Kevin Arthur Wheatley (1937-1965), soldier, was born on 13 March 1937 at Surry Hills, Sydney, third child of Raymond George Wheatley, labourer, and his wife Ivy Sarah Ann, née Newman, both born in Sydney. Educated at Maroubra Junction Junior Technical School, Kevin worked as a milk carter, food sterilizer, machine operator and brick burner. At the registrar-general's office, Sydney, on 20 July 1954 he married a 14-year-old milk-bar assistant Edna Aileen Davis, who used her stepfather's surname, Gimson.
On 12 June 1956 Wheatley enlisted in the Australian Regular Army. Following recruit training he joined the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, in September 1956 and transferred to the 3rd Battalion in March 1957. He served in the Malayan Emergency from September that year to July 1959, before transferring in August to the 2nd Battalion and in June 1961 to the 1st Battalion.
On his return from Malaya in 1959 the Wheatleys bought cheap land at Campbelltown. They moved into a place at East Campbelltown.
In January 1964 he was promoted sergeant and in August, temporary warrant officer, class two. Short and stocky, he was a highly respected and well-liked non-commissioned officer with a reputation as a rough, wild man who was a good soldier. He was known as 'Dasher' for his Rugby Union football prowess.
Arriving in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in March 1965, Wheatley joined the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam. He distinguished himself on 28 May by risking heavy fire to rescue a 3-year-old girl. On 18 August, when South Vietnamese troops ceased advancing during an assault, he took the lead and inspired them to continue charging up a hill. His men routed some fifty People's Liberation Armed Forces (Viet Cong) soldiers.
Wheatley and another Australian, Warrant Officer R. J. Swanton, were on a search and destroy mission in the Tra Bong valley, Quang Ngai province, with a platoon of the Civil Irregular Defence Group on 13 November 1965 when it was attacked by the Viet Cong. Accompanying the force were Captain F. Fazekas, senior Australian Adviser, with the centre platoon. The platoon broke in the face of heavy fire and began to scatter. Swanton was shot in the chest. Although told that Swanton was dying, Wheatley refused to leave him.
Under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, he half-dragged and half-carried Swanton out of open rice paddies into the comparative safety of nearby jungle. He refused a second request to withdraw, pulled the pins from his two grenades and waited with his motionless colleague while the enemy approached. Two grenade explosions were heard, followed by several bursts of fire. Wheatley and Swanton were found at first light next morning, dead from gunshot wounds.
The Australian policy at the time was to bury war dead overseas but Wheatley's body was returned to Australia after funds were raised privately. Survived by his wife, and their son and three daughters, he was buried with full military honours in Pine Grove cemetery, Eastern Creek, Sydney. A public outcry resulted in the government announcing on 21 January 1966 that the remains of service personnel who died overseas would in future be returned to Australia at public expense if their families desired.
For refusing to abandon a wounded comrade in the face of overwhelming odds Wheatley was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He had also been awarded the United States of America's Silver Star. The Republic of Vietnam had appointed him a knight of its National Order and awarded him its Military Merit Medal and Cross of Gallantry with Palm. In 1993 Wheatley's V.C. and other medals were presented to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
Kevin Wheatley Memorial Park and sports centre are located in the Campbelltown suburb of Airds.
On Wednesday 13 November 2013, on the 48th anniversary of Kevin’s death, a memorial was unveiled in Mawson Park, Campbelltown to pay tribute to a man whose gallantry and valour have become a well-documented part of Australia’s wartime history.
Council worked closely with the Wheatley family, as well as the Australian War Memorial and the Campbelltown and Ingleburn RSL Sub Branches, in bringing the memorial to fruition.
The plaque is an exact replica of the one that had been erected in Vietnam and returned to Australia after the withdrawal of Australian troops in 1971.
The memorial serves as a place to reflect on peace and freedom, and commemorates Kevin’s great gallantry in the face of overwhelming odds.
I. McNeill, The Team (Brisb, 1984)
L. Wigmore, They Dared Mightily, 2nd edn revised and condensed by J. Williams and A. Staunton (Canb, 1986)
B. Breen, First to Fight (Syd, 1988)
M. Adkin, The Last Eleven? (Lond, 1991)
I. McNeill, To Long Tan (Syd, 1993)
I. Walters, Dasher Wheatley and Australia in Vietnam (Darwin, 1998)
A. Staunton, 'Blaming Buckingham Palace', Sabretache, 38, no 3, July-Sept 1997, p14 A4393, item 66/W/14, and A2880, item 5/5/21 (National Archives of
Staunton, Anthony, “Wheatley, Kevin Arthur (1937-1965)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.