Australian MIAs of the Vietnam War – "missing in action" or "no known grave"?

 by Ashley Ekins

The term "missing in action" has long brought anguish to the families of servicemen lost in war. Of the 60,000 Australians who died in the First World War, over one-third were recorded as "missing". Almost half the Australians who died on Gallipoli have no known grave. Many bereaved families were haunted for a generation by the memories of sons, brothers, fathers and husbands who had disappeared without trace. The scale of the loss made this a shared national experience, starkly recalled today in scores of overseas war cemeteries with headstones inscribed with Kipling's simple words: "An Australian Soldier of the Great War . . . Known unto God".

There was no such solace for the next of kin of servicemen listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War. Over 500 Australians died in Vietnam. Among them were six Australian servicemen – four Army soldiers and two RAAF airmen – who were initially recorded as "missing in action" (MIA) in four separate incidents. In all six cases their classification was subsequently amended to either "killed in action" or "missing in action - presumed dead". All six servicemen are perhaps more correctly described as having no known graves. These are their stories.

The first Australian combat unit to fight in Vietnam, 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), was also the first to have soldiers recorded as missing in action. In November 1965 1RAR joined an American battalion of the US 173d Airborne Brigade on Operation Hump, a five-day search-and-destroy operation into the enemy dominated territory of War Zone D, about forty kilometres northeast of Saigon.

This area was known to contain a Viet Cong stronghold and the base for an enemy regiment as well as enemy supply routes linking the communist war zones to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. For the first two days the rifle companies of 1RAR had sporadic enemy contacts as platoons patrolled through swamp and thick jungle. Then, on the afternoon of 8 November, while the soldiers of A Company were pushing through dense rainforest near the top of the Gang Toi hills, they struck a strongly-defended Viet Cong bunker system.

As they crested a ridge, the leading Australian platoon suddenly came under a hail of fire from machine-guns in well-sited bunkers, supported by rifles and grenades. Five men were hit almost immediately at close range. The rest of the platoon quickly went to ground and began returning fire as the wounded men withdrew or were dragged back - all except for Lance Corporal Richard "Tiny" Parker, who had been commanding the point section. Parker had fallen directly in front of the enemy bunkers. He was lying face down and was not moving. He could not be reached and he did not respond to shouts from his comrades.

This was the first time the Australians had encountered a Viet Cong main force unit who fought and stood their ground. They could tell from the sounds of heavy firing that the American battalion across the river from them had also run into trouble. 1/503 Battalion had assaulted an enemy bunker system and was now engaged in fierce close-quarters fighting with a Viet Cong regiment.

With his forward platoon pinned down, Major John Healy, commanding A Company, ordered another of his platoons to assault the enemy bunkers from the flank. As they advanced, this platoon was also caught in a heavy cross-fire from enemy machine-guns concealed in bunkers. Private Peter Gillson, a machine-gunner with the forward section, was hit by a burst of automatic fire as he stepped around the twisted roots of a tree. He fell just fifteen metres from the enemy position, propped against the roots.

Gillson's platoon sergeant, Sergeant Colin Fawcett, crawled forward under fire to help the wounded soldier. Fawcett reached for Gillson's arm but could feel no pulse at the wrist. He saw that Gillson had been hit several times. He attempted several times to drag Gillson's body out of the line of fire but both the soldier and his machine-gun were wedged tightly among the tree roots. He was forced to move back. Fawcett was later awarded the Military Medal for his brave actions.

The assaulting platoon was now at risk of being encircled by the enemy and was compelled to withdraw under enemy fire. Dusk was approaching and Major Healy was forced to order his company to break off contact and withdraw, reluctantly leaving the bodies of Parker and Gillson behind. He had no choice. His company had struck a determined enemy force of equal strength; the Viet Cong were well-armed and their bunkers dominated all approaches. In the judgement of official historian Ian McNeill,

it would have been foolhardy for him to have pressed the attack ... Healy had done all he could and his company had performed creditably [but] the men were depressed at leaving two soldiers behind.

The Australians wanted to return to the Gang Toi hills. A full battalion attack operation was planned later in the month but it was never conducted. Over two years later Australian soldiers returned to the old battleground of Operation Hump when units of the 1st Australian Task Force conducted Operation Coburg during the communist Tet Offensive. But no trace of the missing soldiers was ever found.

Peter Gillson's wife later wrote to his platoon commander with stoic resignation:

I am really proud to be called a soldier's wife, even though it is heart breaking at times, but I suppose we all must expect these things and when it does happen we must be as brave as our men were - but in a way I am very lucky because I have a son which Peter never saw. He is only four months old but he'll never know just how much strength he has given me to go on. I only hope that his son will grow up to be as fine a man as Peter was.

A court of inquiry conducted by 1RAR shortly after the action recommended that Private Gillson be recorded as" killed in action"; and Lance Corporal Parker be recorded as "missing in action, presumed dead". Both soldiers were officially listed as missing in action, however, because their bodies were not recovered.

In 1969 Private David Fisher, a national serviceman serving with 3 Squadron SAS, became the next soldier declared missing in action. In September 1969 Fisher was second-in-command of a five-man, long range SAS patrol searching for signs of enemy activity near the Nui May Tao massif in south-eastern Long Khanh province.

After patrolling for seven days in persistent rain, on 27 September the Australians had a series of sharp contacts with strong groups of Viet Cong. Outnumbered and pursued through the jungle, they called for a helicopter extraction. The helicopters arrived within half an hour, just as the enemy were closing in on the SAS soldiers.

During the hectic moments of the "hot" extraction, while under fire and surrounded by the enemy, the members of the patrol clipped on their karabiners and attached themselves to ropes dangling from a helicopter and were lifted clear of the jungle. As the helicopter gathered speed and helicopter gunships moved in to fire on the enemy on the ground, the patrol members suddenly noticed that Private Fisher was missing. He had fallen from his rope from a height of about 30 metres above the tree canopy. It was later suggested that, under pressure, Fisher may have attached his karabiner to the wrong loop on the rope.

An air search began within ten minutes of the incident and a ground search began within five hours. A ten-man SAS patrol searched the jungle around the site, joined the following day by rifle companies who searched for the next six days. Fisher's body was never found, and he was declared missing in action, presumed dead. He had only two months remaining of his tour of duty.

In 1970 two RAAF airmen were declared missing in action in Vietnam. Flying Officer Michael Herbert and Pilot Officer Robert Carver, both of 2 Squadron, RAAF, were believed killed when their Canberra bomber disappeared while flying a night bombing mission in the northern 1 Corps region of South Vietnam.

On 3 November 1970 Herbert (the pilot and aircraft captain) and Carver (the navigator and bomb aimer) had taken off from Phan Rang at 7.00 p.m., heading for their target in Quang Nam province 65 kilometres south-west of Da Nang. The weather was relatively clear and the flight to the target was without incident. The Australians carried out their bombing run and released their bombs over the target area at 8.22 p.m. After acknowledging a radio message, they switched frequency for the return flight to Phan Rang. Shortly afterwards, the aircraft disappeared from the radar screen which was tracking it.

American and Australian air units mounted an aerial search the next morning. The extensive search involved 67 sorties over an area of over 16,000 square kilometres but it was hampered by poor weather conditions. The search failed to find any trace of the aircraft or crew and was called off after three days.

Pilot Officer Carver had served for only eight weeks in Vietnam. Flying Officer Herbert, who had qualified as a pilot at the age of 16, had only two months to go to finish his tour.

The cause of the disappearance was never determined. Their aging Canberra bomber was flying well above the maximum range of enemy anti-aircraft artillery and there were no known North Vietnamese surface-to-air missile (SAM) launch sites near the flight path. Although discounted by a RAAF court of inquiry, the most likely explanation of the aircraft's sudden disappearance without trace remains the possibility of a catastrophic mid-air explosion caused by one or more bombs becoming hung up in the rack after release.

