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Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Page: 9292

Mr GIBBONS (10:58 AM) —On indulgence, I too take this opportunity to make some remarks about the return to Australia of the remains of Private David Fisher. Private Fisher was a member of the Special Air Service Regiment and was killed in action in Vietnam on 27 September 1969. He fell from a helicopter while helping to extract an SAS patrol from Nui May Tao. Despite the extensive searches at the time, his body was unable to be located. Thanks in particular to the tireless efforts of former Lieutenant Colonel Jim Bourke and Operation Aussies Home, his remains were recovered and returned to Australia last Friday, 39 years after he gave his life for his country.

Private Fisher is the last Australian soldier to be returned from the Vietnam War. Last year, I, along with a former member for Cowan, Mr Graeme Edwards, my good friend, had the privilege of playing a small part in the return of two other Australian diggers missing in Vietnam. I refer to Lance Corporal Richard Parker and Private Peter Gillson. I am indebted to the 7RAR website for this account of the events that led up to that. It reads:

On the 8th of November 1965 A Company (1 RAR), led by Major John Healy, headed across the northern edge of Gang Toi plateau. Around 1030 hrs, 3 Platoon had a contact—

resulting in one enemy casualty. It goes on:

Later on, 2 Platoon found an unoccupied company sized position consisting of fighting pits and dugouts and a little later were fired upon without casualties.

The enemy had escaped again. Later 1 Platoon established another contact and two more enemy casualties were the result. It goes on:

The order of march was changed to 1 Platoon followed by Company Headquarters, the 2 Platoon with 3 Platoon coming up the rear. (1 Platoon was under strength and only had two sections of seven men instead of three of nine). Corporal [Richard] Parker’s section was up front in thick jungle moving towards the feature known as “Hill 82” and the whole Company was in single file, stretched out over almost 300 metres heading towards the top of the plateau.

As the lead section reached the top, the [enemy] opened fire with devastating effect, using three or four well-placed machine guns backed up with other small arms and grenades. The lead section took several casualties almost immediately, then, when the section moved up in support, their Section Commander was also wounded. Two of the wounded from [Lance Corporal] Parker’s section managed to crawl back to the rest of the platoon. Parker lay in front of the enemy gun and was hit again and again. The platoon was pinned down in a vicious crossfire. 3 Platoon meanwhile—

accounted for two more of the enemy—

along the creek line below the action at the top of the plateau. Major Healy asked Clive Williams (3 Platoon Commander) to move up to the left of 1 Platoon and sweep through in assault formation. Reaching the high ground, 3 Platoon formed up in extended line and began the assault and soon struck another strong enemy force on their flank. Using fire and movement, they continued their advance when Private Peter Gilson, a machine gunner, was hit and fell into a tangle of tree roots that he was trying to negotiate while trying to get a better firing position. He was only15 metres from the enemy. Two [of the enemy] tried to get his gun but the wounded Gilson raised himself and shot them at point blank range. 3 Platoon tried to press home the attack but the enemy fire was too intense.

A stop was called to the assault as the Platoon realized they were being outflanked. The Platoon Sergeant, Col Fawcett, crawled forward under heavy fire to try and retrieve Gilson’s body. He managed to feel for a pulse and found none, then made several attempts to retrieve the body but each time sustained bursts of fire hit Gilson. (He later told … he felt rounds striking the body as he was trying to pull Gilson clear). Sergeant Fawcett later received the Military Medal for his bravery under fire. 3 Platoon looked like being cut off from the rest of the Company and were forced to withdraw.

With the support of the highly accurate New Zealand artillery, the Company used fire and movement to extract themselves and the wounded from the killing ground and [accounted for] two more [of the enemy] in the process. They were unable to recover either Parker or Gilson’s bodies. The men of A Company never forgot the horror and perceived guilt of leaving their mates behind.

I am indebted to the 7RAR website for that historical information.

