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A family at war

Date

James Rose

Private Dallas Abbott was killed in the Vietnam War, a conflict his family didn't believe in. So they fought to keep his name off the Australian War Memorial's Roll of Honour. But they lost the battle.

Private Dallas Edward Abbott appears on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial against his family's wishes.

Private Dallas Edward Abbott appears on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial against his family's wishes. Photo: Andrew Meares

For most people, the Battle of Fire Support Base Coral wouldn't quite rank with Gallipoli or Tobruk in the nation's military pantheon. But, according to the Australian War Memorial record, it was here that ''Australian soldiers fought their largest, most sustained and arguably most hazardous battles of the Vietnam War''.

Indeed, it was ''the most sustained ground attack on an Australian field gun position since the Pacific war''.

On May 30, 1968, in the midst of this barrage, Private Dallas Edward Abbott's howitzer jammed. Abbott desperately tried to free it. In doing so he became visible to the enemy and he took multiple shots to the head. He died instantly. He was 21 and due to be married the following year.

Private Dallas Abbott.

Private Dallas Abbott.

While the battle had ended for Dal Abbott, another one was just beginning for his family in Sydney.

Abbott's sister was four years younger than her brother and a university student when he died. Retired from a public service career and now volunteering as a teacher for refugee children, Lynne Peterson recalls: ''The general view of the family was that Australia should never have been involved in that war.''

But Dal (known to friends and family as ''Stacey'') ''had no real views'' on the matter, she says. When he was called up, he donned the slouch hat and greens and willingly became a ''nasho'' with the 1st Battalion, 1st Royal Australian Regiment.

His decision to join the armed forces was not entirely surprising as the Abbotts were a military family. ''My father lost a brother on HMAS Perth in 1942 [in the Sunda Strait],'' says Peterson. Dal was, in fact, named after his uncle. Dal's father and mother were both ex-army.

But for the Abbotts, this was a different war. ''It was not disrespect for the army,'' says Peterson. ''There was just a sense for us that not every war was logical and conducted by people who know what they were doing.''

As his family continued to walk the streets in protest against the war back home, Abbott was marching deeper into a war that wouldn't end well for any of them.

Within hours of his death, says Peterson, reporters from the afternoon newspapers were on the family doorstep looking for pictures and quotes. This was before the family had been told officially that he was dead.

His father, Trevor (known as Adrian) Abbott, said they could have a picture of his dead son, but not in uniform. He told the reporters that he considered his son's death as ''legalised murder''.

Dal's father, who died in 2012, is quoted in the June 2, 1968, edition of the Sunday Herald as saying: ''We have no pride in the fact that he died in Vietnam. National servicemen should not be there. It is not our war.''

Peterson believes that it was because of this story that the family was never told precisely how her brother died. ''I assume it was because we were anti-war.''

An army spokesman told Fairfax Media that information provided to family members of those military personnel killed in action comprised the date and location of the death and that the family was informed of these facts by telegram, according to the protocol of the time.

The spokesman declined to comment directly on Peterson's claims that the military failed to provide details of her brother's death because of the Abbott family's political stance, but he said: ''Details of the circumstances of death were not commonly recorded in a soldier's service dossier at the time.''

And there it may have ended: a family suffering and forever questioning the reason for the death of a loved one, and a young man buried, at the family's wishes, in an army cemetery in Malaysia. Another war, and the tides of history wash over another tragedy.

But, in this case, the tide stayed out.

By a twist of fate, the family was contacted by the Australian War Memorial in the early 1970s to check Dal's full name so he could be officially memorialised on the Roll of Honour.

The Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra is the central site for national public commemoration of some 102,000 servicemen and women killed in action.

The roll itself is the war memorial's heart and consists of small bronze panels each bearing the name of the deceased, arranged on walls in columns on a time line, conflict by conflict.

It is often strewn with artificial poppies that family members have placed next to the names of their loved ones. The roll is deeply poignant and reverential, a grave focal point for the nation's grief over its war dead and for the honouring of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

It is a central pillar in the official national narrative and every name there does, to some extent, enhance that narrative.

While the War Memorial's contact with the Abbotts was never to ask permission to use Dal's name (there is no legal requirement to do so), the Abbotts took the opportunity to suggest that they would rather his name not be included on what is arguably the nation's most powerful military symbol.

The War Memorial Council acquiesced and a space was left where Private Abbott's name would have been.

That this arrangement was always considered to be temporary is made clear in freedom-of-information documents requested by the Abbott family, copies of which have been obtained by Fairfax Media.

Minutes from the meeting of the War Memorial's board of trustees on September 4, 1973, on the original decision not to include Abbott's listing, note ''a blank space should be left on the panel where Abbott's name would otherwise have been … the object of the board being that later, at an appropriate stage, the names can be added to the roll …''

The board's ultimate position to leave Dal Abbott's name unmemorialised until ''an appropriate stage'' even if family members still wished otherwise, was based on the view that it was likely all those who had died ''would wish their names to be commemorated … alongside those of their mates''.

But for the family, unaware of the impermanence of Dal Abbott's status, a small victory was won as the War Memorial kept his name from the roll.

