Imagine my surprise on having dinner with Mark Jeffery, one of the Dads4Kids Board Members, the night before ANZAC Day, that his wife Rochelle told me that her grandfather had been awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross in Vietnam. I almost fell off my chair. Only four Australians received a Victoria Cross medal in Vietnam. The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded for valour ‘in the face of the enemy’ that can be given to anyone in the Australian Armed Forces. The story of Rochelle’s father is riveting.
Kevin Arthur ‘Dasher’ Wheatley was born at Surry Hills in Sydney on 13 March 1937. The son of Raymond George and Ivy Sarah Ann (nee Newman) Wheatley, he was educated at Maroubra Junction Junior Technical School. After leaving school he worked a number of labouring jobs around Sydney. He married Edna Eileen Davis on 20 July 1954. They had four children.
Wheatley enlisted in the Australian Regular Army on 12 June 1956 and joined 4 Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (4RAR). On 16 March 1965 he arrived in Vietnam. On 28 May in the same year, Wheatley was assisting troops in engaging ‘elements of a trapped enemy battalion’. In the course of the action, a young girl ran terrified into the cross fire. With little regard for his own safety Wheatley ran after the child. Both were now fully exposed to enemy fire. Seizing her, he used his body as a shield and carried her to safety. This action, though not recognised through an award, was however included in an early draft of his later Victoria Cross (VC) citation.
Another action which was featured in correspondence regarding his VC recommendation occurred on 18 August 1965. Wheatley was an assistant advisor in an assault on an enemy held village. When the village was taken the remaining enemy troops retreated up a nearby slope. Meanwhile troops had checked their advance to gather up discarded enemy equipment and supplies. Wheatley carried on up the slope alone for some distance before being supported by a company of soldiers which had been urged forward by another Australian advisor. Under heavy grenade and automatic fire, Wheatley, still in the lead, encouraged his troops to forward where they ‘completely routed the Viet Cong.’…
In October 1965, Wheatley was transferred to A Team with the 5th Special Forces Group under Captain Felix Fazekas. The group was located at the remote base of Tra Bong in Quang Ngai Province. Access to the village was restricted to air access as the only road in had been cut by the Viet Cong. On 13 November, Fazekas, Wheatley and Warrant Officer II Ron ‘Butch’ Swanton accompanied a unit of the Civil Irregular Defence Group (CIDG), consisting mainly of Montagnard (indigenous highland) troops, on a search and destroy mission in an area suspected of containing enemy forces.
The VC citation for the award reads in part: ‘On 13 November 1965 at approximately 1300 hours, a Vietnamese Civil Irregular Defence Group company commenced a search and destroy operation in the Tra Bong Valley, 15 kilometres East of Tra Bong Special Forces Camp in Quang Ngai Province. Accompanying the force were Captain F. Fazekas, senior Australian Advisor, with the centre platoon. At about 1340 hours, Warrant Officer Wheatley reported contact with Viet Cong elements. The Viet Cong resistance increased in strength until finally Warrant Officer Wheatley asked for assistance.
Captain Fazekas immediately organised the centre platoon to help and personally led and fought it towards the action area. While moving towards this area 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 Viet Cong fire and began to scatter. Although told by the Civil Irregular Defence Group 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 Civil Irregular defence Group member, 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 Viet Cong, holding one grenade in each hand. Shortly afterwards, two grenade explosions were heard, followed by several bursts of 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 through the dense timber 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.
As Rochelle recounted the story of her grandfathers bravery I was trying to stay composed but I kept wiping away the tears. It was not just the incredible courage shown by Kevin ‘Dasher’ Wheatley but it was the story of Rochelle’s mum who was 8 years old when her Dad died. She grew up grieving the loss of her father and only came to terms with the loss later in life. Her father had promised that he would bring her a radio when he returned from Vietnam.
He was due home on leave in ten days time. She saw her father’s body come home to Australia earlier than anticipated, but no radio. This only added to the heartbreak. Many months later his personal belonging were gathered up and shipped home. It was only then that she received her transistor radio. Her father had kept his side of his promise with the radio, but of course she would have given all she had to hug her father again. Sadly that was never to be.
I went to a Dawn service on ANZAC Day. I happened to ask a man there where he got his medals. “Vietnam,” was his quick reply. “Have you heard of Dasher Wheatley?” I asked curiously. “Yes of course. We laid a wreath for him last night here in Wollongong at the ceremony before ANZAC Day. He was one of Australia’s most awarded heroes of the Vietnam War.”
I turned away hoping he would not see my tears because the cost of bravery is very high. The cost is shared between the fathers who die for their country and the women and children who never see them again. The phrase from the dawn service kept ringing in my mind. “Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friends.”
These stories are sad but they need to be told. Fathers like Warrant Officer Wheatley displayed magnificent courage in the face of overwhelming odds in the heat of the battle. Let us pray we can be inspired to tell these stories to our children, not to glorify war, but to rightly honour the men who gave up their lives in the fight against evil that both we and our children can walk free. The price of safety is eternal vigilance and it is not without cost.
Yours for ‘Greater Love’
PS. We referred to the Courageous Action Appeal at the beginning of this blog. The team at Dads4Kids is passionate to encourage Dads to consider living for a greater cause. Become a great Dad yourself for your own children’s sake, but why not, at the same time, commit to helping other Dads become great Dads too. The best way to learn is to teach others.
Apologies that one of the links on our Train the Trainer Summit Prospectus is wrong but the last link in this PS is right. The good news is that all the information is correct we just got the wrong link. We will fix it Monday. For more information about the Dads4Kids Train the Trainer Summit which will take place from 16-18 May 2014 at Stanwell Tops, download the Prospectusand then make your application.