18 August 2023

Bronco restoration revives US-Australian connection on Vietnam war anniversary

| Sally Hopman
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Man in front of old plane

Aircraft engineer Kim Wood stands in front of the newly restored Bronco. Mr Wood led the project to bring the aircraft back to life. Photos: Australian War Memorial.

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the end of our involvement in the Vietnam War today (18 August), the Australian War Memorial (AWM) has unveiled a restored North American Rockwell OV-10A Bronco, model 639, which played a key role in that conflict.

Director of the AWM Matt Anderson said experts had been working on the frontline Bronco workhorse since it arrived from the Philippines on HMAS Tobruk 16 years ago in a dishevelled state.

“The OV-10A Bronco stands as an icon of a lesser-known story of the alliance between the United States and Australia, and nowhere was that alliance more evident than with those Australians who flew as a forward air control [FAC] in Vietnam,” Mr Anderson said.

READ ALSO After 40 years lost, tribute finally paid to Vietnam vet who gave his life for his country

“Every step in this restoration process has been about overcoming challenges: from bringing it back to Australia to the intricacies of the necessary repairs.

“This restoration stands as a testament to the perseverance of the FAC veterans who saw the Bronco as an item of great personal importance and ensuring that this aircraft remains a living memory of service and sacrifice.”

A total of 36 Royal Australian Air Force pilots flew with the United States Air Force 19th and 20th Tactical Air Support Squadrons, with 23 of those pilots flying in Bronco aircraft.

The AWM’s licensed aircraft maintenance engineer Kim Wood led the restoration process at the Mitchell storage facility.

Two men in front of aircraft

RAAF Flight Lieutenant Ron Slater with colleague Peter Condon in front of the workhorse Bronco aircraft.

“When it arrived, Bronco 639 was in poor condition,” he said. “The aircraft was suffering from corrosion, was covered in paint that was not of aviation origin and more akin to what would be used on an outdoor building structure or a bridge. It was full of rubbish, old rats’ nests, and generally filthy.”

He said to start with, the fuselage had to be disassembled, paint stripped, cleaned out, corrosion treated, repaired where required and then reassembled. It was also repainted to represent the aircraft as it stood on the flight line in Vung Tau on 13 July 1970.

The AWM announced the completion of the restoration project on the eve of Vietnam Veterans Day on 18 August.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the end of the conflict in which almost 60,000 Australians served in Vietnam. Between 1962 and 1973, 523 Australians lost their lives and more than 3000 were wounded.

READ ALSO: Heroic nurse Vivian Bullwinkel honoured in a first for the Australian War Memorial

The Last Post at the AWM on the anniversary will be in honour of Private David John Elkington Fisher, the last member of the Australian Army to be repatriated from Vietnam.

On 27 September 1969, Fisher was part 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.

Rats nests in plane

A section of the original Bronco prior to restoration – where rats had moved in.

He was declared missing in action and presumed dead on 27 September 1969 in the Province of Long Khan. He was 23.

It will be a fitting tribute for his family and friends who spent years wondering what happened to him. Records show he spent 39 years and 299 days on the Vietnam battlefield before repatriation.

To mark the 50th anniversary, the AWM will extend its opening hours for 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 can be found on the website.

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