Data extracted from John Perryman & Brett Mitchell, Australian Navy in Vietnam: Royal Australian Navy Operations 1965 – 1972, p.65-68. Reprinted with the kind permission of the Authors.
Photographs from the Australian War Memorial Collection licensed under CC BY-NC
Unit: Clearance Diving Team 3
- LEUT W.D.H. Lees, RAN
- POCD W.H. Ellery
- LSCD D.W. Winckle
- ABCD J.R. Branch
- ABCD R.W. Cocks
- ABCD J.R. Henry
Deployment: February 1968 to September 1968
The third contingent, under the temporary command of Petty Officer Ellery, arrived in Vietnam on 12 February 1968. They were joined by Lieutenant Lees two weeks later.
The new contingent began their first operation on 29 February 1968. Lieutenant Lees, Petty Officer Ellery and Able Seaman Henry embarked in USCGC Point Grace (WPB 82323) and proceeded to the Bo Dai River area to intercept a Chinese trawler known to be infiltrating munitions. When the trawler was sighted in the early hours of 1st March, her crew opened up with .50 calibre machine guns and headed for the beach. The engagement proved to be short and one-sided, with a second USCG cutter, Winona (WHEC 65), destroying the trawler with only her third round of 5-inch gunfire.
In early March, a sub-operation to STABLEDOOR, known as Operation CORRAL, began. The aim of this operation was to search all junks and sampans in the Vung Tau area on the same day. The first such operation took place on 7 March when 147 craft were searched and five unidentified persons detained. It was repeated a fortnight later. These operations placed high demands on all EOD personnel.
The second contingent began demolition operations in the Long Hai Hills in February. These continued in March and April. In addition to the destruction of bunker and tunnel complexes, two historic French 16-inch coastal batteries were also destroyed. Much to the regret of CDT3 personnel EOD operations in March were predominantly associated with collecting and disposing of munitions souvenired by naïve servicemen who failed to appreciate the danger they posed. Meanwhile, Able Seaman Branch and Cocks were despatched to the tug Charles on 15 March and removed two enemy B41 rockets embedded in her hull.
On the same day, Petty Officer Ellery accompanied a five-man US-led reconnaissance patrol to Long Son, an island well known for harbouring VC and routinely booby-trapped. This incident alarmed senior naval officers in Australia and suggested that the patrol had been a SEAL type special forces operation that contravened the Chief of Naval Staff’s directive precluding CDT3 from participating in such operations. Similarly, the detachment of Ellery and Able Seaman Branch and Cocks to the Thai port of Sattahip from 20 to 28 March was also considered a further breach of the directive which provided that CDT3 was ‘available for assignments within the Republic of Vietnam’. As a result of this, the terms of the directive limiting the scope of CDT3’s operations were reinforced.
Between 30 March and 4 April CDT3 were engaged in a search for a US OV-1C Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft which had crashed into Vung Tai Harbour. An area of 100,000 square yards was searched without success and it was only when the pilot’s body floated to the surface that the wreckage was located.
On 9 April, the team supported Sydney when she visited Vung Tau in company with her escort HMAS Parramatta. At 1250 that afternoon, approximately one hour before Sydney was scheduled to sail, SS Clarkport Victory reported two swimmers near three sampans 200 yards on Sydney’s beam. The sampans and swimmers were rounded up by harbour patrol craft and the ships searched with negative results. When interrogated, the swimmers stated that they were recovering broken fishing nets. This was yet another example of the many false alarms experienced during STABLEDOOR operations.
In the early hours of 23 April, VC forces entrenched on Long Son Island launched a rocket attack on Vung Tau. This was the second such attack in three months. Rockets and 75mm recoilless rifle rounds rained down on military facilities, including an area occupied by a Strategic Communications Battalion atop the Nui Lon hills, barely 200 metres from CDT3’s base. While the 122mm rockets inflicted little material damage, 16 people were killed, mainly Vietnamese civilians. CDT3 spent the following three days clearing rocket fragments and rendering safe ordnance that had failed to explode. Further enemy action in the Vung Tau area in May bought about a temporary halt to shipping in and out of Saigon. SS Whitner Victory was one of three ships damaged.
CDT3 was called out to two hazardous EOD incidents on 11 and 14 May. The first concerned a barge stranded on a mud bank opposite the port, upon which a small package was found, containing two M26 grenades. The package had been well concealed and it was thought that this might have been in preparation for an attack against nearby ammunition barges. Other evidence suggested that the barge might conceal further caches of ammunition, so the remainder of the vessel was searched. Leading Seaman Winckle, accompanied by Able Seaman Cocks and Henry carried out a difficult search of the bilges, that were a mere two feet deep and filled with 18 inches of putrid water. The confined space precluded the use of breathing apparatus, adding to the dangers of this task.
The second task involved most of the team, who retrieved 216 fused, armed and unstable M79 grenades from the 148th Ordnance Company’s ammunition facility. The grenades were gingerly loaded onto a truck and sandbagged. Ellery volunteered for the dangerous duty of driving the truck alone to the demolition site where the grenades were safely counter-charged.
On 24 May, Lieutenant Lees, Able Seaman Cocks and Henry were taken by PCF 71 on a mission to recover the bodies and radio equipment from a downed C-123 aircraft 180 miles south west of Vung Tau. The aircraft had been conducting a defoliation mission and crashed close inshore not far from enemy controlled territory. Diving operations commenced on the morning of 25 May. The aircraft had crashed in a vertical attitude in only a few feet of water and the impact buried half of the aircraft in mud. Radio equipment, manuals, code books and other equipment were recovered and the remains of the C-123 were destroyed in situ on the 26th using 150lbs of plastic explosive.
