A documentary has aired titled, 'The Untold Stories of the RAAF Caribou'. It chronicled the long, proud history of the Caribou in service and some of its lesser known stories. Along those lines, one of its earliest deployments was to Vietnam, where Barrie Brown served as a young Flying Officer. Brown had been diverted in to Vietnam enroute from Canada while delivering the RAAF’s first Caribous. Little did he know that within a year he would be back there on active service.
The RAAF Transport Flight Vietnam (RTFV) was based out of Vung Tau, with its pilots accommodated a jeep ride away on the northern bank of the Mekong River. At an earlier time, the villas that now housed the Aussie pilots had formed part of South Vietnams “French Riviera”. In 1965 the contingent, callsign “Wallaby Flight”, consisted of 6 aeroplanes and 13 pilots supported by RAAF ground crew. Shared with the United States and allied forces, Vung Tau was a hive of activity, with a sea of helicopters and Pilatus Porters doing ‘touch and go’s’ across the runway. Brown recalls, “You could be sixth in line and ‘cleared to land’, or cleared for take off with an aircraft head-on about to land. You’d just take off and break.” “Even so”, he adds, “I can’t recall any mid-airs in my time there. You just kept your eyes open.”
The operation saw four aircraft operating seven days a week, in what Barrie affectionately terms “Milk Runs”. With one aircraft operating from Da Nang, the other Caribous headed for Saigon, due south and along the east coast respectively. With most sectors in the vicinity of fifteen minutes and around eight sectors per day, the two pilots and Loadmaster became very familiar with their machine and task. Far from crates of dairy products, Brown recalls a litany of cargo, “Passengers, mail, rice, salt, fish, fish oil, grass mats, bodies and coffins.” The vast load often called for crews to take up their stations first, with the load subsequently piled up behind them. “We also carried live cattle that were restrained by tie-down straps around the C of G.” Lacking the house manners of normal passengers, the cattle often responded to natures call requiring the back “to be hosed out post flight”. However, this behaviour was far more bearable than one particular pig’s adventure. Barrie relates, “We carried live pigs in cane baskets. I heard of one that got loose from its basket not long after take off. With the back open, it apparently spotted the light and bolted straight out the back from a height of a few hundred feet!”
Operations were predominantly flown visually, often below a low cloud base that shrouded the surrounding hills. Whilst terrain was an ever present threat, it was obviously not the sole enemy. The Australians were always at risk to ground fire and flew spiraling approaches accordingly. Brown’s aircraft took hits on two occasions. One of these followed the delivery of a 105mm Howitzer. The artillery piece had been broken down into components and, after great effort, loaded into the Caribou. Following delivery into a critical one-way strip, the RAAF crew made ready. “It was situated in a valley, so we used to depart ‘on the deck’. It was coming out of there that we took two hits in the belly.” On the receiving end was a South Vietnamese soldier. His injuries were not fatal and had been lessened to some degree by “deflector boards” that were fitted to the Caribou just beneath his seat.
Knowing little about Vietnam before leaving Australian shores, the Caribou missions took the young pilot into the South Vietnamese heartlands. Surrounded by jutting hills, lush jungle and watercourses, Brown’s strongest memory of his tour of duty is the sheer “beauty of the country”. He recalls the missions as ‘milk runs’ but adds, “There was nothing boring about the flying.” “Zig-zagging between freighters on approach to the strip at Cam Ranh Bay” must have been exciting, but it was the runway at Ha Tien that was most interesting. Situated on the Mekong Delta, the runway itself had been dug out of a rice paddy. The excavated clay had been dried and ‘cooked’ before being used for foundation. It was then covered with bamboo poles and topped with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP). Around 1000 feet in length and 40 feet wide, it offered only 4 feet of clearance either side of the main landing gear! Crosswind landings were not permitted, though the ‘luxury’ of a small unloading and turning bay did exist at strips end. Brown recalls, “The wheels were always in 6 to 8 inches of water. The take-off technique was to wait for the end to disappear under the nose and then rotate. This occurred at about 55 knots.” This strip claimed Caribou A4-173, the aircraft that Brown had delivered from Canada the preceding year. In May 1965 as it attempted to land at Ha Tien, “173” touched down short of the strip with devastating effect. The starboard gear sheared and the Caribou collapsed on to its wing and prop causing major damage. A replacement wing was subsequently flown in by helicopter and the aircraft repaired in situ. A novel photo opportunity existed when the aircraft was subsequently flown out with one wing bearing the markings of the USAF! Despite the potential for mishap, Brown remembers the challenge of such landing fields as an enjoyable aspect of his time abroad.
