The first Australian killed in action in the Vietnam War has finally been returned home, more than fifty years after he died. Warrant Officer Kevin Conway was one of 33 Australians repatriated from Singapore and Malaysia.
Conway died in the Battle of Nam Dong on July 6, 1964, which attached to the U.S. forces. His commander cited him for a Victoria Cross. Terendak cemetery in Malaysia held the bodies of the other 32 casualties. That cemetery sits on an active military base, so access was restricted, keeping families from visiting their loved ones.
Those returning included 21 Vietnam veterans, three killed in Malaysian conflicts, two spouses, and six children.
“We have found that the families who are finding this most difficult are families of the six children who died, who found it very, very difficult to leave their children behind when they returned to Australia,” said Ken Corke, director of the Office of Australian War Graves.
The two military aircraft bearing the remains arrived at Richmond airbase in the northwest portion of Sydney. Families had time to grieve during a private ceremony. A procession through western Sydney followed.
Neil Bond’s uncle, Corporal Reg Hillier, was killed in 1965. Bond said that his mother did not stop lobbying for her brother’s return until her death. “It just devastated her … not having anywhere to grieve and the fact that he wasn’t honored like the rest of them,” he said.
“I’m not a spiritual person but … I do think she’s probably going to be there [at the repatriation].”
“It’s a historic and important day in Australia’s proud military history for Vietnam veterans and relatives,” said Bob Shewring, who led the Vietnam Veterans Association campaign. “It will finally right a terrible wrong.”
In 1966, Australian repatriation laws began to change so that families of soldiers killed overseas could have their loved ones brought home at the government’s expense. That law was not retroactive to casualties before 1966.
“Like many of us, most of them were quite young, they would have been thinking that nothing was going to happen like that that affected them and the reality of that policy really didn’t come home to roost when the sad occasion of their child dying happened and they were found they were not even able to make a decision, they were just told they had to leave them behind,” Corke said.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the new change in repatriation laws which allowed for the return of the soldiers after years of consultation between the Australian, Singapore, and Malaysian governments. It was the right decision, according to Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan. “The families will get the closure they deserve, but also it gives us a chance as a nation to stop, pause, and reflect on the service and sacrifice that our Vietnam veterans made on behalf of our nation.”
The opportunity to have their loved ones returned was offered to 36 families. Only three chose to allow their loved ones to remain in Malaysia. Australia had 521 service personnel killed in the Vietnam War between 1962 and 1975; 3,000 more were wounded.