WHILST regional Victoria remains in the grip of coronavirus (COVID 19) we are still able to commemorate and pay respects to two Royal Australian Air Force pilots who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the Vietnam War.
2 Squadron’s Pilot Flying Officer Michael Herbert, 24, from Glenelg, South Australia, and navigator Pilot Officer Robert Carver, 24, from Toowoomba, Queensland, disappeared on November 3, 1970. They had conducted a night bombing mission and were returning to base when their Canberra bomber was lost without trace approximately 65km south-west of Da Nang in Quang Nam Province.
It was an uneventful flight. In Magpie 91 – the Canberra’s call-sign – they flew over the jungle-matted hills and deep ravines of the enemy-held territory near the Laotian border. At 8.22pm, six bombs were dropped on the target and the plane headed for home. “That was an excellent run, sir,” said the US radar officer. “It looked real good down here, and we enjoyed working with you and see you again another day.” Herbert replied briefly: “Magpie 91.”
Exactly 70 seconds later, without any warning, Magpie 91 suddenly vanished. Dozens of intensive search-and-rescue missions carried out over the next 72 hours by both Australian and US aircraft failed to find any trace of it.
Despite an inquiry conducted in late 1970, the cause of the incident was not able to be determined.
Herbert and Carver were both enthusiastic airmen who were respected by their superiors. They paid the ultimate sacrifice in serving their country.
Their remains were not found and recovered until August 2008, some 39 years after they went missing.
Jim Bourke served in 212 Company, 1st Battalion, II Corps Mobile Strike Force (MSF) from late August 1968 to early January 1969. While a member of the Australian Army, attached to 5th Special Forces Group Vietnam. he also served with 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR), as part of the United States, 173rd Airborne Brigade operating out of Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. Jim and John Thurgar, who served as an SAS trooper in Vietnam in 1970 and became the senior investigator for Unrecovered War Casualties – Army, took it upon themselves to initiate/work with “Operation Aussies Home” and tasked themselves to recover six (6) Australian service personnel who were missing in action in Vietnam. In searching for Herbert and Carver, John stated: “We started to get pieces that were British, because you see the B-57 and our Canberra bomber were essentially the same but there were differences. And so I had to find the bits that were different. And when I found enough of the bits that were different, I was able to convince Air Force this is our aircraft. I’d done the investigation and then I needed to bring all of that information together to the Vietnamese government where I could convince them using our anthropologists and our other specialists that these remains were our men.”
Remains of Herbert and Carver were found and arrangements made to repatriate back to Australia.
On August 31, 2009, the caskets of Mike Herbert and Bob Carver were ceremonially transferred from a C130 Hercules that had brought them from Hanoi to the tarmac at RAAF Base, Richmond, North West of Sydney.
On that chilly morning, Gary Parker, president of the National Vietnam Veterans Museum at Newhaven, in a voice full of emotion, explained to a gathering of some 150 the symbolism of the two beautifully carved bracelets, each nestling in a small open silk-lined box, centrally placed between four other identical, but closed, boxes. The boxes, one for each of the six Australians MIA, were intended to be both a visible yet spiritual symbol that even though the six were missing, they were not forgotten. Unlike the US practice, where a near relative of the MIA agreed to wear the bracelet until either the MIA was accounted for or death intervened, the National Vietnam Veterans Museum elected to retain all six bracelets at what is for many Vietnam veterans, their spiritual home.
As the C130 carrying the caskets landed, the 150 other RAAF and army veterans, guests and friends, gathered at the National Vietnam Veterans Museum, heard the words they’d been waiting for from the director of the RAAF Museum, Dave Gardner: “Nick, the boys are home! Close the bracelets!” Gary Parker gave the command. “Nick, the boys are home! Close the bracelets!” and WGCDR Warren Madsen, also from the RAAF Museum and SQNLDR Graham Henry (Retd), the Victorian State President of No 2 Squadron RAAF Association, stepped forward in unison and gently closed the last two bracelet boxes.
The display case containing the six, now closed, bracelet boxes is regarded as one of the most valuable pieces of the over 40,000 items in the museum’s collection.
It is poignant that efforts continue to recover American MIA’s from the Vietnam War. The US.Department of Defence spends over US$110 million per year in the effort, and the number unaccounted for gradually decreases. For instance, according to the Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency as at February 7, 2020, the number had been reduced a little further, to 1587.
In 1974, Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp stated that Vietnam had 330,000 servicemen and women missing in action. As of 1999, estimates of those missing were usually around 300,000.
Tuesday, November 3, 2020 will see a service at the National Vietnam Veterans Museum commemorating the loss of Flying Officer Michael Herbert and navigator Pilot Officer Robert Carver. The Air Force formation aerobatic team ‘The Roulettes’ will perform a fly-past over the Museum at 11am on November 3, 2020.
Museum general manager, Phil Dressing, said: “We have been discussing this commemorative Service with the RAAF Association Victorian, director of communications, Chris Hudnott, an RAAF Vietnam Veteran, for some time now and we consider it an honour and privilege to be asked to host the event. Notwithstanding COVID-19 restrictions, we will do our very best to honour these two fine airmen.”
National Vietnam Veterans Museum commemorative service