The end of the May 1968 marked the midway point of this contingent’s tour of duty and a brief return to Australia for R&R was granted to some team members. Meanwhile in Vung Tau, living conditions in the ‘cave’ were slowly improving with the addition of a new concrete patio, television and short wave radio.
The typical monsoonal weather experienced the previous year did not eventuate, and although there were some vicious tropical storms, these did not impede the team’s operations. CDT3 conducted 441 incident free STABLEDOOR searches during June and July 1968.
In other operations, Lieutenant Lees and Leading Seaman Winckle responded to an urgent call from Vung Tau airfield on 6 June and proceeded to render safe a small number of rockets and grenades onboard a UH-1D helicopter of the 126th AHC, which had crashed on the airfield. The following week Petty Officer Ellery and Able Seaman Henry encountered one of the most dangerous incidents yet faced by CDT3. A fork lift driver unloading an ammunition barge pierced a 750–pound napalm bomb, spilling its volatile contents all over the barge, on other napalm bombs and into the water. The two sailors recovered as much of the spilt napalm as they could. This was then taken out to sea and ignited by tracer bullets. As Lees later reported, the danger ‘was extremely high, one spark could have set off 150,000lbs of napalm’.
Lees himself faced another serious situation on 23 July. A fire in the aft section of Chinook helicopter had caused a M79 grenade to ‘cook’ out its cartridge. Although the grenade had not travelled the requisite distance to arm the fuse, the heat damage made it extremely dangerous to handle. Protected only by an armoured vest, Lees judiciously removed the grenade to a safe area where it was detonated.
During the second half of July, the Senior Naval Advisor to Coastal Group 33 made three requests for CDT3 personnel to accompany patrols into the Rung Sat Special Zone. Known as the ‘Forest of Assassins’, this zone covered an area of 400 square miles of dense mangrove swamps interspersed with heavy concentrations of Nipa palm. The area came under the operational control of the Vietnamese Navy. It was a hotbed of enemy activity. The operations were cleared through Commander Task Force 115 (Coastal Surveillance Force) at Cam Ranh Bay. EOD assistance was required to help clear landing areas along canal banks to facilitate offensive combat operations against an increasingly active VC, and the authorities knew that these areas were heavily booby-trapped.
The first operation, which took place on the night of 18 July, was largely uneventful. Lees and Cocks accompanied 24 Vietnamese underwater demolition team personnel and advisers into the Rung Sat and cleared a landing area in the mangrove swamps.
Lees and Petty Officer Ellery conducted a similar operation the following evening. However, as the two were busy clearing their designated area, they sighted nine darkened sampans approaching their position and an ambush was set up. The accompanying patrol engaged the sampans at 0200. The enemy retaliated, firing grenades and automatic weapons. Twenty minutes later the engagement was over. The sampans were destroyed, 25 VC were killed and another two wounded. There were no friendly causalties. Subsequent intelligence reports indicated that the occupants of the sampans were an enemy finance platoon and armed escort travelling to Vung Tau. Lees and Ellery were both awarded the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry by the Government of the Republic of South Vietnam. The third and final patrol occurred on 31 July and involved Able Seamen Branch and Henry. On this occasion, the patrol detained seven people, but they were assessed as wood cutters and later released.
On 1 August, Lees and Henry proceeded to Nui Dai where they destroyed 30 tons of unsafe ammunition accumulated by 1ATF over a three year period. In a similar mission, Leading Seaman Winckle accompanied members of the 148th Ordinance Company to a demolition area where three and a half tons of ordnance was destroyed. Earlier in the day the team hosted The Honourable C.R. Kelly MP, Minister for the Navy. In an article published in Navy News, Kelly wrote of the divers:
They are living in a kind of cave and I was very sorry for them until I visited the cave. The only thing they lack is air-conditioning. They have fine beards, a fine reputation as clearance divers, and a most enviable reputation for acquiring things. I remember asking the Lieutenant in charge where he got a particularly fine piece of furniture. There was a long pause and he said ‘Mr Minister, Sir, I wish you hadn’t asked me that. ‘Whenever they say ‘Mr Minister, Sir,’ I know they’re treading water.
On 13 August, team members removed and counter-charged 2.75 inch rockets from two UH-1D Iroquois helicopters that had crashed in separate accidents. Lieutenant Lees also welcomed the relief team to Saigon on 13 August. The new arrivals were accompanied by Lieutenant Commander H.J. Donohue, RAN, a mine warfare specialist from the Directorate of Underwater Weapons in Canberra, Donohue spent two weeks with CDT3, studying the team’s activities, problems and areas of responsibility. Lees and his team returned to Australia on 3 September.
The special operations undertaken by CDT3 in July 1968 brought to a head the question of their participation in SEAL operations, prompting Lees to seek a ruling from his superiors. The first to react was Major General A.L. MacDonald, Commander Australian Force Vietnam (COMAFV), who issued interim instructions barring CDT3 from further participation in operations involving SEALs. Vice Admiral V.A.T Smith, the Chief of Naval Staff, subsequently visited CDT3 on 12 September and held discussions with COMAFV and COMNAVFORV. He later wrote to General Sir John Wilton, Chairman of the Australian Chiefs of Staff Committee, advising of his intention to amend CDT3’s Directive. In view of CDT3’s expertise in EOD, the team could only benefit from a lifting of operational restrictions which would not endanger team members any more than personnel serving in the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) or Special Air Service (SAS). General Wilton visited the team himself on 24 October 1968. In January 1969, the relevant section of the Directive to CDT3 was amended to read:
Members of the RAN Clearance Diving Team (CDT) may be employed on Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) duties in SEAL type operations when the task is one for which, by virtue of their training and experience, they are fully suited. The CDT is not to take part in any operations along the Cambodian border.