Australian Vietnam War Casualties Finally Return Home

The remains of 33 Australians have been returned to families, friends and military colleagues.

02/06/2016 3:02 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
David Gray / Reuters
Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel carry coffins from a plane that contain the remains of 33 Australian service personnel and dependents, many of whom were casualties of the Vietnam War, during a repatriation ceremony at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) base located in Richmond, west of Sydney, Australia, June 2, 2016. REUTERS/David Gray

Five decades after they were buried in Malaysia and Singapore during the Vietnam War, the remains of 33 Australian war casualties have been returned to Australia.

Hundreds of military personnel and families were in attendance at Richmond RAAF Military Base northwest of Sydney on Thursday morning for the repatriation ceremony and the unloading of the coffins from two RAAF jets.

Among them were the remains of Warrant Officer Kevin Conway, the first Australian to die in conflict during the Vietnam War and was buried in Singapore's Kranji Cemetery, and Lieutenant David Brian, the first person to be buried in Terendak Cemetery in Malaysia along with the remaining 31 casualties.

"To know his bones are resting on Australian soil will just heal the biggest hurt in my heart."

Joining them were 20 veterans killed in Vietnam, three killed in conflicts in Malaysia, two spouses and six children.

Vietnam veteran Lieutenant Colonel Ian Henderson told the ABC: "In a way it's the culmination for Vietnam veterans that it's happened. That none of our compatriots are left overseas.

"The Army went to great lengths to discover those who had been missing in action, at great lengths to find their bodies a couple of years ago."

The ceremony comes after years of discussion between the Australian, Malaysian and Singapore governments and the announcement by former Primer Minister Tony Abbott last year that a government-funded repatriation program would work towards bringing the bodies of 36 war casualties back to Australia, according to Sky News.

While three families declined the offer, the repatriation process has been long due to a law prior to 1966 that meant bodies were not returned to Australia at the government's expense.

Sarah Ferguson, the former wife of the late David Brian, was forced to leave his body in Malaysia after his death and mounted a repatriation campaign in 2014 when she returned to Terendak cemetery.

"It was heartbreaking and I was absolutely devastated. The hardest thing I have ever done in my life was to actually walk away and leave him again," she told the ABC.

"To know his bones are resting on Australian soil will just heal the biggest hurt in my heart."

Despite this, there have been some who disagree with the moving of the casualties to Australia.

Vietnam veteran and member of recovery group Operation Aussies Home, Walter Pearson has suggested the dead were treated respectfully overseas and should have been left to rest rather than dug up and transported home.

"It has caused some concern among many of us that have been involved in the Vietnam War," he said.

Following the ceremony, the remains of each servicemen were returned to their respective families for private burial.

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