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Wednesday, 15 October 2008
Page: 9300

Ms OWENS (11:36 AM) —On indulgence: it was my privilege to be at the Richmond airbase last Friday, 10 October, when Private David Fisher finally came home. We lost David Fisher on 27 September 1969, when he fell from a rope under a helicopter into thick jungle in Xuan Dong province in Vietnam, and it has taken us 39 years to find him and bring him home. The story of Private David Fisher is one of courage, loss and mateship, and before I talk about the courage of the man I would like to pay tribute to the loyalty and commitment of his mates, who did not forget their mate during the 39 years that he lay on foreign soil.

Private David Fisher was one of six Australian servicemen killed in action during the Vietnam War whose bodies were not recovered: four solders and 2 RAAF aircrew. In 2002, a group of Vietnam War veterans began working to find them and bring them home. They called themselves Operation Aussies Home. After four years of painstaking work and calling attention to their cause, the Deputy Chief of the Army, Major General Gordon, directed the Army History Unit to investigate the possibility of locating and recovering the remains of our four missing soldiers.

In April 2007, the remains of Lance Corporal Richard Parker and Private Peter Gillson were found, and the remains of Lance Corporal John Gillespie returned home in December 2007. The fourth Australian soldier, Private David Fisher, was located and returned home finally last Friday. Mr Jim Bourke from Operation Aussies Home was there to welcome him to see the finish of what he had started some six years ago, and some of his comrades in arms from that time told me about the way they plan to change the plaques at the Vietnam War Memorial. There have been six plaques with the names of the soldiers and ‘missing in action’ engraved on them in front of the war memorial; four of them will now have ‘no longer missing in action; home at last’.

The government continues to work to locate the remaining two RAAF personnel. Two Australian airmen, Flying Officer Michael Herbert and Pilot Officer Robert Carver, are still missing, and we hope that in time we may also find the remains of these missing airmen and bring them home as well. But I think it is fair to say that it was the work of a group of Vietnam vets who would not let the matter rest until they had brought their mates home that resulted in the Army and the government’s involvement and their commitment to seeing all our servicemen come home.

I would like to pay a special tribute to David Fisher’s mates who escorted him on the journey: Colonel (Retired) Reg Beesley, David’s former commanding officer in Vietnam; Dave Lewis, National President of the SAS Association; Dennis Mitchell; Rod Wallis; Mick VanDroffelaar, David’s patrol commander; Mick Malone; John Cuzens, who was a member of David’s patrol; and John Matten. They showed great dignity, and the respect and the care that they showed for Private David Fisher on his return tells us much about David but also much about them and the relationship that they shared. It was extraordinary to see so many of the men of the 3rd Squadron of the Special Air Service Regiment there at Richmond airbase to see the last of their company return home. There were also Vietnam veterans from our Vietnamese allies, now Australians, who fought alongside us. They were there to pay tribute to the Australians who risked their lives and sometimes gave their lives fighting for freedom in their homeland.

Private David Fisher was lost on 27 September 1969 after the culmination of three days of intense action by the members of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol No. 11 of the 3rd Squadron of the SASR. The Minister for Defence described the circumstances that led to the loss of Private David Fisher at the ceremony on Friday, and I will draw from part of that description:

[The patrol] had been deployed on a reconnaissance mission west of the Nui Mao Tao Mountains, a strategically important base to the opposing force.

The area was heavily contested and patrol 11 had sighted the opposing soldiers on a number of occasions and been engaged by them twice.

On the last occasion, a force of 30 soldiers had fired upon them using automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades. The contact was fierce and deadly.

It is against this backdrop that the Squadron OC ordered the ‘hot extraction’ of the patrol to take place.

The RAAF mission leader, given the dangerous situation on the ground, decided to deploy with a Heavy Fire Team consisting of three helicopter Gunships to protect the SAS soldiers and the three ‘slick’ helicopters to be used in this dangerous mission.

The Mission Leader anticipated and indeed expected fire to be directed onto his aircraft during this ‘lift’.

It was under these circumstance that Private David Fisher lost his life, falling 60 metres into the jungle below.

Despite searches over the following days, the body of David Fisher was not recovered.

Private David John Elkington Fisher had, until August of this year, been lost to us after he fell from a rope beneath the helicopter during that hot extraction in now Xuan Dong commune of Dong Nai Province in Vietnam. And what happened to David after this remained a mystery until Major Jack Thurgar and Mr Brian Manns and their team engaged in precise investigative work and driven research that revealed his final resting place only a month or so ago. Then on Friday, 10 October 2008, one of Australia’s truly brave and courageous sons came home.

Nothing I can say to David’s family, who were there on Friday, can repay them or compensate them for the loss of their son and brother so many years ago in the defence of our nation. But I would like to acknowledge the family and friends of David Fisher. The loss of David was first and foremost their loss and, after watching them on Friday, I cannot even imagine the pain at that time and the feelings that they must have had watching David’s remains finally brought home to be laid to rest. That his sacrifice did not go unnoticed by a grateful nation is a message that we well and truly must give to that family.

I also thank David Lewis, the National President of the Special Air Service Association, who freely gave his time, care and support to the Fisher family over many, many years. Private David John Elkington Fisher was just 23 years old when he served and sacrificed his life. It took us 39 years to bring him home, and we salute him for his service and finally welcome him home.