It was an emotional day for Susan May of Sydney on Saturday [August 13] that followed a turbulent 12 months.
Mrs May was barely three when her father, Blue Mountains man, Corporal Bob Bowtell, died from the lack of oxygen in the underground labyrinth of a Viet Cong tunnel in South Vietnam, while on duty with the 3rd Field Troop of Royal Australian Engineers 50 years ago.
More than 200 people gathered at the Lawson War Memorial for a Welcome Home Commemoration for her dad and for Private Ron Field, who also died in Vietnam. Both ex-Katoomba High students and “Lawson boys”, the men were brought home from Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia in one of Australia’s largest repatriations, following a campaign called Operation Bring Them Home by the Vietnam Veterans’ Association. They returned home during a military ceremony at Richmond RAAF Base earlier this year and the Lawson service was the Mountains’ community’s chance to welcome them back.
“We were too little to remember him,” Mrs May told the Blue Mountains Gazette. ”It’s like he’s been brought back to life though this and gone again and I’ve had the opportunity to grieve,” she said wiping away tears.
Mayor Mark Greenhill called the day “enormously special”, adding it “had been a long time coming”.
“These two men were of the generation called to serve in Vietnam, called to serve in various theatres of war … These two men are of them, but they are also of us … this is a day for all of us to reflect.”
The community heard moving stories of the men’s last moments. Private Ron Field with his “easy grin and willingness to get the job done” survived “mines and booby traps” before being shot down by a sniper. “It was our job to help each other and somehow we failed Ron,” his fellow soldier Michael Waldron said in a message read out to the crowd.
A hushed crowd listened as Alan ‘Sparrow’ Christie recounted how he passed out trying to rescue his much larger superior, Corporal Bowtell. Mr Christie said he owed the family special thanks “for making the time to find me and ultimately help me putting my ghosts and fears to rest”.
While many have called the delay in bringing the veterans home a national disgrace, for Mrs May it had given her the chance to get to know about her heroic dad’s efforts as an adult. But she was glad it had happened in her mother, Josephine’s, lifetime. Bob Bowtell now rests beside the son called Bob that he never met. His body was brought home by another Corporal Bowtell, his grandson Chris, who has been stationed in Afghanistan and accompanied his plane home. A book to commemorate Bowtell and Field’s lives will be released by the Blue Mountains Vietnam Veterans next year.