The remains of Australia’s last two Vietnam War servicemen listed as missing in action were repatriated in a sombre ceremony at a Sydney air force base on Monday, almost four decades after they disappeared.
Defence force chiefs and relatives paid their respects as an honour guard escorted the flag-draped coffins of Flying Officer Michael Herbert and Pilot Officer Robert Carver off an RAAF Hercules from Hanoi.
“After 39 years, I am proud ... to report to the Australian public that the crew of Magpie Nine One are finally home,” Air Force Chief Air Marshal Mark Binskin said, referring to the call sign of the airmen’s plane.
Herbert, a pilot, and Carver, his navigator, both 24, had completed a night mission over Vietnam on November 3, 1970 and were returning to base when their Canberra bomber inexplicably vanished from radar screens.
An extensive search at the time failed to locate them and the reason why they crashed on what was expected to be a routine mission remains a mystery.
The airmen’s remains were found in a jungle area of central Vietnam’s Quang Nam province in July by an Australian search team that liaised with Australian, Vietnamese, US, and Thai war veterans.
Minister for Defence Personnel Greg Combet said the return ended decades of heartbreaking grief and sorrow for relatives, who spent decades not knowing what happened to their loved ones.
Combet said the ceremony at the Richmond air force base in Sydney also marked the end of an era for Australia, whose forces fought alongside the United States in Vietnam, losing more than 500 soldiers.
“After all of the tumult of the Vietnam War, a conflict that helped to forge a generation in this country, Australia can now close a chapter,” he said.
The minister acknowledged the “ultimate sacrifice” paid by Herbert and Carver, as well as paying tribute to all the Australians who were part of the Vietnam conflict.
“With the passage of time and the return now of all those who were missing, I would like to thank on behalf of the Australian government all of those who served in Vietnam,” he said.
“Your service is greatly appreciated, admired and respected.”
Australia became one of the first Western countries to establish diplomatic ties with Hanoi in 1973, and has become a substantial aid donor and business.