Twice Oscar nominated filmmaker David Bradbury will return to Vietnam this week with Vietnam war veteran Brian Cleaver to film the search for 42 missing enemy bodies that lie hidden in a mass grave on a rubber plantation. David's new feature documentary, to screen on ABC1, will be called VIETNAM'S ANZACS.
In 1967, Brian Cleaver a 20 year old surfer from Perth engaged to be married, was conscripted into the Australian army. He spent his 21st birthday fighting for his survival in the jungles of Vietnam.
Now 46 years later, he is going back to Vietnam to search for 42 missing enemy bodies that lie in a mass grave on the battlefield.
“The missing dead are known as the ‘Wandering Souls’ in Vietnamese culture,” said Mr Cleaver.
“Their souls will never rest at ease until they are found. It is very painful for the next-of-kin not to have that closure,” Mr Cleaver said. “I want to find those missing men and return their bones to their loved ones. Then I hope to find peace in my own mind for what we did 46 years ago,” he said.
In May 1968, US intelligence intercepted reports indicating that up to 10,000 crack North Vietnamese communist troops were moving fast down the Ho Chi Minh trail towards Saigon, aiming to capture the capital.
Mr Cleaver was about to be embroiled in the biggest battle Australian troops had been involved in since World War 2.
‘Nasho’ Private Cleaver’s 3RAR regiment (about 900 soldiers) and another regiment of Australian soldiers, 1RAR, were given orders by the American High Command to fly by chopper to their new base. Their job was to be ‘the tethered goat’ to come between the cream of the North Vietnamese Army, hell bent on taking Saigon.
A senior Australian commander at the time described the battle for fire support base Coral and Balmoral, as making the now infamous battle for Long Tan ‘just an afternoon company skirmish by comparison’. Twenty seven Australians were about to die in that battle and over 100 were wounded.
On the nights of May 26th and 28th 1968, the communist forces attacked the hastily prepared Australian position. Just one strand of barb wire 20 metres in front of the Australian position stood between Private Cleaver and the enemy. If the enemy broke through the Australian wire, Brian Cleaver’s job was to protect a tank he stood behind in a shoulder high weapon’s pit.
Within minutes of the opening enemy attack, Brian Cleaver’s rifle was shredded by shrapnel. The battle raged around him for the next four hours and Brian Cleaver spent the time praying to a God he never believed in then or since.
On first light the next morning, 42 enemy bodies lay on the battlefield. With his useless rifle, Brian Cleaver’s job was then to help bring in seven enemy prisoners.
The 42 NVA killed soldiers were placed in a giant bomb crater on the battlefield and their mass grave backfilled.
Many years later after his return to Australia, Brian Cleaver suffering from mood swings and depression, lost his job and was diagnosed as having PTSD.
In 2002, somewhat fearful, Mr Cleaver returned to Vietnam for the first time. One of Mr Cleaver’s ways of dealing with the trauma of his youthful experiences in Vietnam has been to revisit the battlefield many times now.
Cleaver and Bradbury have been helped in determining where the bones are buried by Professor Roland Fletcher of Sydney University, one of the world’s leading archeologists.
Professor Fletcher has confirmed Brian Cleaver’s research which has isolated the location of the missing enemy dead to two old bomb craters which are now covered by a rubber plantation.
In a complex ‘jigsaw puzzle’, Professor Fletcher has studied old military maps, an aerial survey provided by Hanoi University using ground penetrating radar locating the backfilled bomb craters and analysed photographs taken illegally at the time by fellow comrade-at-arms Private John Bryant as the 42 enemy were buried.
John Bryant was the machine gun spotter during the two nights of battle and took a photo as the Australian army dozer backfilled the mass grave. He will join Brian Cleaver at the battlefield site this trip for the Dig. So too will machine gunner Paul Donnelly.
Last week the ABC and Screen Australia announced they would fund Bradbury’s trip back to Vietnam to make the film about Mr Cleaver and his search for the missing bones.
David Bradbury is one of Australia’s finest and most respected independent documentary filmmakers. He is best known for his film Frontline, about legendary news cameraman Neil Davis who filmed frontline combat in the Vietnam war for 11 years. Neil Davis stood alone in the grounds of the Presidential palace in downtown Saigon and filmed the first North Vietnamese communist tanks crashing through the steel gates of the palace, symbolising the end of that 40 year bloody conflict between north and south Vietnam.