As a driver in one of the longest cortèges of hearses ever in Australia I was privileged to convey one of our Vietnam veterans along a route lined with thousands of people who turned out to show their respects. My experience of this event, and how I felt about the man I transported, was to evolve into something unexpected.
I will never know Private Mervyn Wilson. He was an Australian soldier in his late twenties who on January 8, 1966, was killed by a sniper in the Vietnam War. However, unlikely as it may be, a repatriation event of historical significance has connected Mervyn and myself.
On 2ndJune, 2016, around 11:30am at the Royal Australian Air force (RAAF) air base at Richmond, Sydney, over 50 years after Mervyn died, I was one of 33 funeral directors standing still and straight, right-hand-over-left-hand, at the rear passenger end of their hearses. It was a sunny, early winter day.
In the far distance, majestic, cumulous clouds billowed across a blue sky. Sounds from the private ceremony coming to a close inside one of the nearby airbase hangars – attended by relatives of the deceased, the Governor-General and dignitaries – drifted gently across to us through the windless air.
About 50 metres from where I stood, two mighty C-17 Hercules aircraft – used to transport the remains of 33 deceased Australian war veterans, servicemen and their dependants from cemeteries in Malaysia and Singapore – sat on the runway with their loading ramps down, exposing their cavernous cargo compartments.
The black hearses were arranged in three rows of eleven on the vast asphalt apron of the air base. Teams of Australian Defence Force men and women – six bearers and one officer-in-charge assigned to each one of the 33 coffins draped with the Australian flag; led by a chaplain, lone piper and drummer – then began their ceremonial march toward the hearses.
I’d seen the surname Wilson on my run sheet, but extensive rehearsals for the event over the previous three days had all but erased that detail from mind. After the team of bearers had lowered, I pushed the wooden casket forward over the roller bar into the back of the hearse, tightened the locking device and stepped back into position, still facing inwards.
As I awaited the command to close the tailgate, the sun’s reflection off the coffin’s brass nameplate dazzled my eyes. I tilted my head slightly to minimise the glare. As I did this, letters became visible; out of sequence, a few at a time. “son … Wil”, “vyn … Merv”. Mentally, I did a double take.
Up to that moment, the repatriation ceremony was a professional first for me, and a step into the unknown. I was still relatively new to the funeral industry. I’d driven a hearse but could hardly call myself seasoned. I knew nothing of military process and I’d never set foot on an RAAF airbase. Also, my experience of cortèges involved only a single hearse leading a procession of mourning cars.
I knew about the Vietnam War, of course. But I was too young to be conscripted way back then, and my understanding of it since had evolved more from motion picture portrayals like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, than reading history books. I’d never been a soldier, and I’d never spoken at length to anyone who had. For me, war was something other people did, an abstract thing, but the engraved letters “Pte Mervyn Wilson”, shining into my eyes that morning from the rear end of his coffin, changed that forever. There was no time to process what I was feeling, however, before it was my turn to peel off and join a single file of hearses stretching for at least a kilometre.
“Do it for your country”, launched on repeat reel in my head, as VIPs, family members and guests lined the exit out of the base. Outside, on the open road, the cortège came under the escort of police on high-powered motorcycles, for the trek from Richmond to Lidcombe.
The next hour and a half was one of those experiences you might get once a lifetime, if you’re lucky. Through a pandemonium of colour, noise and emotion, the motorcade processed along 40-odd kilometres of Sydney’s northwest, past thousands of people along the route – some cheering, some with eyes closed or waving the Aussie flag, many saluting, wearing military medals, and hundreds standing at attention, hands over heart.
Through Mulgrave, Box Hill, Rouse Hill, Bella Vista, Winston Hills, Westmead – then slowly negotiating Parramatta CBD, I willed myself into a fierce, trance-like concentration on keeping an even distance between myself and the next hearse. This meant – ignore the noise, the faces, smiles and tears, the cameras and mobile phones, the waving and cheering, placards and flags, the backed-up traffic and helicopter overhead. Block out the beeping horns of the police motorcyclists controlling the traffic ahead, speeding past and beside us on both sides of the cortège; but be wary in case their traffic hand signals were directed at us.
There was really just one thing I and my driver colleagues had to do en route – and do well; well enough to avoid an on-road skirmish in front of spectators in their thousands, and millions watching live on national television – that was, simply move my right foot between brake and accelerator. Everything else could wait.
Returning these 33 war vets, civilians and children who’d lost their lives in the Vietnam War was a massive undertaking by the Australian Government. Overseas operations, the aircraft, airbase and funeral industry all played roles in their repatriation. But this was also a coming home on different levels – it involved national pride and identity, and closure, not just for family and friends of the deceased, but for all Australians.
At the end of this event of national significance, my colleagues and I felt we had contributed something – small as that may be in the grand scheme of it all. We got our soldiers, civilians and dependants that much closer to their final resting places. In the week to come, they would be transported to these different locations around Australia. But for me, it wasn’t until a few days later when I searched for more information about Private Mervyn Wilson – who grew up on the NSW Central Coast – that something else revealed itself.
The ultimate sacrifice, as a wartime representative of your country, must be recognised and honoured – regardless of which particular war, or its political and military agenda and outcomes; despite even the futility of war itself. I could not, and cannot possibly imagine that sacrifice, or what it’s like to be confronted with that situation.
However, something happened to me when I saw an online news report from early 2015 about Mervyn’s sister supporting the push to bring home the bodies of Vietnam veterans, including a handsome black and white photo of her brother – whom she described as “the most wonderful brother anyone could have”. It was an emotionally charged moment.
Researching more, I learnt that Wilson was a stretcher-bearer in the Australian Army, 1stBattalion, Royal Australian Regiment – and that he was attempting to rescue a fellow soldier when he was shot dead at Ben Cat, Pooch Tuy. He was buried at Terendak (Malacca War Graves Cemetery) in Malaysia.
Further, Mervyn was born on 11 November 1936, just 18 years after the day in 1918 when hostilities officially ceased in World War 1; the day, ever since, that Australians and people of other Commonwealth nations have remembered those who died fighting for their country.
Wilson’s hometown is listed as Granville, NSW, although he grew up on the Central Coast. I read Eunice’s account of her brother at the age of eight, learning to play the cornet and joining The Entrance City Band. Also Mervyn was a lifesaver, and delivered telegrams on his pushbike; he joined the Army at 25, and served in Vietnam for 227 days.
I pondered the fact I’d had twice the lifetime years of this young man, to discover what my life is about. I wondered what Mervyn might have done if he’d been given the same opportunity. I wondered how different his life might have been if he’d been able to return home from the war to his wife and two young children; or lived to know his grandchildren.
These details filled in the picture; but for me, the picture had already told the story. Looking at that first photo, the smiling face of the Aussie war hero whose remains I had conveyed past thousands of well-wishers lining Sydney streets, in one of the longest cortèges of hearses ever assembled in Australia – somehow, I was touched by a very real sense of loss.
The repatriation ceremony gave me a first-hand experience of how times of crisis or tragedy and loss, of high achievement or going beyond – which often bring together all these things – can dissolve the boundaries of self, community and nation. In these miraculous moments, we set aside our differences. We pull together in the name of something real. We are all connected.
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