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William Stafford Lowe MBE

William Stafford Lowe MBE

Lieutenant Commander, Royal Australian Navy


Lieutenant William Stafford Lowe

RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam, Royal Australian Navy
Service number: O707
Rank on discharge: lieutenant commander
Honours/awards: MBE

"I was part of a detachment of [Royal] Australian Navy aviators, mechanics and support crew in the 135th Assault Helicopter Company on the American base Blackhorse. I was the maintenance platoon commander. My biggest memory is that, in the year I lived and flew there, the food never got better.

I bought myself an electric frying pan, and if I was flying past Nui Dat or the RAAF in Vung Tau, I’d sometimes stop in there and scrounge something from the army or air force messes. Get myself some steaks, a leg of lamb, whatever they had on hand. I’d take it back to Blackhorse and prepare a meal. I’d usually share it with a couple of my senior staff.

I was very busy working night and day. Maintenance and flying. I logged 700 flight hours in one year."

Stafford Lowe entered the Royal Australian Navy in 1954 as a 14-year-old cadet midshipman. Stafford said, “I spent four years at the Naval College in Victoria, then after further training and Engineering College, I had flight training with the RAAF. First on the Winjeel at Point Cook and then on the Vampire at Pearce in Western Australia. When I came home to the Navy base in Nowra I was appointed to helicopters.”

“In 1967 I did six months in HMAS Melbourne in the Hong Kong area, Japan and surrounding area. I think I was in Hong Kong when I was appointed to the Vietnam flight. We returned to Sydney for eight weeks of pre-embarkation training and went up to Vietnam in October 1967; that's when we joined the 135th Assault Helicopter Company of the United States Army.”

“I had two-weeks of in-country training at Lai Khe flying Delta models and then we came back to our own unit in Vung Tau where we had about 25 H model Iroquois and eight Hueys which were the gunships.”

“Because I was an engineer, I became the maintenance platoon commander. We did all the operational maintenance, while the 10th Maintenance Detachment which was commanded by a US Army major (Major Dwayne Smith) was to do heavier maintenance. But Major Dwayne Smith was better qualified for the US Administration, so we decided to combine our units and he handled all the administration, and I handled the maintenance. So, I finished up with about 150 blokes working for me seven days a week, in three shifts.”

“I had two warrant officers who were test pilots, for testing after maintenance, and I did some of the test flying too. I was working day and night. Sometimes I would do a test flight at two o'clock in the morning.  With combat and maintenance test flights day and night, I finished up with 700 hours of flying in one year. It was a busy year. We were flat out.”

“Probably three days a week would be combat. I would have to have ready ten helicopters plus the maintenance ship plus a command and control ship for the slicks (Iroquois) and five gunships. And they would fly wherever they were required with combat missions; flying soldiers in and out of hotspots and not-so hotspots.”

“One or two days a week, the pilots had a break from combat and would fly what they called ‘hash and trash’. So, I'd have helicopters going all over the III Corps (Tactical Zone) delivering stores, chooks, and Vietnamese, and you name it. You never knew what you were going to get.”

“We flew some Australian Army missions from Nui Dat, but we mainly flew US Army missions. We mostly flew in the III Corps Tactical Zone and sometimes IV Corps. We were based at a place called Blackhorse, about 40 miles north of Nui Dat, near a town called Xuan Loc.”

“When we moved from Vung Tau to Blackhorse, we moved in one day. They took off from Vung Tau in the morning and landed at Blackhorse in the evening. I had a couple of crews up at Blackhorse building a hangar and a few sheds, and I kept going into Vung Tau for a few more days to sort out some of the heavy maintenance that had to be finished. That's the way the American Army did things. It was absolutely incredible.”

“We lived on the 11th Calvary Division base at Blackhorse. It was a big base, and we just had one tiny little corner. I remember one night there, the calvary boys were doing a recon by fire outside the base. They must have got disorientated because they started to fire back into the base right on our corner, and so we were getting firefight coming into us from the Americans. Fortunately, it didn't do a lot of damage. I think one helicopter was hit, but most of it came into where we were camped, and a few tents got holes in them. Apart from that, it wasn't too bad, but it was frightening, having to get out of bed and into a bunker. It was bad enough when the Viet Cong decided to fire on us.”

