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Wednesday 25 January, 2017
I knew Mike from my days at Sacred Heart but he was a “big kid,” a full three years older than I was. Our contact was restricted to sharing the same bike path as we road our “two wheelers” from Glenelg to the College at Somerton Park.
Mike was always keen on flying – indeed he had his pilot’s licence before he had his driver’s licence – and joined the RAAF as soon as he was able. After flying training at Point Cook and Point Pearce, he deployed to Vietnam in 1970 as a pilot with 2 Sqn RAAF at Phan Rang completing 198 missions and was always keen for more. Michael’s navigator was Robert Carver, a Queensland boy, and they flew a Canberra bomber A84 -231, call sign “Magpie 91”.
On 3 November 1970 both men prepared for a mission. The weather was closing in and after climbing aboard they were stood down because of “cloud cover”. In crucial evidence later it was recorded that Michael walked directly from his aircraft to the “crew room” looking for a thirst quenching “goffa” (slang for soft drink). As was unit custom, Mike could not be served until he identified himself as a member of a small “all ranks” club by showing his “Ugly Club” badge. He produced his badge; the drink (lemonade) was served and he was seen to slide the badge back into his flying suit pocket.
After the weather delay Mike and Robert took off on what was seen to be a “most routine sortie” and as they approached their target were greeted on air by their “handler,” a USAF CPL with the call sign “Milkie”. After greeting Mike in very American fashion, Milkie took control of the aircraft giving Mike precise instructions that would guide his aircraft over the intended target.
Exactly 70 seconds after successfully completing their mission, and without warning, Magpie 91 disappeared.
Dozens of intensive searches failed to reveal any trace of the aircraft. What followed was years of appalling government inaction. In spite of promises to the contrary, both sides of politics effectively did nothing, exacerbating the pain felt by the families. The next 38 years were full of false starts and disappointments that were, in some cases, avoidable, and in all cases tragic. They may have remained so and we may never have never found Mike or Robert were it not for the extraordinary work of one of the greatest Australians I have had the pleasure to meet – the late Jim Bourke AM MG.
An infantryman with two tours of Vietnam under his belt (he was wounded in action and served one of his tours with the AATTV), Jim established “Operation AUSSIES HOME” and is the man who, almost singlehandedly, returned the six MIA’s lost during the Vietnam War and left behind, to their families.
Jim Bourke contacted me some years after we dedicated a memorial at Mike’s old school, Sacred Heart College, and said he wanted to meet with the family to make a concerted effort to find Mike and Robert. After a long discussion Jim was handed a Power of Attorney, and with the best wishes of Mike’s father, Jack, and brother Shane, he was on his way.
The actual discovery of the crash site is an extraordinarily interesting story for another day, but on 18 July 2009 the search team who were digging in the crater created by the crashed aircraft discovered some bone fragments, a piece of a flying suit, a torn map and the Ugly Club badge! Proof positive that the remains were Michael Herbert’s.
Michael had been Missing in Action for 38 years, 9 months and 28 days.
The Prime Minister kindly afforded the Carver and Herbert families his RAAF aircraft and Jim Bourke and I were invited to accompany them to Hanoi to receive the Mike’s and Robert’s remains. The Government of Vietnam was cooperative, kind and respectful. The remains of Michael and Robert were received in Australia at RAAF Base Richmond and then flown to Adelaide.
A few days later I was privileged to be able to coordinate Michael’s funeral and deliver his eulogy – a great honour for a truly wonderful family that had been through so much. Michael was buried on Monday 7 September 2009. There was an F111 flyover of the full to capacity St Francis Xavier Cathedral. The Premier spoke as did the Archbishop. Shane delivered a wonderful tribute to his brother.
Mike’s father, Jack, hospitalised at the time, attended the funeral wearing his original World War II uniform and decorations and attended by no less than six medical staff. Although frail, he was clearly determined to honour his son.
So – Michael was laid to rest and sadly, Jack passed not long after.
Shane and his sister Kerryn (who lives in Melbourne) remain. Shane can be extraordinarily proud of his part in finding his brother. His mother had always told him “The jobs not over until you put away the tools!” Shane finished the job and on 7 September 2009 he “put away the tools!”
The great man Jim Bourke passed last year. His words “We do it for the families” still resonate with me. I doubt we will see a man of his calibre again.
I hope the broader Vietnam Veterans’ community will continue their special link with Michael and ensure that on 3 November every year he is remembered.
Lest we Forget.