That was until May 22 last year when the family was informed that Private D. E. Abbott's name, in accordance with the War Memorial's original decision, was to be added to the roll.

While broadly in keeping with the council's earlier stated position, this represented a fast-tracked outcome. In a letter to an ex-service group pressing for Abbott's inclusion, dated March 30, 2009, the War Memorial's then director, Steve Gower, wrote: ''Council determined not to reconsider the matter for at least another 10 years.''

The naming of Abbott plays into the delicate politics of what has been called Australia's military commemoration ''industry'', which is becoming especially heated as the Gallipoli centenary looms and raises questions about who controls our national history.

It is a landscape that includes governments and government agencies, non-government ex-service associations and, as can be seen in this case, grieving families left without definitive rights.

Lobbying by ex-service associations for Abbott's inclusion on the memorial roll has been particularly active in recent years.

One of the most energetic activists was Garry Prendergast. He was a platoon commander for B Company in the 1st Battalion 1st RAR and is chairman of the FSB Coral Reunion Group. He says he spent eight years lobbying for Abbott's placement on the roll.

In a written submission to the War Memorial in 2009, he argues that the government ''capitulated incorrectly to unfair political anti-war influence reflecting the then morally wrong and negative attitude of the general public at the time towards the Vietnam veterans''.

When asked about his views on the family's position on Abbott's memory, he said: ''I don't give a shit about them. It's nothing to do with them. It's about his sacrifice.''

Prendergast says he and War Memorial director Brendan Nelson, the former federal Liberal Party leader who has been director since December 2012, spoke often about the Dal Abbott case and that Nelson ''was very supportive'' - ''he turned the board around.''

Prendergast's view that mates trump family every time is shared by Mike Waldron, NSW president of the First Battalion Association (1 RAR). ''I have two families, one is my army family,'' he says.

''Responsibility [for official commemoration] lies with government, not with a family or group of people.''

Family views, he says, should be no barrier. ''If the family objects, then so be it.''

I

n a letter dated June 4, 2013, from Nelson to the Abbott family, explaining the decision to add Dal Abbott's name to the roll of honour, he acknowledges the lobbying by ex-service groups. But the council, writes Nelson, ''was not, I can assure you, persuaded by lobbying from individuals or groups outside the council''.

Nelson's letter goes on: ''Governed as it is by the AWM Memorial Act, the council is the sole arbiter in relation to the listing of names on the roll …''

The act in question is called the Australian War Memorial Act (1980) and it makes no direct reference to the use of the names and details of servicemen and women for the purposes of commemoration. In fact it does not mention the roll at all.

Peter Stanley, former principal historian at the War Memorial and now research professor at the University of NSW, says the act places no obligation on the council or Nelson to make the decision they did.

The initial decision to leave Abbott off the roll was still in accordance with the act, which simply stipulates the primacy of the council to make such decisions. ''In my opinion, Dr Nelson cannot use the act to prescribe in that way,'' Stanley says.

In fact, he says, given the nature of this case, ''common decency should have prevented him from doing so''.

Nelson declined to comment, as did Veterans' Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson.

In the June 4 letter sent to the Abbott family after Dal's name was placed on the memorial roll, Nelson also writes: ''The current council felt that after 45 years, it was time for his sacrifice and life to be remembered and honoured by the nation.''

The act does not refer to the roll, so there is no mention of such a time period, either. Could the War Memorial council's feeling that ''it was time'' be connected to the death of Abbott's last living parent in 2012? Was Abbott destined to be honoured whatever his family thought?

His story, and that of his family, while obviously rare, points to a possible grey area in the rights of families of ex-servicemen and women killed in action.

Peterson agrees that this case suggests the federal government and such bodies as the War Memorial have assumed the right to take possession of aspects of personal history and family memory in the interests of national military commemoration and recognition.

''That's what they do all the time,'' says Peter Stanley. ''In this particular case they have repudiated the family's wishes and I believe they were wrong.''

In his recently released book, Anzac's Long Shadow, former soldier James Brown sees the creation of myths and the politicisation of Australia's military exploits as deeply worrying trends.

In the book, he argues that ''commemoration has crowded out serious thought'', adding that decontextualised military memory ''has become an increasingly valuable commodity for political leaders''. His strong belief is that our official war history is based on ''an obsession with dead soldiers''.

Peterson says it is time the legislation surrounding commemoration of Australia's war dead - for example the Australian War Memorial Act - is amended to stipulate just what rights government bodies and family members have in relation to next-of-kin killed on active duty and how they may be included in the War Memorial's and others' commemorations.

It would, she says, ''make it more dignified and rational than what we've been through. It would give people in our situation clarity. This sort of thing is the last thing you want to go through when you're grieving.''

And what of Dal Abbott himself? What would he think?

''He would find the whole controversy ridiculous,'' his sister says. ''He had no interest in politics. He just loved his car, loved his girlfriend, loved a party. Just a shy, low-key guy. He just wasn't an aggressive type, not a natural soldier.

''My parents just didn't want him remembered in those terms [as a soldier]. That's really why we have objected all this time.''

James Rose is a Queensland-based journalist.

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