Victoria Cross : Warrant Officer Second Class K A Wheatley, Australian Army Training Team Vietnam

Accession Number REL05125.001
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Award
Physical description Bronze
Location Main Bld: Hall of Valour: Main Hall: Vietnam
Maker Hancocks
Place made United Kingdom
Date made c 1966
Conflict Vietnam, 1962-1975

Victoria Cross. Engraved reverse suspender with recipient's details and reverse cross with date of action.

History / Summary

Kevin Arthur ‘Dasher’ Wheatley was born at Surry Hills in Sydney on 13 March 1937. The son of Raymond George and Ivy Sarah Ann (nee Newman) Wheatley, he was educated at Maroubra Junction Junior Technical School. After leaving school he worked a number of labouring jobs around Sydney. He married Edna Eileen Davis on 20 July 1954.

Wheatley enlisted in the Australian Regular Army on 12 June 1956 and joined 4 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (4RAR), following training, later that year. In March 1957 he transferred to 3RAR where he saw active service in Malaya from September 1957 to July 1959. In August 1959 he transferred to 2RAR and in mid 1961 to 1RAR. He was promoted to Sergeant in January 1964 and in August to Warrant Officer Class II. Wheatley was posted to the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), in Vietnam on 16 March 1965. For his first six months in country he was attached to a regular unit of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) unit in Quang Tri province.

On 28 May, Wheatley was assisting ARVN troops in engaging ‘elements of a trapped enemy battalion.’ In the course of the action, a young girl ran terrified into the cross fire. With little regard for his own safety Wheatley ran after the child. Both were now fully exposed to enemy fire. Seizing her, he used his body as a shield and carried her to safety. This action, though not recognised through an award, was however included in an early draft of his later Victoria Cross (VC) citation.

Another action which was featured in correspondence regarding his VC recommendation occurred on 18 August 1965. Wheatley was an assistant advisor in an assault on an enemy held village. When the village was taken the remaining enemy troops retreated up a nearby slope. Meanwhile ARVN troops had checked their advance to gather up discarded enemy equipment and supplies. Wheatley carried on up the slope alone for some distance before being supported by a company of ARVN which had been urged forward by another Australian advisor. Under heavy grenade and automatic fire, Wheatley, still in the lead, encouraged his troops to forward where they ‘completely routed the Viet Cong.’

He was recommended for an ‘appropriate Australian Medal for heroism’ for his actions on 18 August by Lieutenant Colonel Clarence Bishop, Infantry Deputy Senior Advisor, but no action was apparently taken on this recommendation. The instances of 28 May and 18 August did not appear in the final draft of the VC citation either, on the advice of General Sir Rodney Moore from the British Ministry of Defence, who considered that Wheatley’s final actions were sufficient justification for the awarding of his VC.

In October 1965, Wheatley was transferred to A Team with the 5th Special Forces Group under Captain Felix Fazekas. The group was located at the remote base of Tra Bong in Quang Ngai Province. Access to the village was restricted to air access as the only road in had been cut by the Viet Cong. On 13 November, Fazekas, Wheatley and Warrant Officer II Ron ‘Butch’ Swanton accompanied a unit of the Civil Irregular Defence Group (CIDG), consisting mainly of Montagnard (indigenous highland) troops, on a search and destroy mission in an area suspected of containing enemy forces. On arrival at their designated area, Wheatley and Swanton’s group detached from the company and moved north east while Fazekas, the CIDG commander, Lieutenant Quang, and two platoons moved off to the north and north-west.

While sweeping through rice paddies near the village of Binh Hoa, Wheatley’s platoon came under enemy sniper fire. A CIDG soldier was wounded as gun fire from the direction of the village grew in intensity. Swanton picked up the wounded soldier and began to carry him to the relative safety of the jungle beyond the rice paddies. Wheatley, realising that they faced a superior force, radioed Fazekas for support. Before they could reach refuge, however, Swanton suffered a serious gunshot wound to the abdomen. Wheatley, who had been providing covering fire for Swanton, rushed to the fallen Australian. He radioed for an air strike and a medical evacuation before he began dragging him to cover.

