With the Enemy Approaching, He Sat Beside His Wounded Comrade, Pulled the Pin on Two Grenades, and Waited

Refusing to leave his mortally wounded comrade as the enemy approached, Australian Warrant Officer Kevin Wheatley pulled the pin on two grenades and waited for the inevitable.

Most of the world has only seen such a scenario in the movies and yet, Warrant Officer Wheatley lived it and paid the ultimate price for it.  What could make an unwounded man forgo an obvious attempt to save his own life in exchange for certain death?

When you learn a little more about the history of this man, you would likely come to the conclusion that there was no other way that such a mighty man’s life was going to end.

Warrant Officer Kevin Wheatley was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions in Vietnam and deserves the attention and respect of all who might read these words.

Australian Soldiers arriving in Saigon, August 1964. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Australian Soldiers arriving in Saigon, August 1964.

Destiny Awaited

Kevin Wheatley joined the Australian Army in 1956 at the age of 19.  His first taste of combat would come during what is known as the Malayan Emergency, between 1957 and 1959.  During this time, Wheatley would find himself pitted against communist forces where he would gain the vital experience necessary to carry out his mission in Vietnam a few years later.

Promoted to Sergeant and then later Warrant Officer in 1964, Wheatley found himself in Vietnam by 1965 as part of the Australian Army Training team.  Designed to support and train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, Wheatley would be in close contact with the ARVN forces as they engaged the Viet Cong.

In one such engagement in the Quant Tri Province, Wheatley noticed a small girl run across the battlefield in the middle of a firefight.  He then ran through the crossfire to retrieve the girl and shielding her with his own body somehow made it back to safety without wounds to either.

US soldiers during the Battle of La Drang, 1965.

If that were not foreshadowing enough to his coming heroism, Warrant Officer Wheatley was recommended for an award by a United States military advisor after he witnessed Wheatley single-handily carry on an attack up a steep slope, pressing the attack after Communist forces began to withdraw.

While it appears that the recommendation from a senior US officer was not acted upon, it became clear that Wheatley would not be one to falter in the face of the enemy nor put his own life ahead of the mission.

The A-Team

While the popular show had not yet been created, I can’t think of a more fitting name for any unit containing Warrant Officer Wheatley.  And that is preciously where he landed when he was transferred to what was known as A-Team – part of the 5th Special Forces Group.

It was here in this aptly named team that Wheatley would earn his place in Australian Military history and prove himself to be a mighty man from beginning to end.

On November 13th, 1965, a group of Australian military advisors which would include Wheatley and fellow Warrant Officer Ron Swanton accompanied a company of the Civil Irregular Defense Group.

The CIDG were part of a plan to develop irregular paramilitary forces from minority populations of Vietnam.  As this group embarked on a search and destroy mission to clear a vital road captured by the Viet Cong, they came under intense fire in the rice paddies near Binh Hoa.

Royal Australian Regiment on sweep in Vietnam.

Warrant Officer Swanton became mortally wounded during the firefight and the unit appeared to be pinned down.  Wheatley was requesting additional support and a medevac for Swanton when the irregular forces began to break and scatter.  Wheatley then carried the wounded Swanton to a nearby treeline where he was urged to abandon Swanton given the severity of his wounds.

However, Wheatley would have no part of such a plan.  As the rest of the forces scattered, Wheatley was last seen beside the wounded Swanton pulling the pins on two grenades in anticipation of the advancing enemy.

Two explosions were later heard, followed by intense gunfire and then silence.  Wheatley and Swanson fell that day in combat.  And while it is not known how many of the enemy Wheatley may have taken out with those last two grenades, one can’t help but think that a man of Wheatley’s caliber ensured they landed right on target.

The Victoria Cross

For his gallantry, Warrant Officer Kevin Wheatley was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest honor in the Commonwealth. Including Wheatley, the Victoria Cross has only been awarded 15 times since the end of World War 2. The rarity of this honor speaks to how highly this mighty man’s actions were thought of.

The Grave of Kevin Arthur Wheatly VC. By Terry Macdonald / Svenbot CC BY-SA 3.0

There was some mild controversy about the award being given for action in Vietnam since the United Kingdom had refused to participate in the war. The UK were worried such a high honor would give implicit approval for the war.

However, such a bold display of courage was too much to deny for political reasons.  In addition to the Victoria Cross, Wheatley was awarded the US Silver Star, the South Vietnamese Knight of the National Order, and Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Palm.

While the Vietnam War is primarily viewed as a conflict of American intervention, given the actions of men like Wheatley, one can’t deny the contribution of the Australian military in what would become both nation’s longest conflict at the time.

Only in the movies can we recount and relive such an action of unquestionable heroism. Friend and foe alike must tip their hats to the man who refused to leave a wounded brother in the face of certain death.  The world must honor the man, who pulled the pins on two grenades, and waited.

Jeff Edwards

Jeff Edwards is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE