The HMAS Perth II was an Australian Guided Missile Destroyer with a thirty-four-year service life from 1965 to 1999. The Perth served alongside elements of the United States Seventh Fleet during the Vietnam War and received commendations for her service.
The Perth was the lead ship in her class, the Perth-class also consisting of the HMAS Hobart (D39) and Brisbane (D41). The three ships were initially part of the seven 437ft, 133 m, Charles F. Adams Class Destroyers ordered by the US Navy from the Defoe Shipbuilding Company in Bay City, Michigan. The Australian Government purchased hull numbers DDG 25, 26 and 27 to become the Perth-class . Minimal differences between US ships and the Perth-class made the Perth and her sister ships Hobart and Brisbane well-suited for integration with US logistics in the field. The Perth and Charles F. Adams classes only differ in the specific type of anti-submarine missile each class is equipped with, the Perth class used Ikara missiles while the Adams used ASROC missiles. Both classes had identical twin rapid-firing five-inch guns . In comparison to older types of destroyers the intended mission of ships like the Perth remained the same, but the technology had changed namely the addition of the guided missile that gave ships of this type their new classification. Older “all gun” destroyers were used as the outermost ring of air defense for large fleets with their anti-aircraft guns, the Perth was designed to do the same but primarily using Tartar anti-aircraft guided missiles which greatly extend the effective range of anti-aircraft cover.. The Tartar missile system used Perth‘s radar to guide the missiles to the target. The Perth also brought new technology to the anti-submarine role that destroyers had become known for filling. Instead of the simple depth charges used during the World Wars, Perth and other guided missile destroyers now carried anti-submarine missiles and homing torpedoes . As impressive as these technologies were, the Perth-class also carried two five-inch guns in single turrets, one front and one aft, to be used for fire support against surface and land based targets. These five-inch guns could also be used as flack batteries, where shells were fired with fuses that explode at a set altitude as a further anti-aircraft measure.
The Perth is most famous for its service during the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War the Australian government sent their guided missile destroyers to support the United States Seventh fleet from March 1967 to February 1972. The first Australian destroyer on Station was the Perth’s sister ship HMAS Hobart. The Hobart was attached to the US Seventh Fleet, and her first deployment lasted from 7 March 1967 until she was relieved by the Perth under command of Captain P. H. Doyle on September 24, 1967 . During this deployment the Hobart had set precedent for how the Australian destroyers would be used during the war. Both the Hobart and Perth participated in Operation Sea Dragon at various points throughout the war. Operation Sea Dragon was the maritime equivalent of Operation Rolling Thunder . Both operations were set up to target the build up of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong supplies and armaments that were gathered during the Tet ceasefire From February 8th to 13th. The primary goals of Operation Sea Dragon were to destroy Water Borne Logistic Crafts (WBLCs) and to bomb military and logistical targets north of the DMZ . The WBLCs were usually nothing more than fishing boats used to transport munitions. The Australian destroyers would also regularly be used for naval gunfire support (NGFS) for ground forces; in this role Perth’s radio call sign was Gunpowder .
Soon after arriving on station, the Perth was asked to give medical assistance by the oil tanker USS Neches. Perth‘s Medical Officer Surgeon Lieutenant B. J. Cheffins was sent to the Neches where he diagnosed a crew member of the tanker with acute appendicitis. The Perth took the sick sailor aboard an returned to the main force of the seventh fleet in Subic Bay at high speed.. The Perth’s first combat assignment came as fire support for the US Army 1st Calvary Division which was participating in Operation Pershing. During her service in support of Operation Pershing, Perth fired her first rounds against enemy forces. On the 29th of September Perth was reassigned to the DMZ to join an American heavy cruiser and 5 American destroyers in bombarding North Vietnamese Coastal batteries. After only five days on this assignment, Perth had fired 567 five-inch shells. Perth stayed on this assignment until she joined the northern element of Operation Sea Dragon as a support ship for the Des Moines-class heavy cruiser USS Newport News. The first mission this pair undertook was off Sam Son, a town on the northern side of the Cap Chao headland. Here, Perth fired upon coastal defense sites allowing Newport News to engage the primary target .
