The Kevin Wheatley VC Story
Michael C Madden
Crows Nest, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2021
Paperback 324pp RRP $29.99
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, August 2022
Michael Madden’s well-written biography of Kevin ‘Dasher’ Wheatley makes it clear that his was a Victoria Cross that was well deserved, as he willingly gave his life while trying to save a mortally wounded comrade and close friend, WO ‘Butch’ Swanton. Both men were members of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, and both died when the outnumbered patrol of Republic of South Vietnam troops to which they were attached was ambushed by a numerically much larger force of North Vietnamese regular army soldiers.
Kevin Wheatley was one of three children born to a return veteran of the second AIF and his wife. He had a sort of upbringing that would be considered fairly normal for the child of a World War Two veteran who had had difficulties in finding suitable and steady employment when discharged in 1946. Kevin and his two siblings grew up in a loving family environment. To marrying his 15-year- old sweetheart when he was only 17, Kevin decided to join the Australian defence forces in 1956, at age 18, and took to army training and discipline with enthusiasm and application. after only nine years he had been promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer when posted to the AATTV in 1965.
He was young, fit, willing to defend himself, and athletic. in the army he took to rugby league football with the same enthusiasm that he gave to his training and excelled at the task of becoming a soldier. He was skilful and fleet footed on the rugby field where he acquired the nickname ‘Dasher’.
In many ways Dasher was the archetypal digger. He was disciplined, but never subservient, and had respect for and of the WO's and senior NCOs who were responsible for training him. his boy sense of humour endeared him to the many friends he made in the units in which he served or worked with, winning Australia or on employment in Malaysia and Papua New Guinea or serving with the AATTV in Vietnam. his expertise and competence in training Vietnamese recruits to be competent soldiers earned him the respect of many of those with whom he served, in the ADF, the republic of Vietnam army and the many Americans who served incomparable training units during the Vietnam War.
Michael Madden has researched Dasher’s career fully, With the help of his comrades, family and many friends, and by the end of the book the reader wishes he had been one of the large cohorts of friends Kevin Wheatley acquired in his short life. the detailed description of the action during which Wheatley lost his life makes it clear that his Victoria Cross was well deserved. However the award attracted many negative reactions both within the Army and the in the wider community, and there was a great deal of official and political resistance to allowing the recommendation for the award to go ahead. The reasons for this obstruction are not discussed in full, but there is ample evidence as Mr Madden records it, that there were many had reasons for preventing the award to be made. Yet the Foreword in the book and one of the contributors to the Epilogue are by WO Keith Payne, VC, AM who served in the AATTV where he won his Victoria Cross. He, like many others, admired and respected ‘Dasher’ Wheatley, regarded him as a close friend and knew what it was all about, for he too, had ‘been there’.
After his death Kevin Wheatley’s pay stopped, and his wife, who was working as a clerk with the Return Services League, came under attack from officials and members of the RSL, some of whom actively opposed Kevin's award. The outcome was that Mrs Wheatley resigned her position and was left destitute with four young children to support. After many delays, she and the children were presented with the medal, but she found herself unable to afford the insurance premiums on it and had to sell it and his other decorations. Despite strong negative reactions, Western Australian media magnate Kerry Stokes purchased the medals, and the full set were then donated to the Australian War Memorial Canberra where they are on display in the Hall of Valour.
‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life to save a friend’ John 13.15
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.