements in the water.
As it turned out, neither Sydney nor its escorts were endangered in Vietnamese waters. But the ship performed in its role as 'Vung Tau Ferry' very effectively, safely transporting thousands of troops to and from Vietnam along with thousands of tonnes of cargo and equipment.
For those on the return voyage after their 12-month tour of duty, the passage to Australia offered a chance to relax, reflect on their experiences and prepare themselves for the transition from war to peace. Such a period of reflection was denied to those soldiers who returned home by aircraft, leaving Vietnam and being home within 10 hours.
Living conditions on board Sydney were cramped, especially when the troops were embarked. Despite that, the troops were pleased to be returning home:
Coming home on the Sydney was bloody great. I had slept in a decent bed for the first time. I got a hot Australian shower. The tucker was great. They cooked bread every day. The Navy had big cans of Fosters, didn’t like Fosters in the first place but I used to drink the bloody thing.
[Sergeant Bob Buick, 6 RAR, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No 2181]
Although many Vietnam veterans recall being ignored on their return to Australia, this was not the case for those who returned with their battalions on board HMAS Sydney. When the ship docked, the infantry was often met by dignitaries, including the Minister for the Army, and a march through the city – Sydney, Brisbane or Townsville – usually followed within hours.
Watch a short video of HMAS Sydney arriving in Sydney in the 1970s.
Sydney made one last trip to Vung Tau in November 1972, delivering a cargo of defence aid for Vietnam and Cambodia.
By the time Australia's involvement in Vietnam ended, Sydney had carried 16,000 Army and RAAF personnel to Vung Tau on 24 ferry runs and had made a 25th trip to Vietnam to deliver and pick up military equipment.
Every voyage took between 10 and 12 days in each direction, a time during which soldiers heading for Vietnam were given hours of physical training and prepared for the year that they would have to spend as combatants in a war zone.
Sydney's transport efforts were complemented by the work of 2 vessels:
- MV Boonaroo
- MV Jeparit.
Boonaroo made only 2 voyages to Vietnam. The first trip was as an Australian National Line cargo vessel, and the second was as a naval vessel. HMAS Boonaroo was commissioned on 1 May 1967 and decommissioned 7 days later.
Jeparit made 43 voyages to Vietnam during the war. MV Jeparit's first trip in June 1966 was an Australian National Line cargo vessel. On several early trips, anti-war sentiments impacted crew capacity. Some sailors refused to join the Vietnam trips. After February 1967, Jeparit sailed with an RAN detachment to help the remaining civilian seamen.
However, having a mixed crew didn't solve the ship's issues. Jeparit's crew often came up against wharf worker strike action at the docks. Imposed by anti-war unions, the 'wharfies strikes' delayed loading and unloading. Throughout 1969, authorities were quite concerned about the effects of the industrial action. On 11 December, Jeparit was commissioned as a RAN vessel. This at least helped with union concerns on board HMAS Jeparit.
We've gathered the memories of some veterans who either served on HMAS Sydney during the war or travelled on the ship as Army personnel. Listen to their stories.
- Bill Kane's story (RAN sailor)
- Daryl Bristowe's story (RAN national serviceman)
- Neil Ralph's story (RAN sailor)
- Murray Blake's story (Australian Army).
Other stories are available in the Australians at War Film Archive - like John O'Callaghan. Leading Engineering Mechanic (LME) John O’Callaghan, RAN, was on board HMAS Sydney for 2 voyages to Vietnam in 1965. During this interview, he discusses the technical aspects of troop-carrying, the trip to Vietnam, the crew’s interaction with the troops at sea and the vulnerability of Sydney at anchor in Vung Tau harbour.