Who killed Harold Holt ..?
 
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Harold Holt

Broadcast on 22/09/2003

 
     
 

 

 

 

 

On the 17th December 1967, Harold Holt, Prime Minister of Australia, went for a swim on Cheviot Beach near his holiday home at Portsea in Victoria. He disappeared beneath the waves and was never seen again. His companions raised the alarm, and what ensued was one of the largest search and rescue operations Australia has ever witnessed. Holt’s body was never found, fuelling many theories regarding his disappearance, ranging from suicide to abduction by a Chinese submarine.


   

 

 
     


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 


 


GEORGE NEGUS: G'day. WelcoThis week, for the whole four nights, people in politics. And the idea will be to forget the minutiae of Government policy, the Opposition's carry-on about it, or even the vagaries of why the economy's apparently going well, but you're not, and look at the people supposed to make all this happen or not happen.

Let's start with one of the most dramatic episodes in this country's political life - one any Australian over the age of, say, 45, will never forget, and one anyone under 45 should at least know about.

 

On 17 December back in '67, the country's Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt - a genuinely outdoorsy sort of guy - went for a swim near Portsea in Victoria and, to cut a long story short, just disappeared. His body was never found.

 

And this of course fuelled all sorts of theories from the plausible to the plain wacky as to how and why he disappeared. In our piece, several Australians fairly closely associated with the bizarre events of that day share their memories with us.

FRASER BELL, MORNINGTON PENINSULA NATIONAL PARK: There is certainly a myth and an aura about the whole disappearance. We get people from Europe, England, and all over Australia coming to have a look at Cheviot Beach where the whole event happened.

SAM HOLT: His greatest love was around Portsea and Sorrento and that area. Cheviot Beach is a place that we all loved. When the conditions are good it's like a millpond. A 5-year-old child can swim in it. It's only when the tide turns and you get bad weather, it completely turns about and becomes highly dangerous.

TONY EGGLETON, HAROLD HOLT'S PRESS SECRETARY: It was his backyard. He was there every weekend. He knew it like the back of his hand. And of course, confidence can sometimes breed contempt.

SAM HOLT: He absolutely loved spearfishing. We showed him how to do it and he took to it like a duck to water. You couldn't get him out of the water. And he was, if anything, foolhardy and fearless.

FOOTAGE OF POLICE RE-ENACTMENT, 19 DECEMBER 1967.

LOUISE JOYCE, HAROLD HOLT'S NIECE: He went off with a group of friends - Marjorie Gillespie, who lived next door, a friend of the family, Alan Stewart, her daughter, Vyner, and there was another young man there who was Vyner's boyfriend. Harry would've said, "Well, let's go down to Cheviot and have a swim, cool off."

ALAN STEWART, EYEWITNESS: We went down to Cheviot Beach. And it was a very hot day. I remember that extremely well. The surf was extremely turbulent. It was wild. It was berserk. Berserk is the best word for it. And we walked along just chatting about nothing in particular.

MARJORIE GILLESPIE, EYEWITNESS, ON ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE: I was quite happy about it. Even when I first saw him go in. Even though I wouldn't have liked it.

LOUISE JOYCE: Anyone who knew Harry would just think, "Well, there goes Harry again. He's gone for a swim." He did have a funny shoulder due to a broken collarbone in his youth.

SAM HOLT: I think it was the size and weight of the water, not his shoulder that was his undoing.

ALAN STEWART: Then I thought, "I'm going to have a swim as well." So I walked in more gingerly. I felt this incredible undertow likely to sweep me out to sea, and thought, "This is not for me."

MAN ON ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE: Could you see him at this stage?

MARJORIE GILLESPIE: Yes, clearly. And I was... This is when I was saying, "Come back! Come back!"

ALAN STEWART: Then I saw that Marjie was getting quite agitated. I then climbed up onto quite a high rock to see if I could see him.

MARJORIE GILLESPIE ON ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE: He was trying to come back. This was the stage when the water seemed to boil up into colossal waves.

ALAN STEWART: The surf just suddenly built up to a state of vigour. It was terrifying.

MARJORIE GILLESPIE ON ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE: Then there was nothing. There was nothing anyone could have done.

ALAN STEWART: It just was dreadful, dreadful bad luck.

LOUISE JOYCE: It was like a man-hunt. Press everywhere. Navy skindivers. Hundreds of people crowding the beach.

TONY EGGLETON: I began to realise that this was going to be a major media event. Sad as it was, it was going to be, not just a huge Australian story, it was an international story.

SAM HOLT: Well, your reaction at the time, I suppose, is no different from the reaction that so many families that are hit by tragedy have. The difference here is it was under incredible publicity.

TONY EGGLETON ON ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE: We have just about given up, ourselves, our hopes. I think our last hopes have drained away.

TONY EGGLETON: The search had to go on. In fact, the search went on for about three weeks. We felt after a couple of days, clearly he'd been lost at sea. By the Friday, the memorial service, we had a gathering of 19 heads of state and heads of government which was the largest gathering of world leaders in Australia ever at that time. I think it was a great tribute to what Harold had achieved in less than two years.

SAM HOLT: Well, there have been a lot of conspiracy theories and things, which in the opinion of myself and the rest of the family are nonsense.

ALAN STEWART: The one about the Chinese submarine is really choice. I mean, a Chinese submarine, if it had been in that surf, it would have been beached upside down.

TONY EGGLETON: I thought Zara Holt had the best put-down of that, that she dealt with by saying, "Harry? Chinese submarine? He didn't even like Chinese cooking." And...um, and that was the best way to deal with it. Whatever it was, Harold Holt on 17 December 1967 died an accidental death. He made a misjudgement. It's just that people find it hard to accept that a prime minister can have an accidental death of that kind.

GEORGE NEGUS: Well, not quite the end. Harold Holt disappeared more than 35 years ago, but a bit oddly, a new inquiry by the Victorian coroner was recently opened. So the mystery won't go away, at least until that inquiry's completed.