It’s been said that war brings out the best and the worst in humanity. It’s the ultimate test of mettle. There are those who capitulate to weakness, and those who meet it head-on.
For Australian Warrant Officer, Kevin Wheatley, his tenure in the Vietnam War proved that when it came to courage and loyalty, there was no one better. His comrade had been mortally wounded in a skirmish, and the enemy was approaching. Faced with that dire situation, he pulled the pin on two grenades and waited.
It seems straight out of a Bruce Willis movie. One could be forgiven for half-expecting Wheatley to come strolling away, his hair unruffled after giving some pithy quip, while the grenades explode in the background. But this wasn’t some Hollywood blockbuster scenario, this was Wheatley’s final choice in life. His death leaves a lot of unanswered questions, such as what kind of a man is willing to pay the ultimate price, when he himself isn’t wounded?
Warrant Officer Wheatley’s story began when he joined the Australian army in 1956 at the age of 19. He saw combat for the first time in the Malaysian Emergency between 1957 and 1959. Fighting against anti-British communist forces, he gathered experience that would see him to carrying out his mission in Vietnam just a few years later.
In 1964, Wheatley was promoted to Sergeant and then to Warrant Officer. He was in Vietnam as of 1965 serving on the Australian Army Training team. His unit was designed to train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and therefore would be in close contact with the ARVN soldiers as they struggled against the Viet Cong.
His first noted act of heroism occurred while he was in the Quan Tri province. Wheatley dashed out of cover in the middle of a battlefield to save the life of a young girl caught in the middle of a firefight. He escaped through the crossfire, using his own body to shield the girl from the enemy fire. Somehow, they both managed to escape the battlefield without any wounds.
Later, Wheatley received international recognition. A United States military advisor recommended him for an award following an incident where he carried on with an attack up a steep slope after communist forces had begun to retreat.
Wheatley joined the 5th Special Forces Group, A-Team, and it was there that he earned his place in military history. On November 13, 1965, a group of military advisors joined a company of the Civil Irregular Defense Group, a group of military operators who sought to develop paramilitary forces from minority populations of Vietnam.
While the group was on a search and destroy mission to clear a road stolen by the Viet Cong, they came under fire near Binh Hoa. Pinned under the heavy fire, Warrant Officer Ron Swanton took a fatal hit and went down. Wheatley got on the radio to request additional support and a medevac. However, soon the forces around him were broken and scattered. Finding himself behind enemy lines and taking on heavy fire, Wheatley carried Swanton to a nearby treeline and thought about his next move.
His last move was to wait for the enemy to get close enough then pull the pins on two grenades. Two explosions and some arms fire occurred, then silence fell. No one knows for sure how many enemy soldiers he took down with him, but his sacrifice was recognized by the Commonwealth who awarded Wheatley the Victoria Cross. Since the Second World War, only fifteen of these prestigious medals have been given out, and one of these was to Warrant Officer Kevin Wheatley.