“Your son is alive and well”

25 June 2020 by Jennifer Milward


1 May 1953, telegram sent to Mrs Dorothy Drummond

How precious these words must have been for Leonard and Dorothy Drummond, written in May 1953 in a letter from the Secretary of the Department of Air. They confirmed a telegram sent earlier that month advising them of the “probability” that their son, Pilot Officer Vance Drummond, was a prisoner of war. Vance had been missing in action since early December 1951.

Vance Drummond was born in Hamilton, New Zealand, in February 1927. He served with the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) for nearly 18 months before being demobilised in September 1945. Although Drummond enlisted in the New Zealand Military Forces, he wanted to fly. After being rejected by the RNZAF, his application to enlist in the Royal Australian Air Force was accepted and he was able to train as a pilot.

Kimpo, South Korea. 1951. A33624 Sergeant V. Drummond, No. 77 Squadron, RAAF, beside his Gloster Meteor Mk8. JK0163.

In August 1951, Sergeant Drummond found himself serving with No. 77 Squadron, RAAF, in Korea. Although conditions were generally “pretty poor”, the same could not be said of the food. Drummond wrote to his parents that the “NCO pilots here have unofficial officer status, and dine in the Youth Officers’ mess, and I can assure you there is no shortage of food or smokes”.

While reassuring his parents he was in no need of food parcels, Drummond was pleased to get the parcel of pullovers and socks. Cold northerly winds were arriving, and Drummond suspected the oil-burning stove in the tent would not be adequate when the snow set in.

While Drummond was grounded for some weeks due to a ruptured eardrum and on one occasion suffered food poisoning, there was a break in the routine. He was able to spend “a very pleasant week” at the Kawana Hotel in Izu, Japan. It rained heavily for a couple of days, but the rest of the week “the weather was ideal and we lived on the golf course”.

Kawana Hotel, Izu, Japan, c December 1950

Drummond was awarded the United States Air Medal for his “courage, aggressiveness, tactical skill … and devotion to duty”. According to the citation, “Sergeant Vance Drummond, 77th Interceptor Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Interceptor Group, distinguished himself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial combat missions flying Meteor Mark Eight type aircraft against the enemy in North Korea from 1 September 1951 to 22 October 1951.”

Drummond wrote to his parents on 24 October: “Yes, Dad, the Meteor has an ejection seat, so there is no sweat about bailing out of them”.

On 1 December 1951, Drummond’s squadron engaged with enemy MiG-15s near Songchon, approximately 50 kilometres north-east of Pyongyang. On withdrawal, Drummond answered the leader’s checking radio call. However three aircraft, including Drummond’s Meteor, failed to return to base. Pilot Officer Ernest Donald Armit was declared missing in action, presumed killed. Drummond and Flying Officer Bruce Thomson had safely ejected from their aircraft, landing in North Korea. They were captured and sent to Pinchon-ni prisoner of war camp.

Until the telegram on 1 May 1953, Drummond’s family did not know what had happened to him. Confirmation that he was a prisoner of war came in mid-April with the release of two officers who had met Drummond. Lieutenant Gasson of the South African Air Force spent six weeks in Camp 2 before his release and had seen Drummond in the camp in good health.

Panmumjom, North Korea, 1 September 1953. Pilots released from prisoner of war camps in North Korea, including Pilot Officer Drummond (front left). JK0855.

On 1 September 1953, exactly 21 months after his capture, Drummond was handed over to General Maxwell Taylor, Commander of United Nations Forces in Korea, and US Senator William Knowland in Panmunjom, North Korea.  He wrote to his parents, “I don’t know how to start this letter. I am still in a state of complete confusion and bewilderment. It is hard to appreciate that it is all over now, and that freedom, so often talked about by us, is now a reality”. Drummond did not know he was being repatriated until the night before the handover.

Drummond was reticent about discussing conditions in the camp, although he later revealed that the food mostly consisted of rice and turnip soup.  Food and conditions had improved considerably after the Chinese had taken control, and officers had been allowed to play sports.

Drummond’s experiences during the Korean War did not dampen his love of flying. In 1954, he was one of the first members of the RAAF Sabre Trials Flight at Williamtown, NSW. He was a flight commander with No. 75 Squadron in late 1961, and in October 1962 became team leader of the RAAF aerobatic display team known as the Black Diamonds. Late in 1965, he was given an exchange posting with the United States Air Force and sent to the Republic of Vietnam, serving as a forward air controller with the 19th Tactical Air Support Squadron. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Republic of Vietnam’s Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star for his efforts in saving the lives of numerous soldiers.

Vung Tau, South Vietnam, August 1966. Wing Command Vance Drummond sliding into the cockpit of his Cessna 01 Bird Dog nicknamed “Snoopy”.

Drummond returned to Australia in early 1967, taking command of No. 3 Squadron at Williamstown. On 17 May 1967, Drummond was taking part in training exercises off the New South Wales coast when his Mirage suddenly went into a steep dive and crashed into the ocean 80 kilometres north-east of Williamstown. The cause of the crash is unknown.

The following year, Drummond’s widow Margaret and son David attended Government House in Canberra to accept Drummond’s Distinguished Flying Cross.

The Australian War Memorial holds several collections of letters, telegrams and certificates related to Vance Drummond’s service during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.