Article by Hedley Thomas The Australian September 25, 2015
Jim Bourke – Life Mission Accomplished
Jim Bourke, a dying soldier, can be proud of his battle to honour comrades. He has devoted his life to finding the remains of Australian soldiers in unmarked graves from the Korean and Vietnam wars.
His heroism as a platoon commander with 1 RAR in the Vietnam War in 1966 should have killed him. He was shot while trying to save a wounded soldier, and won a medal for gallantry. But afterwards he lost himself in gin and what he reckons was survivor guilt. For a long while back in Australia, he says, he “wasn’t travelling too well”.
Four decades later, he led his most important mission — to find and bring home the remains of six missing Australians: Richard Parker, Peter Gillson, David Fisher, Michael Herbert, Robert Carver and John Gillespie, left behind in Vietnam where they fell.
Bourke searching, second left, for graves in Vietnam. Source: News Limited
It was Bourke who, in the early 2000s, used his initiative and resources, did thousands of hours of research, lobbied politicians and bureaucrats, and, when that failed, led a privately funded team to try to locate the missing six. Peterson and Aylett, Vietnam veterans, were vital to this mission Operation Aussie Home. Darrouzet, who could not fathom why the government was not doing all in its power to bring back the men, stumped up cash said “You sometimes wonder, ‘Would I be good enough to go over the top?’, then you hear about six blokes who were good enough and who died in the fight in Vietnam, and their government said ‘too hard’, and left them there for almost 40 years.”
Bourke’s refusal to go away — the single-minded determination that distinguished him in Vietnam — eventually would bring success, and embarrass the government and Defence chiefs into decisive and long-overdue action. As Bourke saw it, Australia had sent those six young men to war on a one-way ticket. In failing to bring home what was left of their bodies, the ultimate sacrifice they had made was not being honoured. He regarded it as a national disgrace.
When Bourke and his team in 2007 found the remains of two of the missing six, Defence could no longer shirk its duty. Bourke and his like-minded mates had ach¬ieved results the experts predicted were impossible. They were making officialdom look bad. A new collaborative effort with Defence resulted in remains of the other four being found, carefully repatriated to Australia, and laid to rest with public and family ceremonies, political pomp and overwhelming community approval.
In his newly completed PhD thesis, Living With Unresolved Grief and Uncompleted Tasks: Achieving Closure Around Ambiguous Loss and Traumatic Events During Wartime, Bourke says, “Across the nation, citizens have an obligation to these fellow Australians, to understand their grief and to lend support where they can — and the nation has a moral obligation to the missing themselves, to recover and properly commemorate them.”
His thesis is a measured and powerful body of work that also addresses what he sees as ongoing ambiguity in policy about the duty to bring bodies home from future conflicts. Bourke’s tone is not angry but he does not pull punches over bureaucratic and political inertia. He says the recovery of the remains “represented the ultimate act of reparation”.
Bourke is unflinching in examining the reasons it took four decades to recover the six men. It was increasingly clear to him “that the achilles heel within the bureaucracy was the government, specifically the ministers”.: “The gravitas of Australia’s leaders, so obvious at times when they wish to praise the sacrifices of service personnel, appeared to evaporate when confronted with deciding whether to do anything about these six MIAs from Vietnam”.
“It appears Australia was able to sweep the remains of the missing under some metaphorical carpet. Blight on Australia’s national identity was evident — Australia lost her spirit. The apparent lack of interest in the recovery of the missing during the second half of the 20th century reveals a cultural undercurrent of amnesia around Australia’s missing war dead.
“This undercurrent survived during the last two decades of the 20th century despite the patriotic resurgence of interest in commemorating Australians’ wartime sacrifices.
“Searching for the missing, beyond initial battlefield clearance, was a priority of neither the Australian government nor the Australian Defence Force, and this underlying philosophy was formalised in ADF policy in 1996. The situation around the (42) Korean War MIAs and the six MIAs from Vietnam clearly reflects this dilemma.”
But by 2007, following the breakthrough recovery by his group of Parker and Gillson, the debate changed fundamentally. There were accolades and congratulatory messages from then Prime Minister John Howard, Defence chiefs and other VIPs. The RSL made Bourke its 2008 Anzac of the Year. The loved ones of the first two were generous in their praise, and by 2009 the remaining four had been retrieved and repatriated.
Bourke has one regret — he will die before the remains of any of the 42 Australians missing from the war in Korea are recovered.
“They say: ‘It’s too hard, the North Koreans won’t talk to us about it’,” he says.
“Well, they should get off their arses and use their diplomacy to engage the bastards.”
POST SCRIPT: Jim Bourke marched out at 1400 hrs today (25/09/15). He is now with God