50th Anniversary of the loss of Magpie 91

Tuesday 3rd November marks the 50th Anniversary of the loss of Magpie 91.Group Captain Carl Schiller, OAM, CSM (Retd), National President of the Air Force Association shares the story of the eventual repatriation of Flying Officer Michael Herbert and Pilot Officer Robert Carver of No 2 Squadron.

Every conflict has its tragic stories. However, I am sure among the worst are those where there has been no confirmed death or whereabouts of a missing veteran who are recorded as Missing in Action (MIA). And, so it was for Flying Officer Michael Herbert and Pilot Officer Robert Carver of No 2 Squadron whose Canberra aircraft A84-231 (call-sign Magpie 91) was lost in South Vietnam on the evening of November 3, 1970.

 The airmen, both 24 years, departed Phan Rang airbase on a routine bombing sortie near the Laotian/South Vietnam border.  They were never heard from again.


Above: (L) Flying Officer (FO) Michael Herbert and (R) Pilot Officer (PO) Robert Charles Carver, 2 Squadron. (images courtesy Australian War Memorial)

A subsequent Court of Inquiry into the disappearance found no obvious reason for the loss. There were no enemy aircraft counter measures employed in the region and the weather was fine. The aircrew were competent aviators. Michael had flown 198 combat missions and was an experienced Canberra pilot.  He was looking forward to his return home in several weeks. Robert was a recent arrival at the Squadron but had already impressed his superiors for his airmanship qualities.

The stress on their families, friends and fellow members of No 2 Squadron must have been tremendous. As a No 2 Squadron Vietnam veteran, I had returned to Australia a year before and was deeply shocked by the loss. Young people tend to think they are ‘bullet proof’ and we thought the Canberra was an unlikely candidate for a combat loss. The inevitable thought of whether the lads had been held as prisoners of war (POW), like so many US forces aviators, would have tormented family and friends over the years that followed. Michael’s mother corresponded with political leaders in Vietnam and Australia urging them in vain for information on her son’s disappearance.  Robert’s father had his son’s name engraved on a Toowoomba War Memorial.

Nearly 39 years later, the jungle gave up its secret. Major John Thurgar (former SAS Trooper during the Vietnam War), from the Australian Army’s History Unit, and Squadron Leader John Cotterell uncovered the wreckage of Magpie 91. It appears the crash site had been sighted sometime in 1982 by several hunters from the Katu people who reside in eastern Laos and central Vietnam.  However, for a range of reasons, not the least being the sheer impregnability of the terrain and the dense jungle near the crash area, the discovery was not investigated.

The formal discovery of Magpie 91 can be attributed to the gallant efforts of Dr LTCOL (Retd) James ‘Jim’ Bourke, AM, MG, PhD of Operation Aussies Home (OAH).  A two-tour Vietnam Veteran, Jim committed himself to investigating and accounting for ‘The Forgotten Six’ Australian servicemen listed as MIA during the Vietnam War.  Jim led a privately funded team to locate and retrieve the remains of six missing Australians—among them Michael Herbert and Robert Carver.

Jim spent many thousands of hours researching the details of their sortie and battle reports, and lobbying politicians and bureaucrats for support. When his pleas fell on deaf ears, he went ahead with his plans and together with a small team, he set off to Vietnam to find the missing airmen who never made it home. Sadly, Jim Bourke passed away on September 25, 2015 aged 72 years.

On August 31, 2009, the caskets with the remains of Michael Herbert and Robert Carver arrived on board an RAAF C130 that had brought them from Hanoi to RAAF Base Richmond. It is an emotional moment in No 2 Squadron’s history and especially for those airmen who served in the Squadron during the Vietnam War.

On November 2, 2020, a Lockheed Hudson aircraft will fly over the Australian Wa r Memorial, Canberra to commemorate the Anniversary.  Hudsons formed part of No 2 Squadron’s fleet during WW2.  The Australian War Memorial’s Last Post Ceremony that evening will be dedicated to Pilot Officer Robert Charles Carver.

On November 3, No 2 Squadron will conduct a flypast over the RAAF Williamtown airbase, now the home of the Squadron. The Air Force Association is most grateful for the RAAF’s support.

Lest We Forget.


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