“The average squadron back in the Navy at Nowra for instance, would do about 3,500 hours a year as the squadron and we did 33,000 hours in one year in Vietnam. It was ten times the hours in Vietnam, and ten times the work. So, it was nonstop, except when I stopped to cook.”

“I did a lot of my own cooking. I bought myself an electric fry pan, and if I was flying past Nui Dat, I'd call in there and I'd scrounge from the Army Mess. I’d get myself some steaks or a leg of lamb and whatever else, and I'd take them back to Blackhorse and stick them in the fridge. Sometimes I'd invite a couple of the chiefs or petty officers to come across and have dinner, but sometimes we just didn't have time for that, so we had to eat in the Mess.”

“If I was in Saigon for any reason, I'd call into the Nha Be Naval Base on the way home for lunch. I recall one occasion when I had one of the young Australian pilots with me. I just parked the helicopter and walked into the Officers’ Mess, and we paid whatever it was, probably 70 cents, and had a magnificent lunch. And then we got in the helicopter and flew back again. I can’t remember what I had for lunch, but a nice salad went with it.”

“With the helicopters, you had three 25-hour inspections, and then the 100-hour inspections where you pulled the whole thing apart. The engine came out, the gear box came out, the flooring came up because there was so much dust and muck in there. All that had to be cleaned out. It was almost like you turned out a new helicopter when you finished. It took about 30 hours to do a 100-hour maintenance in our case because we had the Australian boys who were very experienced, and they helped the American boys along with the maintenance. We had a good team. We were doing a hundred-hour maintenance on a helicopter at least once a day. Every day there was a new helicopter.”

“One of my biggest memories from Vietnam was a little prang I had in the wet season. In the wet season the dust would turn to mud and was very slippery to work in. Each helicopter was stuck in its own revetment (walled parking area) and they would be slippery as hell. One day I was running a helicopter in the revetment, and I had to adjust the revs. I was flying it from the right-hand seat which was the exact place where the maintenance bloke had to adjust the revs. He came in under my legs and I had to lift my feet off the pedals.

I’d forgotten that I had no force trim; we were running short of spare parts, and I had taken the force trim that holds the pedals in position and put it somewhere else. As the bloke came underneath me, he knocked the pedal and spun the aircraft around. I tried to lift it off the ground quickly, but I didn’t quite make it and the tail rotor struck the revetment wall. The tail boom broke off and then the main rotors cut the main tail boom in half. So that was an exciting ride for one or two seconds.”

“The aircraft were being hit all the time. I was always mending aircraft. And if you're going into a hot insertion, you're bound to be getting shot at even as a maintenance bloke. I was shot at twice, or twice that I saw the tracer anyway.”

“The Australians had ten pilots and about 30 maintenance crew of one form or another. Of the ten Australians that went up as pilots only eight came back. Two of them lost their lives up there. The rest of us came home, but you know you think about those things.”

“I was asked to give three options of postings I would like when I came back from Vietnam. My first, second and third option was test pilot school.  So, I finished up in October 1968 and came back to Nowra, and the next year they sent me to the Empire Test Pilot School at Boscombe Down in England. I literally only had six weeks in Australia.”

“Vietnam wasn’t popular in Australia and there were demonstrations in the streets more often than not. That would affect a lot of the young blokes in particular, it didn't affect me so much because I was 28 when I went up there and I went into a command position effectively and I always knew what was going on. And I think that's a big difference. When you're an officer and you're in charge of something, you always know what's going on. You know roughly what’s going to happen in the day, what the plan is. When you're a young trooper or sailor or whatever else, you're just being told what to do on a day-to-day basis and you don't really know what's going on or what the aim is.”

“That’s probably behind a lot of the PTSD that a lot of lads have when they come home. They have no idea in the morning what they’re going to be doing, and in the evening they’ve lost a couple of their mates in a firefight or whatever else.”

“I got 10 years’ experience in one year in Vietnam, because that’s what it amounted to. You don't forget the experience, although you forget much of the detail. It's now 50 years since we were there.”

“I think the lesson to be learned from Vietnam was not to be there in the first place. It was just a waste of time and effort and money and lives, any war is. That's the way I feel these days anyway.  It's probably the main reason I left the Navy when I did. I thought, why am I here? I'm supposedly here to be involved in a war or killing people or whatever else, and I don't want to do that anymore.”