When Wheatley stopped briefly to return fire, CIDG medic, Private Vo Trong Chan, reached Swanton and bandaged his wound. By now the CIDG troops were withdrawing to the safety of the jungle and Trong Chan pleaded with Wheatley to leave the dying Swanton. Wheatley refused and, under heavy machine gun fire, continued to drag Swanton toward cover, around 200 metres away. When Wheatley neared the edge of the wooded area, CIDG Private Dinh Do came to assist him to some heavy undergrowth. Dinh Do, like Trong Chan, pleaded with Wheatley to leave Swanton but he again refused. When the Viet Cong were within 10 metres, Dinh Do turned and fled. As he left he saw Wheatley pulling the pins from his last two grenades, his other ammunition being exhausted.

The following morning Dinh Do led Fazekas to the spot where he had last seen the Australians. They found the bodies of Wheatley and Swanton lying in a thicket. Fazekas wrote in his evidence that they had both been ‘shot through the head several times at close range.’ For his actions in attempting to save his wounded colleague, Wheatley was awarded a posthumous VC. It was the first VC to be awarded to an Australian in this war. The citation for the award reads in part:

'On 13 November 1965 at approximately 1300 hours, a Vietnamese Civil Irregular Defence Group company commenced a search and destroy operation in the Tra Bong Valley, 15 kilometres East of Tra Bong Special Forces Camp in Quang Ngai Province. Accompanying the force were Captain F. Fazekas, senior Australian Advisor, with the centre platoon. At about 1340 hours, Warrant Officer Wheatley reported contact with Viet Cong elements. The Viet Cong resistance increased in strength until finally Warrant Officer Wheatley asked for assistance. Captain Fazekas immediately organised the centre platoon to help and personally led and fought it towards the action area. While moving towards this area he received another radio message from Warrant Officer Wheatley to say that Warrant Officer Swanton had been hit in the chest, and requested an air strike and an aircraft, for the evacuation of casualties.

At about this time the right platoon broke in the face of heavy Viet Cong fire and began to scatter. Although told by the Civil Irregular Defence Group medical assistant that Warrant Officer Swanton was dying, Warrant Officer Wheatley refused to abandon him. He discarded his radio to enable him to half drag, half carry Warrant Officer Swanton, under heavy machine gun and automatic rifle fire, out of the open rice paddies into the comparative safety of a wooded area, some 200 metres away. He was assisted by a Civil Irregular defence Group member, Private Dinh Do who, when the Viet Cong were only some ten metres away, urged him to leave his dying comrade. Again he refused, and was seen to pull the pins from two grenades and calmly awaited the Viet Cong, holding one grenade in each hand. Shortly afterwards, two grenade explosions were heard, followed by several bursts of fire.

The two bodies were found at first light next morning after the fighting had ceased, with Warrant Officer Wheatley lying beside Warrant Officer Swanton. Both had died of gunshot wounds.

Warrant Officer Wheatley displayed magnificent courage in the face of an overwhelming Viet Cong force which was later estimated at more than a company. He had the clear choice of abandoning a wounded comrade and saving himself by escaping through the dense timber or of staying with Warrant Officer Swanton and thereby facing certain death. He deliberately chose the latter course. His acts of heroism, determination and unflinching loyalty in the face of the enemy will always stand as examples of the true meaning of valour.'

The recommendation of the award of the Victoria Cross to Wheatley initially met with some criticism. Early drafts of the citation described Wheatley as discarding his rifle, an action that may have merited some censure had he lived. Others pointed to an obscure ruling by the British High Command in France in 1916 that any action leading to the awarding of a VC must be ‘materially conducive to the gaining of a victory’, though this does not appear in the official warrant for the award. Correspondence also points to the opinion that as Britain had not agreed to take part in this controversial and unpopular war this most prestigious Imperial award should not have been awarded. Whatever criticism was levelled, all agreed that Wheatley’s action was of the highest level of valour.

The preamble to the VC citation characterised Wheatley’s service as being ‘distinguished by meritorious and gallant service.’ This was also reflected in the awarding of the US Silver Star for his part in an operation a few weeks prior to his death. The South Vietnamese Government honoured Wheatley with a National Order of the Republic of Vietnam Knight's Badge, a Military Merit Medal and a Gallantry Cross with Palm. The latter two awards were pinned onto Wheatley’s coffin by a Vietnamese colonel. Swanton’s coffin was similarly decorated.

The repatriation to Australia in 1965 of Wheatley’s body was privately funded. The following year the Australian government announced that it would forthwith fund the return of the remains of all service personnel who died overseas. Kevin Arthur Wheatley VC was buried, with full military honours, in Pine Grove Cemetery at Eastern Creek. He was survived by his wife and four children. His medals came into the Memorial’s collection in 1993.