Many members of this House will remember the continuing concern of our former colleague Graeme Edwards for both the victims and survivors of the Vietnam War, as well as his own sacrifice in that conflict. Graeme Edwards continues his passionate support and efforts for not only Vietnam veterans and their families but all Australian veterans and their families now that he has retired from his successful parliamentary career. Graeme and I were in Vietnam last April when, at short notice, we were invited to attend a ceremony at Bien Hoa for the handing over of the remains of Lance Corporal Parker and Private Gilson. It was a sad and sombre occasion, but we both felt that the presence of two members of the Australian parliament helped to convey a sense of importance and reverence that all Australians have for their fallen servicemen and women.

Many people have been involved in the successful search and recovery of our diggers in Vietnam. I have already mentioned the role of Jim Bourke and the Operation Aussies Home team and I again pay tribute to their hard work. I had the privilege of meeting Jim Bourke in Bien Hoa last year and again at the RSL State Conference in Victoria later that year. Jim Bourke is a great Australian and deserves every accolade for his tireless efforts in repatriating Australian service personnel from various conflicts throughout our history, often under considerable personal difficulty. The efforts of Operation Aussies Home could not have been successful without the cooperation of the Vietnamese authorities. Graeme Edwards and I personally thanked the Vietnamese officials who attended the ceremony at Bien Hoa. We found the Vietnamese officials to be diligent, thorough and exceptionally cooperative and helpful. I note that the Prime Minister expressed the Australian government’s appreciation to the Prime Minister of Vietnam during his visit to Canberra recently. It is hoped that this close association will lead to the completion of the recovery task and the return to the two Australian airmen who are still missing in Vietnam—Flying Officer Michael Herbert and Pilot Officer Robert Carver.

It is often said that the war in Vietnam was an unpopular war. There was considerable opposition to Australia’s involvement in that conflict, just as today there is opposition to our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the various views on the rights or wrongs of our involvement are just as irrelevant to those who are fighting today in the burning sands of Afghanistan and Iraq as they were to those who fought in the steaming jungles of Vietnam all those years ago. In the end, the result is the same: our service men and women are asked to put their lives on the line by the democratically elected government of the day. They are asked to do this to preserve the principles that are the foundation of this nation, principles that ensure we have democratically elected governments and the freedom to be able to hold and express differing views without the fear of persecution or retribution—and that is something that is worth fighting for. The preservation of these freedoms is the reason this country has sent so many of its sons and daughters overseas since Federation. It is the reason that so much Australian blood has been spilled so far away from home, on the beaches, in the fields, on the high seas and in the air.

Unfortunately, in the case of Vietnam, we lost sight of this for many years. Veterans of earlier conflicts even said Vietnam was not a real war, but I can remember the horrendous images on the television news each night. From the comfort and security of my living room, it certainly looked like a real war to me, and it would have felt like a real war to those brave young Australians doing the fighting and helping to evacuate their dead and wounded comrades, and it was a real war for the families, friends and loved ones of the 520 young Australians who lost their lives.

During the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, the former Prime Minister, Mr Howard, in a superb speech in this House acknowledged the appalling treatment that our Vietnam veterans received on their return home. I am sure he spoke on behalf of all Australians when he said the nation had collectively failed those men at that time and ‘they are owed our apologies and our regrets’. His apology was an acknowledgment of their courage, commitment and sacrifice, and went a considerable way towards righting a terrible wrong, to removing the stain on our nation’s past. As the present Prime Minister said in the House on Monday, the passage of time does not diminish our great respect for the bravery and dedication of our service men and women, and their sacrifices will not be forgotten.

I would like to conclude this tribute to the contribution of Private Fisher by acknowledging his ultimate sacrifice in the service of his country. A military funeral was held for him in Sydney yesterday, and I would like to offer my personal condolences to his family and thank them on behalf of the people of central Victoria for his sacrifice on behalf of his nation.