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Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Page: 9294

Mr SIMPKINS (11:07 AM) —On indulgence: it was a great day in late August when Private David Fisher’s remains were discovered, after a lot of hard work, and I would pay tribute to Jim Bourke and Operation Aussies Home, the Army History Unit and others that were involved—people who were motivated and dedicated to getting this job done, to bringing an Australian serviceman home.

Private Fisher met his death on 27 September 1969, and the majority of my comments today are focused on paying tribute to him and the circumstances under which he served and paying great respect to the efforts of the Special Air Service Regiment in the Vietnam War. Of course, the SAS have a great history of service throughout many conflicts. When you look at the conditions under which battles were fought—very small battles sometimes were fought in Vietnam—it is a great tribute to the way these guys operated in their small patrols. We know that in Private Fisher’s case there were five people on the patrol, including a medic, and that that patrol took place over seven days. It is my understanding that over the first six days there was no contact with the enemy as they moved around through the jungle, apart from seeing signs of them. It was only on the seventh day, 27 September 1969, that there was actually contact with the enemy.

I have found some information as to what Private Fisher was actually carrying at the time of his death. It really does show that these guys are very special in being able to operate in these very small groups for a protracted period of time. I am sure there would have been resupplies, but we are talking about a lot of weight here and these guys were yomping around in the jungle. Two hundred rounds of 7.62mm ammunition in three magazines—probably more—is a very significant weight, let alone a Claymore mine with a delayed fuse, grenades, white phosphorus, two normal explosive grenades, two smoke grenades, a radio set, a fuel pack, basic webbing and four full water bottles. These men were carrying a lot of weight over a long time.

If you look at the context of that last date, we know that there were basically two contacts: that first contact where they encountered eight enemy and apparently four were killed by the Australians—probably two more as well—and then, as part of that withdrawal away from that contact, as is normal procedure, they again made contact with a larger group of enemy which then necessitated another withdrawal and the seeking of the hot extraction. Although there is some debate as to exactly what sort of foliage or canopy cover existed in the jungle in that particular area, clearly there was no landing zone, LZ, and that is why the five ropes were thrown from the side of the UH-1H Iroquois helicopter.

I guess the point I am trying to make, particularly with regard to the weight, is that this would have been a very difficult situation. There would have been the noise of the helicopter—or helicopters—from above. I understand that it was raining at the time. They would probably have been a bit tired, having made these two withdrawals and having fought just minutes earlier. To then be standing there and concentrating on clipping onto a bowline with a karabiner attached to themselves—and with their packs, their webbing and their rifles slung—would have been a time when distraction and a difficulty in concentrating was very likely.

I have not found anything that really suggests exactly what happened to Private Fisher. We all know that he fell from the rope. But, whether that was to do with the karabiner or with the bowline not being as good as it could have been or some other reason, it would have been an extremely difficult situation. As previous speakers have said, it was a situation that I do not think anyone here would have ever experienced. In my own military service I had some very limited experience in jungles and with helicopters, and it is very hard going. I remember one day in training—certainly nothing to do with combat—where it took us eight hours to move less than a kilometre through jungle. And obviously that was with no-one doing any shooting. It was careful movement, but the conditions were very difficult. On another occasion—and, again not that I have any great familiarity with this—a very exciting day in my military training was rappelling from a helicopter, not clipping on at the bottom but clipping on at the top and just rappelling out of the side of the helicopter. The way your heart is going and the way you are trying to concentrate hard make it a very difficult situation. And, again, these guys were there for seven days, with two fights minutes earlier, difficult conditions and heaps of weight. It was a unique situation that, as I said before, probably no-one here has ever had to deal with. It is a tribute to the professionalism of the SAS that they can operate under these circumstances.

What we know is that the plan was that they were going to have this hot extraction. They were to clip onto the ropes and be lifted out of the jungle and then moved on to another location, a safer location, and then they could jump inside the helicopter and move back to base. Some 800 metres from where they were picked up various witnesses saw Private Fisher drop from the rope from the height of some 200 feet. As was suggested by the inquiry afterwards, he probably would have died on impact with the ground or at the least shortly thereafter. So there was very little chance that he could ever have been saved after what happened to him, as you would imagine.

As I said before, Private David Fisher was a member of probably the most professional and effective military unit in the world. I believe that is the case today and I am sure it was the case then as well. These guys operated under extremely difficult conditions with the utmost professionalism and Private Fisher served his country exceptionally well. It is a great tragedy that he was lost, that he died that day. It was probably a greater tragedy that his body was not recovered at the time. But, due to the efforts of a lot of people and a lot of dedication, someone who served their country well has now been returned to this country and now lies in Australian soil. I pay tribute to Private Fisher and the SAS and give my best wishes to his family.