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The Prime Minister who Disappeared

In 1967, Harold Holt went for a swim off an Australian beach and never came back. By law, no official inquest could be held without a body. Soon the whispers of conspiracy began.

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Harold Holt, the Australian Prime Minister, taking a swim. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Australia

On the gusty afternoon of December 17, 1967, a group of five adults arrived at Cheviot Beach, near Portsea, Victoria, and strolled along the Bass Strait beneath the warm Australian sun. Harold Holt was eager for a swim, and after stepping behind a rock outcrop in the sand dunes, he emerged wearing a pair of blue swim trunks. Marjorie Gillespie and her daughter, Vyner, both in bikinis, turned to the water and noticed that the surf, at high tide, was higher than they’d ever seen it.

“I know this beach like the back of my hand,” Holt replied, and walked into the surf without breaking his stride.  Immediately, he began swimming away from the beach. Martin Simpson, Vyner’s boyfriend, followed but stopped when he was knee-deep in the surf. “There was a fairly strong undercurrent,” he said, “so I just splashed around without going in too far.” The third man in the group, Alan Stewart, told the others, “If Mr. Holt can take it, I had better go in too.” But he stopped quickly when he felt a tremendous undertow swirling around his legs. He watched Holt swim out into what he considered “dangerous turbulence.”

Marjorie Gillespie had kept an eye on Holt as he swam further away, drifting from them until the water seemed to boil around him and he disappeared. Holt’s four companions climbed a rocky cliff and searched the water for traces of him. Finding none, they began to panic. Stewart went for help, and within minutes, three SCUBA divers were wading into the water. But the undertow was too strong even for them, and the currents made the water turbid and difficult to see in. They retreated from the surf, climbed a rock and scanned the water with binoculars until police and search-and-rescue teams arrived.

Within an hour helicopters were hovering over the coast, and divers, tethered by safety ropes, were stepping into the churning sea. By sundown, nearly 200 personnel had arrived, including rescuers from Australia’s army, navy and coast guard, the Marine Board of Victoria and the Department of Air. The largest search-and-rescue operation in the nation’s history was all for naught. Australia was paralyzed by news of the unthinkable: Prime Minister Harold Holt was gone at the age of 59.

Two days later, Holt was officially declared dead, and Country Party leader John McEwen was sworn in as prime minister.  On December 22, a memorial service was held, attended by dignitaries including U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, Prince Charles of Wales and the presidents of South Vietnam and South Korea. But it did not take long for conspiracy theories to take hold of Australia’s collective imagination. How could the country’s leader simply disappear on the beach, in the company of just a few friends? Under the law, without a body, there could be no official inquest into Holt’s disappearance. (It wasn’t until the Coroner’s Act was signed into law in 1985 that the coroner’s office was required to investigated “suspected” deaths in the absence of a body.) Despite an extensive report made by the Commonwealth and Victoria Police, where eyewitness statements and search-and-rescue operations were recorded in detail, there were those who refused to believe that Holt, a reputed strong swimmer, had accidentally drowned. Just four years after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the land down under had its own sweeping intrigue.

Holt had spent more than three decades in Parliament and married to his University of Melbourne sweetheart, Zara Kate Dickens, but he had been prime minister less than two years when he disappeared. A few months after he had been sworn in, in January 1966, he had his defining moment in office: in a speech in Washington, D.C, Holt announced his support for the Vietnam War, declaring that Australia “will be all the way with LBJ.” Later that year, Holt agreed to increase Australian forces in Vietnam, and three quarters of a million people turned out to welcome President Johnson in Melbourne. There were also many war protesters who tossed paint at Johnson’s car and chanted, “LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

Soon after Holt waded into the Bass Strait, speculation centered on his mental state at the time—people wondered whether, despondent over political pressures and the growing unpopularity with the Vietnam war, the prime minister committed suicide. It was also widely believed that Holt had been having an affair with Marjorie Gillespie. (That much was true; Zara Holt’s memoirs confirmed that he had had a number of extramarital affairs, and years later Gillespie acknowledged that she’d had a long relationship with him.) Rather than suicide, some suspected, Holt had merely faked his death so he could run away with his mistress.

Over the years, the theories would only become more elaborate. Fifteen years after Holt’s death, Ronald Titcombe, a former Australian naval officer, convinced the British novelist Anthony Grey that the prime minister had been working as a spy for the Chinese government since the early 1930s. Holt, Titcombe surmised, had been convinced that the Australian Secret Intelligence Service was onto him; on the day he was last seen, Holt simply swam out to sea and was picked up by a Chinese midget submarine. This theory was greeted with plenty of scoffing, and Zara Holt dismissed it famously years later, saying, “Harry? Chinese submarine? He didn’t even like Chinese cooking.”

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was not immune from speculation. Holt might have been rethinking his commitment to the Vietnam war, which was becoming increasingly unpopular in Australia; the CIA, this line of thinking went, had gotten him before he had a chance to withdraw his support. That Holt’s death did not require a formal inquiry only added fuel to the theorizing that there had been a coverup at the highest reaches of the Australian government.

It wasn’t until 2005 that the Victorian coroner opened just such an inquiry into Holt’s disappearance. State Coroner Graeme Johnstone found that Harold Holt had drowned at Cheviot Beach and that his body had been either swept out to sea or taken by sharks. Cheviot Beach had long been perilous—countless shipwrecks had been documented in the vicinity over centuries—and the area had been cordoned off as a military zone. Holt had been given special permission to access the beach with his friends in privacy. Though he was an experienced swimmer, he had also been taking pain medications for a shoulder injury at the time, and just six months earlier he had almost drowned at the same spot while snorkeling with friends.

The coroner’s report did not halt the conspiracy theories entirely, but it did provide support for a judgment first rendered by Lawrence Newell, the police inspector who investigated the case in 1967 and concluded that the cause of Holt’s death was quite simple—overconfidence and a dangerous rip current. “I think he went for a swim under conditions where he was most unwise,” Newell said, “and that’s it.”

Sources

Books: Tom Frame, The Life and Death of Harold Holt, Allen & Unwin, 2005. Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country, Doubleday Canada, 2000.

Articles: “He Was Cast in the Mold of Harry Truman,” by Charles Bernard, Boston Globe, December 18, 1967.  ”Harold Holt Drowned, Coroner  Finds,” Sydney Morning Herald, September 2, 2005. “Case of Missing PM to be Reopened,” by Bernard O’Riordan, The Guardian, August 24, 2005. “New Inquest on Harold Holt Fires Speculation,” The Guardian, August 25, 2005. “Source Behind Holt-To-China Theory Discredited,” by Michelle Grattan, the age.com http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/source-behind-holttochina-theory-discredited/2005/08/04/1123125853880.html “On this day: Harold Holt disappears,” by Amanda James and Marina Kamenev, Australian Geographic, December 17, 2010. http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/journal/on-this-day-harold-holt-disappears.htm “Out of His Depth: The PM Who Believed His Own Publicity,” theage.com http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/08/24/1061663679090.html

Reports: Harold Holt’s Disappearance–Fact Sheet 144 and Records Relating to the Disappearance of Harold Holt, National Archives of Australia, http://naa.gov.au/collection/fact-sheets/fs144.aspx

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