For the parents of those lost, the term "missing in action" became increasingly difficult to live with. After years of uncertainty Robert Carver's parents eventually gave up hope that he would be found alive. Mr Sydney Carver had his son's name placed on the Toowoomba War Memorial. Every day he passed the memorial and never failed to look at the inscription.

Mrs Joan Herbert continued to dream that her son Michael was alive and roaming the jungles of Vietnam, dreams that eventually became nightmares. Over the next decade she wrote more than 600 letters to Vietnamese and other political leaders enquiring about his fate. The families of both RAAF officers said they could not rest until the truth was known.

The last Australian soldier to be listed as missing in action was Lance Corporal John Francis Gillespie of 8 Field Ambulance. On 17 April 1971 Gillespie was serving as a helicopter medic during a 'dustoff' (helicopter medical evacuation) operation in the Long Hai hills in Phuoc Tuy province.

Four South Vietnamese Regional Force soldiers had been injured by a mine explosion and the difficult terrain demanded a helicopter evacuation. But the Long Hai hills were an insecure landing zone. The caves and dense timber of the Long Hais had long harboured a major Viet Cong base area and the dustoff operation required the protection of helicopter gunships. As the first wounded soldier was being winched up, the hovering helicopter was hit by enemy machine-gun fire. It crashed to the ground and burst into flames. Although the crew escaped, Lance Corporal Gillespie and three other soldiers were engulfed in the fireball. A helicopter crewman, Corporal Robert Stephens, repeatedly entered the burning aircraft and tried in vain to rescue Gillespie, until being forced back by the flames. Stephens was later awarded the British Empire Medal for his courage.

Gillespie's body could not be recovered from the burning wreckage which was reduced to slag by the fire. Private Gillespie was listed as missing in action, apparently on a technicality because his remains could not be found. The classification was subsequently altered to killed in action.

The last Australian combat troops were withdrawn from South Vietnam at the end of 1971. For the next decade the question of Australian servicemen missing in Vietnam received little official attention. Then in May 1984, a joint Foreign Affairs and Defence mission travelled to Vietnam to investigate the Australian missing in action cases with the assistance of Vietnamese government officials. The five-member team visited Quang Nam – Da Nang and Dong Nai provinces and walked to the sites of two of the incidents. They were prevented from reaching the other two sites due to uncleared minefields.

The team's investigations were hampered by the time lapse since the incidents, the uncertain nature of much of the information available, and the movement of civilian populations and Vietnamese military units during and since the war. Unfounded media claims that the team had "solved the mystery" of the missing also aroused false hopes and angered some next of kin. Regretably, the team members discovered no further information or traces of the remains of the Australians. They concluded that it was most unlikely that any further information on the whereabouts of the remains of the six Australians would become available in the future.

This article was published (with colour photographs and map) as "No known grave", in Wartime: the official magazine of the Australian War Memorial 23 (2003), 14–18.

Note: The remains of Private Gillson and Lance Corporal Parker were located in southern Vietnam in April 2007. They were repatriated to Australia in June 2007. Human remains located in February 2004 were positively identified as those of Lance Corporal Gillespie early in December 2007. He was repatriated to Australia later that month.

The remains of Private Fisher were located in southern Vietnam in August 2008. They were repatriated to Australia in October that year. The search continues for the remains of Pilot Officer Carver and Flying Officer Herbert. In late April 2009 it was announced that an Australian investigation team had found the remains of an aircraft in Vietnam believed to have been the one flown by Carver and Herbert when they disappeared. However, the mens' remains have not yet been found.

AUTHOR
Ashley Ekins is a Senior Historian in the Military History Section at the Australian War Memorial. He is co-author, with the late Ian McNeill, of On the offensive: the Australian Army in the Vietnam War 1967–1968 , Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial. Available in all good book stores or online through the Memorial's online shop.

More about: