Between 1965 and 1972, over 3,200 New Zealanders served in South Vietnam. By far the majority were ground troops – infantry, artillery and members of the New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS). There were also a small number of airmen, however, most of whom who were seconded to Australian and American air force units as helicopter pilots and forward air controllers respectively. Many air transport crews based outside Vietnam also flew to, from, and within the country. A number of RNZAF doctors and medical staff also served in South Vietnam.
It was because of a fear of the global spread of communism that the United States looked to its allies for support as the conflict in Vietnam intensified in 1965. New Zealand’s policy in South-East Asia was still focused on the perceived threat from Indonesia. Even so, in June 1964 New Zealand sent a small number of non-combatant Army engineers to assist in maintaining and improving Vietnamese infrastructure. Under political pressure from America to commit combat troops, however, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake agreed in May 1965 to send a New Zealand Army artillery unit to South Vietnam to support an Australian infantry battalion. This was followed by two infantry companies in 1967.
The RNZAF, meanwhile, proposed sending a detachment of No. 14 Squadron Canberra bombers to South Vietnam. It was also suggested that aircraft crews could serve with American and Australian Canberra units in South Vietnam. Holyoake’s government was not keen on such deployments as it wished to limit the scale of New Zealand’s commitment, and so these options were not pursued. However, by 1967, it accepted that seconding New Zealanders to both American and Australian air force units would be an appropriate compromise solution.
In this way, no complete New Zealand air combat units would serve in South Vietnam, but the RNZAF would instead send individuals to the combat zone. The first personnel were dispatched in mid-1967.