Digger snubbed in hunt for mate's body
By Alex Smith
National Nine News reporter
A haunting chapter of our Vietnam War history may finally be about to come to a close with the departure today of an Australian Army mission bound for the old battle fields of Long Hai.
The team, comprising Army personnel, members of Operation Aussies Home and civilian experts, is hoping to at last find the remains of an Aussie digger who died a terrible death more than 36 years ago.
John Gillespie was the army medic aboard RAAF Iroquois A2-767 when it was shot down on the April 17, 1971. The helicopter was hovering as the crew was attempting to extract a wounded digger when the engine was knocked out by Vietcong small arms fire. When the fuselage came to rest, Gillespie was pinned by the legs and he died as fire consumed the wreckage.
The opportunity to search for and recover some of his bodily remains from the Long Hai jungle should be a celebrated opportunity for closure, but sadly this mission has become shrouded in the same hurt and disrespect that gutted so many Vietnam veterans upon their return home in 1972.
The fact that this recovery mission is even possible is almost entirely thanks to one man's incredible personal journey to overcome the demons of that terrible day so long ago.
Bundaberg-raised Roy Zegers was the left door gunner on Iroquois A2-767. He distinctly recalls that Saturday afternoon in 1971. As crewman Bob Stephens operated the winch to raise the wounded digger below, Army medic John Gillespie (pictured above) took charge of the right side M60 machine gun. Zegers scanned the rugged terrain to the left, visually interrogating the bombed and Agent Orange denuded landscape for any sign of the Vietcong.
The entire crew knew this was a dangerous medivac known to all as a DUSTOFF, acronym for Dedicated Unhesitating Services To Our Fighting Forces. Normally the area would be sprayed with suppression machine gun fire to clear the enemy, but this time there was no such cleansing. The area was a mine field and suppression fire would have exposed our diggers on the ground to danger.
The casualty retrieval by winch had just begun when Roy heard a burst of automatic weapon fire tear into the fuselage. He called the contact over the intercom but the crew of Dustoff-One continued the retrieval with steely resolve. Seconds later another 15 round burst of AK47 fire hacked into the fuselage. It had come from a position further up the mountain, a perfect vantage point to strike the helicopter’s vulnerable turbine engine.
A split second later, the engine failed and pilot Mick Castles made that dreaded call: "We're going down!"
Roy Zegers was convinced his life was about to end. "I grabbed the hook of my harness, closed my eyes and hung on," he recalls. "It seemed to take an eternity for us to hit the ground."
As the blades chopped chaotically into trees, the Iroquois disintegrated. The tail boom ripped from the body and the large heavy airframe eventually came clumsily to rest lying on its right side. "When the terrible commotion eased, I opened my eyes and could see only bright blue sky. For a fleeting moment I thought I was in heaven," Roy remembers.
He quickly realised he'd survived and was lying on the firewall looking up through the open door of the overturned airframe. He tried to jump out but was pulled back into the now burning wreck. He'd forgotten to release his harness. On the second attempt he got out and realised he was the first to do so. He turned back to see both pilots releasing themselves and helped them escape the flames. Roy then returned to the main cabin to find crewman Bob Stephens working frantically to release John Gillespie.
It was one of those unimaginably traumatic moments. A mate trapped hopelessly by the legs under the full weight of the Iroquois airframe which was on fire. The flames were becoming more intense, engulfing a full load of jet fuel and beginning to ignite the magazines of ammunition and rockets. Roy convinced Bob Stephens they had to pull back or stay with John Gillespie and die themselves. It's one of those moments in war that are beyond comprehension.
Two soldiers stationed on the ground also died in the crash. Australian Army Corporal Tom Blackhurst and American Army Captain Albertson were killed by flying debris.
Miraculously, the soldier, whose name has been lost and who was waiting for rescue, managed to escape further injury. He'd lost both legs in a land mine explosion, but somehow managed to crawl to safety, apparently scampering on the stumps of his severed legs.
After recovering from the crash, Roy Zegers forced himself to return to his door gunner post or risk never having the courage to fly again. He defeated the fear, only to be shot down a second time before Australia pulled out of the war in 1972.
Zegers, a quiet farm boy raised in Queensland's Bundaberg district, was deeply disturbed by his traumatic experience in Vietnam. He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, a profoundly depressed psychological state made even worse by the shunned treatment he and his colleagues received upon their return home.
For many years, Roy managed as best he could before making a decision in the late nineties which would transform his life. Roy went back to Vietnam in 1999, the first of many visits that would serve as the best possible therapy to purge the demons of war.
Roy's journey back in time set him upon the long task of befriending his former enemy and winning their trust. Relationships were slowly established and with the aid of reliable interpreters, he was eventually embraced by the inner sanctum of the Vietcong.
