Driving to and from Canberra you will notice signs along the Hume and Federal Highways declaring it to be the Remembrance Driveway, an honouring of those who have served in the Australian Defence Forces. It was commenced in 1954 by the planting of trees in Macquarie Place, Sydney by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. Originally conceived as the establishment of groves of native trees (including that beautiful stand of gums at Bass Hill) as symbols of hope for the future, in the 1990’s it was expanded to include Victoria Cross Rest Areas and Memorial Parks.
One such rest area name, Kevin Wheatley VC, remains familiar to me from when I first read of his being awarded the Victoria Cross. I was a lad at the time and I remember being both moved and awed by the manner of his passing. That feeling persists to this day - “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:13).
Warrant Officer Kevin “Dasher” Wheatley had been born in 1937. Married in 1954 and having enlisted in the Regular Army in 1956, he served in Vietnam from early 1965 as part of the Australian Army Training Team.
Dasher Wheatley was killed in action in Vietnam on 13 November 1965. He was aged 29 and was survived by his wife, son and three daughters.
Australian policy at the time was for military personnel killed overseas to be buried overseas. Private funding enabled his body to be returned to Australia and buried at Pine Grove Cemetery at Eastern Creek, near Blacktown. In 1966, following a public outcry, the Government reversed its policy so that the remains of service personnel who died overseas would in future be returned to Australia at public expense if their families desired.
In 1993 the VC and other military decorations awarded to Dasher Wheatley (including the US Silver Star and. the Republic of Vietnam s Military Merit Medal and Cross of Gallantry with Palm) were presented to the Australian War Memorial Canberra.
The following is the citation for the posthumous award to Dasher Wheatley of the Victoria Cross, the British Commonwealth military decoration for “valour in the face of the enemy”:
29890 Warrant Officer Class II Kevin Arthur WHEATLEY
Australian Army Training Team Vietnam
13 November 1965, at Tra Bong Valley, Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam
On 13th November 1965 at approximately 1300 hours, a Vietnamese Civil Irregular Defence Group company commenced a search and destroy operation in the Tra Bong Valley. Accompanying the force were Captain F Fazekas and Warrant Officers KA Wheatley and RG Swanton. At about 1340 hours, Warrant Officer Wheatley reported contact with the enemy. Enemy resistance strengthened and finally Warrant Officer Wheatley asked for assistance. Captain Fazekas immediately organised the centre platoon to help and personally led and fought towards the action area. While moving forward he received another radio message from Warrant Officer Wheatley to say that Warrant Officer Swanton had been hit in the chest, and requested an air strike and an aircraft, for the evacuation of casualties.
At about this time the right platoon broke in the face of heavy enemy fire and began to scatter. Although told by the medical assistant that Warrant Officer Swanton was dying, Warrant Officer Wheatley refused to abandon him. He discarded his radio to enable him to half drag, half carry Warrant Officer Swanton, under heavy machine-gun and automatic rifle fire, out of the open rice paddies into the comparative safety of a wooded area, some 200 metres away. He was assisted by a Private Dinh Do who, when the Viet Cong were only some ten metres away, urged him to leave his dying comrade. Again he refused, and was seen to pull the pins from two grenades and calmly awaited the enemy, holding one grenade in each hand. Shortly afterwards, two grenade explosions were heard, followed by several bursts of small arms fire. The two bodies were found at first light next morning after the fighting had ceased, with Warrant Officer Wheatley lying beside Warrant Officer Swanton. Both had died of gunshot wounds.
Warrant Officer Wheatley displayed magnificent courage in the face of an overwhelming Viet Cong force which was later estimated at more than a company. He had the clear choice of abandoning a wounded comrade and saving himself by escaping or of staying with Warrant Officer Swanton and thereby facing certain death. He deliberately chose the latter course. His acts of heroism, determination and unflinching loyalty in the face of the enemy will always stand as examples of the true meaning of valour.