As a young man growing up in North Queensland, Ray James saw a naval career as an opportunity to visit ports around the world. HMAS Sydney was his first draft as a training ship, and he snapped it up.
“I was looking forward to starting a career in the Royal Australian Navy,” Ray said. “And I was looking forward to going to Vietnam, in the sense of being a part of Australia's commitment to the Vietnam War.”
Ray James was 17 on his first trip to Vietnam on HMAS Sydney. The Sydney ferried troops to and from Vung Tau port and was nicknamed the ‘VT Ferry’.
“In 1966, 1968, I did six trips to Vietnam,” Ray said. “We'd offload 400 or 500 troops, and we'd bring 400 or 500 troops back home. We sailed with equipment, vehicles, and stores. The most treasured stores were the many cans of beer for the troops in Vietnam.”
Ray learned the routines of shipboard life, working in the galley, cleaning, and training with the engineering branch. In between trips to Vietnam, he did his stokers course on HMAS Cerberus, then as a technical sailor he worked the engine room and boiler room.
Ray said the sailors and soldiers on the VT Ferry mixed and conversed all the time. “We played cards, checkers and mahjong. We had movie nights and boxing tournaments.”
“I was in the Navy boxing team. I wasn’t all that big and heavy in those days, so I used to fight people a couple of stone heavier than me,” said Ray. “The boxing built up good camaraderie with the soldiers travelling to Vietnam and travelling back.”
“There used to be two cans of beer for the winner and one can for the loser. I wasn't old enough to drink on the first couple of trips, but I can tell you I won two cans every time I fought.”
When the Sydney reached Vung Tau it anchored in the harbour for a couple of days to offload. Ray said the idea was to get in and out as quick as possible.
“The whole time we were in Vung Tau they lit up the ship at water level and had everybody around the perimeter of the deck looking for anything suspicious.”
“There was a lot of debris coming down from the Mekong Delta and there could be mines and explosive devices hidden in pig carcasses,” Ray said. “And, if there were any signs of enemy divers, there’d be a call to arms.”
It was a war zone, there was gunfire and a lot of noise of aircraft, but for Ray there were also some moments of beauty. “Like in the early hours. I’d come off watch in the boiler room with a nice cup of milk coffee and just hang off the guard rails and see the morning crack open and the sun come up before all the activity began again.”
“Or being on deck at nighttime and looking over the cape, looking over the hills and the land, and the other ships in the harbour. Whether it’s beautiful or not it’s remained in my mind,” said Ray.
Ray did six trips to Vietnam on the VT Ferry and another on the destroyer escort ship HMAS Torrens. Ray said some trips were welcomed home and others weren’t. He remembers having to anchor off Garden Island to offload the troops onto barges when striking workers stopped them tying up alongside.
“I remember people outside the Garden Island gates demonstrating. We'd walk through them and go down to the Macquarie Hotel, which was commonly known as the rockers, and have our fill.”
In 1987, Ray marched in the Welcome Home Parade when Prime Minister Bob Hawke acknowledged the commitment of the armed forces who served in Vietnam. He said, “I can still remember walking down George Street and past the Sydney Town Hall and the people paying respect to us. Having that recognition was really great.”
Discover more stories of Vietnam War veterans at the Stories of the Dat Do Dogs photography exhibition open at the Anzac Memorial until 1 March 2024