In July this year, Roy was invited to a meeting of the Vietcong Veterans Association in the small village of Long Phuoc. The warmth of the welcome he received defied belief. Here was a man once charged with the duty of machine gunning the VC to death, now openly and sincerely accepted as a friend.
But this was just the beginning of Roy's incredible journey of healing. With the help of his new VC friends, he tracked down the man who shot down Iroquois A2-767.
The incident was notable among the VC as well because only one Iroquois had been shot down in the Long Hai. The VC who scored the kill had done so with his humble AK47, an achievement that won considerable praise at the time.
Roy was driven to a small shed-like building and inside sat a greying and quietly contented Vietnamese man, puffing as so many of his countrymen do on a cigarette.
Mr Nguyen Tan Hung or Hung Bam (pictured below with Roy) to his friends was delighted to receive his visitor. Much spirited, randomly interpreted conversation followed as a quite Australian farm boy and an equally quiet Vietnamese peasant jovially recalled the day they tried to kill each other.
While Hung Bam had claimed the biggest prize that day, knocking out a helicopter and killing three of his enemy, he had paid dearly for the trophy. Soon after the incident he was badly wounded in the right temple and today carries a deep depressed scar on his head. Hung Bam spent the rest of the war sheltering in the caves of the Long Hai and wasn’t expected to live.
Roy's effort to find and meet Hung Bam and other VC connected with the incident was clearly just as uplifting for them as it was therapeutic for Roy, but there was still much to do. The prospect of repatriating the remains of John Gillespie was the Everest Roy Zegers desperately wanted to climb.
After being so badly injured, Hung Bam had never returned to the mountains where he shot the helicopter down, but now after 36 years he had a reason to go back. Together Roy and Hung Bam trekked up the steep and boulder-riddled battlefield, its scars of war now soothed by the jungle that has long since reclaimed it.
Together at the crash site in the Long Hai, Hung Bam and Roy shook hands. It wasn’t the simple gesture we experience everyday, but a joyful and embracing declaration of forgiveness and regret, humanity at its compassionate best.
Roy Zegers (pictured below as he was during the Vietnam War) carefully catalogued the mountain of information he obtained on the crash in Vietnam. His positioning of the crash site was supported by Hung Bam and others who saw A2-767 crash and come to rest. It was also corroborated by Mr Nguyen Van Hung, a local security guard, who personally retrieved much of the wreckage and sold it.
Roy's information was requested and enthusiastically received by the Australian Army History Unit which works closely with Operation Aussies Home to find the remains of Australian MIA/KIAs.
Army personal visited Roy at his home west of Brisbane on numerous occasions to extract the information required before they could embark on a mission to excavate the crash site in a bid to find John Gillespie's remains. They gave several verbal undertakings that they would take Roy with them when any such mission was conducted.
Roy's personal experience was obviously invaluable in determining the exact crash site because he knew the terrain. The Army had nominated its preferred crash site, but Roy was able to prove it was wrong. It centred on a large rock and Roy knew he had climbed out on a flat shelf of land and definitely not a rock. Eventually the Army conceded the point and Roy continued to supply valuable information together with names and addresses of the Vietcong with knowledge of the crash.
Despite all the assurances that Roy would be on the excavation mission, the Army will be leaving without him today. Officially, the only explanation is that Roy does not have the skills required on this mission. The office of the Minister for Veterans Affairs, Bruce Billson also says that Roy’s location expertise is not required because the Army now knows exactly where the crash site is. Roy finds that assertion remarkable indeed considering the mission’s civilian archaeologist Tony Lowe, was in contact just last Wednesday, trying to overcome apparent contradictions in the Army’s positioning of the site.
The real reason for Roy's exclusion from the trip will never be clear. Is it because he was Air Force and this is an Army trip? Is it because Roy did so much on his own without the explicit approval of the Australian Government? Whatever the real reason, it has the appearance of bureaucratic bitchiness at its very worst.
Roy has been denied the chance to reach the pinnacle of his personal Everest and locate the remains of the mate he was forced to leave behind. Why would our government do that to him?
He now feels bitterly betrayed, the same feeling he had along with so many other Vietnam veterans in 1972. He travels back to Vietnam tomorrow, at his own expense, to monitor the search for John Gillespie from a distance.
If remains are found when excavation commences on Wednesday, it will be a bitter sweet end to the saga for Roy. He'll at last be able to break free of the memory of John Gillespie’s horrible death and see a mate finally returned to his family, but the darkness of disrespect that caused so much hurt in 1972 continues.
Roy travels back to Vietnam tomorrow firmly believing he is held in higher esteem by his former enemy than the government that sent him to war.