WITH heavy hearts, families of 33 Australian personnel and dependants watched their loved ones return to Australian soil for the first time in 50 years on June 2.
As the dense fog that covered RAAF Base Richmond lifted, two C-17A Globemasters touched down at 10.30am to an eerie silence at the normally bustling base.
Standing proudly in front of the maintenance hangar were the families, dignitaries and military VIPs who there to see a promise made on May 25, 2015, by the government to bring the personnel home from cemeteries in Malaysia and Singapore.
The offer was made to the families of the 27 Australian servicemen and eight Australian dependants buried at Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia and to the family of one buried in Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore.
The Terendak cemetery is located within a large operational Malaysian Armed Forces Base and, due to security restrictions, does not enjoy the ready access available at other cemeteries where Australians are interred around the world.
Australia’s Federation Guard bore the coffins on their shoulders into the hangar, led by an ADF chaplain and a lone bag piper playing ‘Going Home’.
The solemn occasion was not lost on all who attended, including more than 60 Vietnam Veterans who came from far and wide to see their arrive mates back home.
One such veteran was Noel Darr, 78.
Mr Darr, from Richmond itself, was a loadmaster on board a C-130E and completed 49 return trips from Vietnam from 1968-72.
He said they had the task of bringing home all the dead and wounded on top of the normal passengers and cargo that needed to be transported.
Unlike in Australia’s recent conflicts, Mr Darr said the coffins were loaded onto the aircraft and covered with tarpaulins to hide them.
“We had to disguise them because we had passengers as well,” Mr Darr said.
“We had one chap asleep on top of them on the ramp and I said “mate you’re laying on a coffin”. Like everyone else on board, the poor bugger had no idea.”
Mr Darr said after picking up the dead and wounded in Vung Tau, then flew to Butterworth in Malaysia and finally on to Darwin and Richmond.”
“I had to do all the paperwork before we arrived in Darwin and I saw how each poor soldier was killed,” he said.
“We were only young in those days and we just saw it as a job we had to do, but later on in life it got to me and I get emotional when I see similar things on TV - especially Anzac Day.”
Mr Darr heard the Governor-General, His Excellency General the Hon. Sir Peter Cosgrove (Retd), speak to the families in a private service inside the hangar.
The Governor-General spoke of the significance of the day and how it was time to welcome them home.
“They were then and now a precious part of our national community,” he said.
“They were reunited after all this time with those that mourned their loss and in some cases descendents who never knew them, but sought to honour their memory.”
General Cosgrove said in all those years they were cared for lovingly and respectfully, but out of sight and far from home in cemeteries in Malaysia and Singapore.
“They stayed in the minds of their determined, energetic and persuasive comrades-in-arms and loved ones who were tireless in urging their repatriation,” he said.
“Now they are with us and all other veterans, who in modern times in death, have made that sad journey to their homeland – Australia.
“Although they have been absent, those soldiers, husbands, wives and children have always been a part of the lives and families they left behind. Their absence has always been felt.”
General Cosgrove said June 2 was an opportunity for final closure.
“It’s an opportunity for peace that until now could never completely rest,” he said.
“We hope those who mourned would find comfort from this last coming home, this last flight.”
General Cosgrove expressed gratitude to the ADF and the Department of Veterans Affairs for the sensitivity and care with which they had conducted the repatriation.
“To those who received their loved ones home let me say that although that was no doubt a difficult day, perhaps their sadness might also be leavened by the knowledge that the closing of a sombre chapter in their lives was at hand.”
After the service, a motorcade of 33 hearses supported by 17 NSW Police motorcycles, left Richmond for their final resting places at Parramatta.
As the last hearse left the tarmac, one Vietnam veteran from 1966 said simply: “Welcome home boys”- a statement felt by all who were there.