When the Last Post sounds at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) on Friday (18 August) at 4:45 pm, it will be a timely tribute to a man people should know, but few do.
It will be in honour of Private David John Elkington Fisher, the last member of the Australian Army to be repatriated from Vietnam – and timely, because the date marks the 50th anniversary of the end of Australia’s involvement in that war.
Although born in England in 1946, Fisher was the second and only son of William and Winifred Fisher. In 1948, Fisher, his mother and his sister emigrated to Australia aboard the P&O ocean liner Strathaird.
His father, a decorated veteran who had served with the Royal Air Force during World War II, remained behind to see out his service with the RAF, re-joining his family soon after.
After leaving Sydney Grammar School in 1962, Fisher was studying to be an accountant when he received his call-up papers. He was conscripted into the Australian Defence Force in 1967 and into the Royal Australian Infantry Corps.
After training for the Special Air Service (SAS), he was posted to the SAS Regiment on 13 May 1968 – and arrived in Vietnam on 17 December that year. In April 1969, he decided to extend his National Service obligation for a further 12 months.
On 27 September 1969, Fisher was a member of a five-man ambush patrol in South Vietnam when he was “hot extracted” – connected by a rope attached to a helicopter and winched out of an area under immediate enemy threat.
When the helicopters arrived, one hovered over the jungle where the patrol was and lowered ropes to the men below. After lifting off, Fisher was seen to fall from his rope from about 30 metres above the ground.
He was declared missing in action and presumed dead on 27 September 1969 in the Province of Long Khan. He was 23.
Records show he spent 39 years and 299 days on the Vietnam battlefield before repatriation.
AWM historian Michael Kelly said almost 40 years later, in 2008, a team from the Australian Army’s Unrecovered War Casualties unit returned to Vietnam to launch a search for Fisher’s remains. Ironically, a former member of the Viet Cong, who had emigrated to Australia after the war, helped Australian authorities pinpoint where Fisher’s remains could be.
Unit members found a large bone in a pool of water – with a piece of plastic from an Australian water bladder found near it. More remains were discovered later that week, including Fisher’s dog tags.
Mr Kelly said authorities initially believed the remains were that of an American serviceman as Fisher, like most SAS officers, wore that country’s camouflage gear because they operated deep behind enemy lines.
His remains were repatriated to Australia in October 2008 and he was cremated at Macquarie Park, Sydney, on October 14 2008, with full military honours. He was the last member of the Australian Army to be repatriated. Two missing airmen were found the following year, with all Australian servicemen killed in Vietnam now accounted for.
“It really is the most remarkable story,” Mr Kelly said. “And it’s a story his family and his army unit have been very keen to be told.”
Mr Kelly said a member of the Fisher family would read a tribute to him at the Last Post.
To mark the 50th anniversary, the AWM will extend its opening hours for the many veterans and their families expected to attend over the weekend. The additional opening hours will be from 5:45 pm to 7:45 pm on 18 August and from 8 am to 10 am on 19 August in the Commemorative Area and memorial galleries.
Musician John Schumann will sing his classic anti-war song, I Was Only 19, at the Last Post ceremony.
More information about the extended opening hours is available on the website.