Senate debates

Monday, 23 November 2015


Bourke, Dr James Raymond, MG, AM

9:50 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last week, Dr James Raymond Bourke MG, AM, Doctor of Philosophy and a retired Lieutenant Colonel, would have turned 73. I know not many of my Senate colleagues would be familiar with his name, but there would be more than a few who would be aware of his remarkable, honourable and courageous efforts as the initiator and driver behind a highly successful, emotional journey in the early 2000s to bring home the bodies of six Australian soldiers who never made it back from the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately, the Vietnam veteran and war hero, who dedicated his later years to repatriating bodies of his fallen comrades, died just two months short of his 73rd birthday. Tonight I would like to honour his memory and reflect on his wonderful achievements, most notably Operation Aussies Home.

The story of retired Lieutenant Colonel Jim Bourke began in my own home town of Ayr in 1943. Jim was only a few years older than I and, similarly, was raised and educated in the Burdekin. In fact he was school captain in 1961 at the Ayr State High and Intermediate School, a role that I was privileged to hold two years after Jim. He also achieved two other significant awards at the school, awards which I confess I could never have achieved: the coveted Burstall Award for all-round academic and leadership excellence and the Award for the Best Senior—read grade 12—Pass.

As an older boy, Jim Bourke was a bit out of my sphere of personal contact, but I do remember him as a quietly spoken, very much understated leader, in all aspects of the word, and a real gentleman. In later years I certainly became more than familiar with his achievements as one of the country's most respected war veterans. It was in 1963 that the then 19-year old joined the Army. He served in various postings, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel before retiring in 1986. In 1988 he was awarded the Medal of Gallantry—more than 30 years after an act of bravery in which, as platoon leader, he rescued injured comrades while under enemy fire in Vietnam as a member of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment. He was himself severely injured at the time; he was shot in the face, the bullet tearing through his mouth and exiting below his left ear.

That was not to be his last mission, of course. He served a second tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968. And four decades later he led a privately funded team to locate and retrieve the remains of six missing Australians—Richard Parker, Peter Gillson, David Fisher, Michael Herbert, Robert Carver and John Gillespie—who were left behind in Vietnam where they fell. This mission was to become the renowned 'Operation Aussies Home'. Jim spent many thousands of hours researching every last detail ahead of this final journey and almost as much time lobbying politicians and bureaucrats for support. When his pleas fell on deaf ears, he went ahead with his plans anyway. Together with a small team, he set off to Vietnam once more in an effort to find the remains of those six soldiers who never made it home.

Operation Aussies Home was by all accounts highly successful, achieving what many now admit governments at the time had not be willing or able to. When asked why he dedicated his later years to Operation Aussies Home, investing so much of his own time and money, Jim admitted that the pain, loss and suffering of not being able to witness the funeral of his own father, his 'best mate', who died when Jim was just 13 years of age, had played heavily on his mind for many decades and may in some way have triggered his need to return to Vietnam to provide some sense of finality for the families of those missing soldiers.

After successfully completing his final mission, which the government did eventually support and fund, Jim turned his attention to his thesis, which he was able to finish shortly before his death. 'Living with Unresolved Grief and Uncompleted Tasks: Achieving Closure around Ambiguous Loss and Traumatic Events During Wartime' was a 110,000-word thesis that Jim dedicated to his father. In it, he documented the story of Operation Aussies Home—the many interviews with the families of those soldiers he helped to repatriate, along with his own thoughts, experiences and memories.

Along the way, the accolades continued. Jim was named Anzac of the Year in 2009. In the same year, he was recognised with an Order of Australia award for his service to veterans and their families. According to journalist Hedley Thomas of The Australian, who had the honour of doing one of the last interviews with Jim before he died, Jim's one and only regret before his death was that he was not able to undertake the same mission for the 42 Australians who went missing in the Korean War, who, similarly, never made it home. Vale Jim Bourke. Not only has our nation lost a distinguished, honourable veteran, but my own community mourns the loss of a legend.