Flight into many of these strips was for the purpose of resupplying US camps with rations, medical supplies and ammunition. Speaking of their allies, Brown states, “Relations with the Americans was generally good, especially with the guys in the field. A typical camp had 2 or 3 ‘Yanks’ and 100 South Vietnamese or Montagnard troops.” The Americans would always offer the Aussies lunch and the latter were only too happy to oblige. Curiously, another aspect to the relationship hinged around the return of empty bottles for cash deposits. “We used to return their ‘empties’. Their own blokes didn’t seem to care, but it was no problem for us to throw the bottles in and take them back. As a consequence, we were extremely well received.”
The Montagnard, or “Mountain People”, were another ally. Brown remembers them as being a good people; short, tough and “very anti communist”. They possessed small crossbows that were incredibly tightly strung and would fire a 12 inch bamboo arrow. In his room one evening Brown attempted to relieve the boredom by shooting the arrow into the thick solid wood door of his villa apartment. “It went straight through the bloody door! It was incredibly powerful.” Left jutting from the other side, the arrowhead fortunately caused no damage to life or limb. Though not fired again, the crossbow did make the long journey home to Australia.
The RTFV did not have the airspace to itself. An absence of radar and prevalence of cloud meant that aircraft were not always aware of each others presence. “I saw a Canberra dive down in front of us,” he starts, “and then another and another.” Brown describes the looping motion of the bombers using his hands in the best fighter-pilot fashion. “I had flown through the middle of a Canberra bombing raid!” At times, being on the ground wasn’t any safer. “At one of the bigger bases, I think it was NhaTrang,” Brown strains the memory banks, “I was waiting to take off when a South Vietnamese A1 Skyraider landed on its belly tank right in front of me. The whole aeroplane went up in flames.” Miraculously, the pilot, the squadron CO, escaped without a scratch. Faced with an obvious delay and readying to offer assistance, the Aussie crew shutdown their Caribou. As fire tenders whizzed by, the Tower called the ‘Wallaby’ to ‘back out’. Brown hurried to comply, “I had no sooner started it, when the starboard engine went Voomf! There were flames for about 3-4 seconds and then it went out.” The culprit was found to be a cracked component in the fuel system that subsequently sprayed fuel over the hot engine. There was a happy ending though, “Unbelievably, the deHavilland Canada representative to Vietnam was on the base. He stripped and rebuilt the back of the engine overnight and totally rewired it. The aircraft flew out the next day.”
At Vung Tau the Australian Caribous were supported by RAAF ground crews, about whom Brown cannot speak too highly. Unlike the American system of “Crew Chiefs” assigned to a single aircraft and expected to be a ’jack of all trades’, the RTFV was supported by a team of skilled RAAF tradesmen. “An aircraft would come in unserviceable and 10 people would hit it. Bang. The next morning it was on the flightline, ready to go. It was a 24 hour a day job and they worked like drovers’ dogs.” On arriving in Vietnam in 1965, Brown’s tour of duty was originally six months, though this was extended to eight months whilst he was there. In that entire time he can only recall 3 or 4 occasions when a full complement of aircraft was not available.
When describing the suitability of the Caribou to its role, he puts it simply, “100%. It was a lovely aeroplane and very strong.” Warmly describing it as a “truck with wings”, he states that he never had cause to shut down an engine in flight and rarely was an engine change required for anything other than reaching its scheduled ‘life’. Coupled with its amazing short field performance, its sturdy reliability has seen the Caribou serve in numerous theatres of operation since Vietnam. For Brown, his ‘tour’ ended in January of 1966 and he subsequently entered the civil ranks of QANTAS. Now in retirement, he was present at a recent air show when the air, dust and crowd were stirred up by the distinctive growl of the deHavilland Caribou. For those in attendance it was a display of impressive low level manoeuvrability and short field performance. For Barrie Brown it probably evoked memories of the mountains of Vietnam, tight strips, old friends and the occasional flying pig.