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Ronald Aitken

Ronald Aitken

Squadron Leader, Royal Australian Air Force


Flight Lieutenant Ronald William Aitken

Nos. 38, 36, 34, 2 and 37 Squadrons, Royal Australian Air Force
Service number: O219684
Rank on discharge: squadron leader

"Dave Godfrey and I were flying 10 minutes behind John Downing and Al Pinches on a “Combat Sky Spot” - a radar-guided bombing – when John and Al were shot down by an SA-2 missile. We were asked over the radio if we had contact with them. I responded “Negative.” I responded “Negative” to a few more queries.

Loss of contact was pretty unusual.

But when flying these CSS runs, you have to fly steady for a long way. We were sitting ducks for the surface-to-air missiles.

I think we were saved because they couldn’t get another missile ready in time to get us, too."

Ron Aitken went to Vietnam in June 1970 to join 2 Squadron RAAF flying Canberra B-20s with the 35th Tactical Fighter Wing of the United States Air Force. 

“I was a navigator and bombardier. Using the bomb sight, I directed the pilot in aiming the aeroplane and, when on target, I released the bombs. I had previously selected what I wanted the fusing system on the bomb to do – ensure detonation on impact to achieve more widespread damage, or delay the detonation to achieve more ground penetration for bunker complexes.”

“During my tour, we did very little work with Australian forces down in the Vung Tau Province. I think I did three bombing missions on the Long Hais Hills, which were a pile of impregnable granite rocks which the Viet Cong and some elements of the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) used as a supply and staging area. I don't think our bombs did much more than give them some inconvenience and a headache.”

“Many of our operations were in the Mekong Delta where the Viet Cong and the NVA used the canals and tributaries to move ammunition, supplies and weaponry around. They established bunker complexes alongside the canals, and we did a lot of work cleaning out those complexes. This involved line bombing which the Canberra, as a level bomber, was well suited. We could lay down a string of bombs with a spacing which could eliminate a whole bunker structure or a number of barges or loading platforms.”

“In the latter months of my time in Vietnam, the NVA were increasingly active in the South, coming down through the Ho Chi Minh Trail, mostly at night. The trail was a network of interlacing roads such that, if some of the roads were closed by bombing, the trucks could be diverted onto others. They had earth moving equipment the whole way along the trail and made repairs pretty quickly.”

“Parts of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the mountains around the A Shau Valley, West of Hue, were very vulnerable. The roads ran along the sides of the mountains, and bombing above or below the road could cause a landslide and close the road or cause the road to fall away. We would bomb around three or four in the afternoon to hold up the night traffic and force road repair in the evening and through the night. Then, after they’d moved in the bulldozers and repair equipment, ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ (either and AC-47 Dakota or Lockheed AC-130 gunship) would have some fine targets.”

“North of the Mekong Delta region, Vietnam becomes very mountainous. About 10 miles inland from our base at Phan Rang, the terrain is about 10,000 feet – higher than anywhere in Australia. As I preferred to bomb from 2,000 feet above terrain, we would often be scraping the treetops to get our bombs into valleys and so forth.”

“The Canberras were fitted with early model Martin-Baker ejection seats and their minimum operating height was specified as 1,200 feet above terrain. In other words, if you weren't flying level at least 1,200 feet above the ground when you ejected, your parachute was unlikely to open in time.”

“As the bomb site was situated in the perspex nose cone of the Canberra, I had to move from my ejection seat and crawl to a prone position in the nose for bomb aiming and release. If the aircraft was hit, there was unlikely to be time to get back and strap into the ejection seat. So, I wore an extra harness to which I could attach a parachute clipped to the crew entrance door. I was to shuffle out of the nose while the aircraft was likely unstable, release the chute from its mounting on the door, clip it on, eject the crew entrance door, and try to jump out. However, at speeds above 200 knots, pushing out through the slipstream would be like pushing into a foam mattress - it was most likely impossible for the navigator to get out. The pilot could eject, although if tall and long-legged the cockpit coaming would likely impact his kneecaps.”

“When the weather was bad in the northern part of the country, it was impossible to low-level bomb because very dense cloud was close to or on the treetops. So, to maintain pressure on our enemy, we did ‘combat sky spots’ using a mobile ground operated radar system to direct the aeroplane to the target. The pilot had to fly to very accurately in maintaining the ground-controller directed heading and altitude on a long steady approach to the target, until the operator’s countdown to my releasing the bombs while in my ejection seat. Often in cloud, we were ‘sitting ducks’ for any nearby SAM (surface air missile) sites.

“We mixed our crews a little, but generally paired up. I flew mostly with Dave Godfrey. I knew exactly how Dave flew the aeroplane and he knew exactly what I was doing. We were a very effective team, and achieved many direct hits.”

“Our squadron flew 10 sorties a day, and we did that generally with eight crews, so some crews had to double up. In my time in Vietnam, from 25 June 1970 till 2 June 1971, I flew 261 operational missions;.”

“We were too busy to be bored. Saturday night was party night. Some guys would be flying but those that weren’t congregated at one of the F100 squadrons, or the C-123 squadron, or the ‘Walt Facs’, or our squadron. The designated host squadron would make a big effort with the food – often a special BBQ which, typically, could involve digging a fire-pit in the ground in the AM and roasting a pig.  Australians, being enterprising fellows, built our 2 Sqn recreational facilities which included a swimming pool and a flying fox between our officers' mess and the pool equipped with a bomb release mechanism which, on one party night was used to drop an end-of-tour blind-folded 35th TFW commander into the pool!  We also had a lot of entertainers visit the base, mainly South Korean troupes (because one of the Phan Rang Base guard units was a South Korean Regiment) and occasional Australians.  Musicians and a lot of pretty girls.”

“Another great entertainment was the inter-squadron billycart race – I think it was every six months. These engineless vehicles were raced, timed, downhill from the Base O-Club (American Officers’ Mess) over a course. The squadron ground-crews would make the vehicles from bomb trolleys or whatever, and they would run this race. Great fun.”

“Around 1968, one of our 2 Sqn Catholic chaplains started an orphanage in Phan Rang and we kept going. We supported the orphanage by funding it, doing maintenance work, and visiting the children during our free time. I did several visits to bring something and amuse the children.”

“As our base at Phan Rang wasn’t very far from the coast, we were provided with some sailing skiffs from Australia by our welfare association. I’d done a lot of sailing and racing skiffs, and it was great being able to sail in the open sea in the Gulf. I taught many guys to sail these boats. To get to the beach we had to travel across a lot of open country which was subject to ground fire from lurking Viet Cong or NVA. Although always escorted by our 2 Squadron airfield defence guards, they couldn’t stop a bullet. These sorts of hazards were always present, but we just basically ignored them. You just had to accept that life has risks, take sensible precautions, and get on with it.”

“A nuisance we had to tolerate was the Viet Cong’s launching of rockets onto the base. They would launch them from the foothills of the mountains to our northwest. They used water fuses - water in a can with a little hole in it - when it drained out the mechanism would fire. They timed them to fire in the very early morning, so very frequently in the morning you would hear an explosion somewhere on base. Occasionally they did some damage. We were all liable to have these damn things explode in our rooms, but the base had a 17-mile perimeter, so it was a pretty big target.”

“It didn't take me long in Vietnam to realise that we shouldn’t be there. I can't speak for others, but I had the impression that the South Vietnamese Government was corrupt and that the people of the South would likely be better off under a different regime.”