At 0800 on the 18th October, Perth was ten miles south of Sam Son and steaming two miles ahead of Newport News when the ships identified a group of suspected WBLCs. Both ships came under fire from twelve or more coastal batteries as the moved to investigate. The ships proceeded to turn away from the coast while engaging in counter-battery fire. Just as the turn was completed, Perth’s aft turret was hit by a 85 mm or 100 mm semi-armor-piercing shell, the shell damaged the gun mount, penetrated the deck, and exploded in the confidential books vault . This would be the only time an Australian ship would be hit by enemy fire in the war. Leading Seaman W. J. Young, the gun captain of the damaged turret, rallied the crew to quickly restore the turret to functioning order. The Perth returned fire with both turrets once the aft turret was made operational again, silencing enemy fire. Four sailors were wounded by the exploding shell, two were severely wounded enough to need to be airlifted to the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany and from there to a naval hospital . Thanks to the training of her damage control teams, on-board engineers, and other repair men, in less than four hours Perth’s aft turret was restored to its fully operational state using nothing more than the parts and materials already on the ship .
On October 24th, Perth joined the southern Sea Dragon element with Captain Doyle taking command of the element. In late October, Perth left Sea Dragon operations so that her five-inch gun barrels could be replaced in the Subic Bay. She returned and resumed command by November 1st. During the entire month of October only 146 WBLCs were spotted, a drastic drop from the average of 50 per day at the beginning of Sea Dragon operations. This was seen as a sign the operation was cutting down on the flow of supplies through the Gulf of Tonkin, despite an increase in coastal defensive sites . The build up in coastal defenses indicates that the North Vietnamese commanders found the attacks on their logistics to be a serious threat. On December 3rd, Perth was again acting as the support ship to Newport News on a mission to provide harassment and interdiction fire in the Bay of Brandon when the ships came under fire once again, however this time she was not hit. Until the 12th, when Perth was placed in command of a separate task force, the ships stayed in the Bay of Brandon hunting for WBLCs and firing at inland logistics targets such as railway bridges. On December 15th, Perth along with USS Hamner assisted in the rescue of the crew of an aircraft that had crashed into the sea near Dong Hoi. The ships patrolled the area around the crash site to provide cover fire for the rescue helicopter should the need have arisen.. After the aircrew was rescued the ships came under fire while conducting a sweep of Dong Hoi, the nearest shots fell 300 yards from the Perth and the task force altered course seaward. On the 20th, Perth gave task force command to USS Robinson and headed to Hong Kong by way of Subic Bay for Christmas.
On January 9th 1968, Perth returned to the combat zone again running northern Sea Dragon patrols in support of Newport News before taking command of southern Sea Dragon operations on the 20th. After January 22nd, both Sea Dragon task forces were ordered to prioritize land choke points, highways, and storage areas as primary target due to the North Vietnamese increasingly transporting supplies over land.. While firing on a highway bridge on January 25th Perth and her support ships USS Bordelon came under heavy fire from a coastal gun emplacement and were forced to withdraw. Perth then requested air support from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. The jets from the carrier attacked the emplacement, but one A-4 Skyhawk was shot down. The pilot, Commander Woolcock of the US Navy, ejected and splashed down 10 miles from the task force. A successful rescue of the downed pilot was coordinated by Perth . On January 31, the flag of the Australian Chief of Naval Staff flew above a ship conducing wartime operations for the first time, as Vice Admiral Sir Alan McNicole embarked in Perth for a two day visit to the Sea Dragon task force .
From February 2nd to the 13th, Perth was off station for routine maintenance and to have the barrels of her five-inch guns replaced for a second time. Upon returning to duty on the 14th, Captain Doyle was placed in command of all Sea Dragon operations, and thus in charge of planning where and how the operations were carried out. On February 23rd, Doyle chose to attack the coastal town of Vinh. Due to its location on the Song Ca River, Vinh had become a major logistic staging point for the North Vietnamese. Using poor visibility due to weather to make return fire ineffective, the task force bombarded logistical targets. On March 14th, American Rear Admiral S. K. Kinney, Commander of the Seventh Fleet Cruiser-Destroyer Force, briefly made Perth his flagship . Following the admirals visit the Perth continued her now typical routine of firing upon logistics targets until she was relieved by the USS Emperson on March 23rd.
Before Perth left the Seventh Fleet, the fleet commander Vice Admiral W. F. Bringle visited to speak to the ship’s crew. After handing over duties to the Hobart on March 31, Perth returned to Sydney on April 10th. During her first deployment, Perth sailed 64,750 miles and fired 13,351 rounds from her guns . For service during her first deployment Perth was awarded the United States Navy Unit Commendation .
By the spring and summer of 1968, it was increasingly clear the war was not going well, and the public opinion of the war was steadily growing worse. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces had begun a massive push south in early 1968 during the holiday of Tet. The Tet Offensive as it became known was well coordinated and signaled the turning point in the war . In the United States, officials now faced a decision on whether to withdraw troops from Vietnam or not, an issue that was hugely important to the 1968 presidential election. The My Lai massacre took place on the 16th of March and became a commonly used event to argue against the war. Of closer relation to the Perth, on June 17th Hobart was hit by a missile fired from a US Air Force fighter jet, killing two crew men. The Hobart was one of several ships that came under friendly fire on June 16th and 17th.
