Vung Tau Ferry
During the Vietnam War the task of moving, supplying and maintaining Australian forces in South Vietnam was shared between the Royal Australian Air Force, civilian aircraft – mainly Qantas – and ships from the Australian National Line (ANL). But the bulk of the task fell to the Royal Australian Navy and the vessel that carried out the majority of 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, the trip meant the chance to both establish routines for a logistic task, the like of which had not been undertaken by the navy for twenty years, and to gain an understanding of the risks facing their ship in hostile waters. In the years to come, the run to Vung Tau and back became an increasingly speedy and smooth operation. Nevertheless, each voyage required a great deal of hard work, particularly during the loading and unloading phase of the operation.
In its role as the 'Vung Tau Ferry', HMAS Sydney brought together men from two distinct cultures: the army and the navy. In the days before she sailed from 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 board ship, showing them where to keep their gear and how to sling their hammocks – a novel, and often unwelcome, mode 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, when Sydney and her escort ships were anchored off Vung Tau, their crews were prepared to counter any attacks launched from shore. 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 her escorts were endangered in Vietnamese waters. But she performed in her 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.
By 1972, when 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. For those on the return voyage after their twelve-month tour of duty, the passage to Australia offered a chance to relax, to reflect on their experiences and to 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. Although many Vietnam veterans recall being ignored upon 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 were often met by dignitaries, including the Minister for the Army, and a march through the city - Sydney, Brisbane or Townsville - usually followed within hours.
Sydney's efforts were complemented by the work of two Australian National Line vessels, MV Jeparit and MV Boonaroo. After February 1967 Jeparit sailed with mixed crews, civilian seamen and naval personnel. Boonaroo made only two voyages to Vietnam and did one of these as a commissioned naval vessel. Jeparit on the other hand made 43 voyages to Vietnam, often coming up against strike action imposed by anti-war unions that delayed her loading and unloading. By 1970 authorities were sufficiently concerned at the toll that strike action was taking that in December that year she was commissioned as a Royal Australian Naval vessel, making union concerns, at least on board, irrelevant.