Perth left Sydney to return to Vietnam on September 19th under Captain D. W. Leach and returned to the Sea Dragon task group on the 9th of October. Perth came under fire yet again during a mission to destroy a vehicle depot shortly after taking command of southern Sea Dragon. On the 15th, Perth took part in the complete destruction of a highway bridge, a critical logistical target in relatively undeveloped Vietnam . On the 21st of October, Perth was assigned the unusual task of providing cover for the release of North Vietnamese prisoners of war. From the 22nd to the 27, Perth patrolled the coast of the DMZ with the battleship USS New Jersey providing NGFS for ground forces in the area. President Johnson ordered that all air, ground, and naval bombardment against North Vietnam be stopped. This was likely an attempt to progress the peace talks that had begun in Paris. As a result, Perth and other NGFS ships were no longer permitted to operate within five nautical miles of the 17th Parallel. Perth now operated strictly in the NGFS role in assistance to ground forces. In mid-December Perth was ordered to provide NGFS for troops in Operation McLain, a search and destroy operation that lasted throughout 1968. On December 19th, Perth was rushed to provide fire support for american forces under attack just 40 miles from the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon .
Following a break from duty for Christmas, and a brief recreational visit to Taiwan Perth rejoined the gun line on January 9th. Between the 9th and 17th, when she was transferred to conduct exercises, Perth damaged or destroyed 86 bunkers, 184 structures, and four bridges.. Coincidentally, the ship that relieved Perth of combat duty was the USS Waddell (DDG 24), the Charles F. Adams-class destroyer who’s hull had been laid down directly before Perth‘s.[4, 6]. On the 25th Perth joined the carrier group around the USS Hornet and took part in anti-submarine exercises with the groups other six destroyers. On February 19th the Perth took part in the search for a missing US Navy F-4 Phantom near Grande Island, Perth‘s direction Officer, Lieutenant W. G. Ritchie, talked to local fisherman in the area and learned they had seen the plane crash.
Perth continued to provide fire support to ground forces until she was relieved of duty by Brisbane on March 31st. Perth then traveled to the site of the World War II battle of the Java Sea, where the first HMAS Perth was lost. On April 7th, the crew of the Perth held a memorial service for the 460 Australian sailors who had died aboard the first Perth on March 1, 1942. For her second tour of duty in Vietnam Perth was awarded the US Navy Mertitorious Unit Commmendation, making her the most decorated Royal Australian Navy ship of the war. Perth returned to Vietnam a third time but did not receive any awards for that tour [4, 7].
Despite the valiant efforts of Perth and ships like her the Vietnam War was lost. The destruction of logistical targets did not sap the Northern forces will to fight and eventually on May 30th 1975 the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon fell. To the US and Australia this was a defeat, but in hindsight, they were fighting to save those who did not want to be saved. Communism had strong support in South Vietnam, and many celebrated the fall of Saigon both in the North and South . However, those in south Vietnam who had supported the Americans feared for there lives and wanted to get out. This led to the largest Helicopter evacuation in history, the decks of American Carriers were so crowded with people that the helicopters were pushed overboard to make room . 6,000 Marines and 30,000 Seamen were involved in evacuating the political refugees, John Huddleston, a member of a helicopter crew involved remembers it as an emotional time saying that “People were crying and you could even hear people cheering above the noise of the choppers. I’ll never forget that landing” . The Vietnam war ended in failure, but one cannot blame the efforts of Perth and her crew.
- Bartlett, T. (1975, 09). ”Frequent wind”. Leatherneck (Pre-1998), 58, 28-33.
- 10,000 Gather in Hanoi, Cheer the Fall of Saigon. (1975, May 03). Chicago Tribune.
- TIME FOR DECISION IN VIETNAM. (1968, Feb 01). Chicago Tribune.
- Fairfax, Denis. Navy in Vietnam: A Record of the Royal Australian Navy in the Vietnam Was, 1965-1972. Brisbane: Watson Ferguson, 1980.
- Lautenschläger, K. & Olive, D. “Technology and the Evolution of Naval Warfare.” International Security, vol. 8 no. 2, 1983, pp. 3-51.
- Kusmierz, Marvin. “History: Defoe Boat & Motor Company, Bay City, Bay County, MI / Bay Journal.” History: Defoe Boat & Motor Company, Bay City, Bay County, MI / Bay Journal. Bay Journal, n.d.
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- Ross, Brian. Australia’s Military Involvement in the Vietnam War. N.A.: N.A., 1995.