VIDEO: The Vietnam veteran photoshopped out of national history

Source: The Age

Vietnam War veteran Kerry Williams just wants to reclaim his identity, but the Department of Veterans' Affairs, and another man's family, have been reluctant to hand it back.

For nearly 50 years, a black and white photograph from the battle of Suoi Chau Pha, where six Australians were killed and 14 wounded, gave meaning to Williams' life. To his family and fellow air force mates, he was the man holding the plasma bottle keeping an injured digger alive. Then, two years ago, his place in history was taken away.

RAAF photographer Barrie Ward shot the image on August 6, 1967. The composition is simple but filled with urgency. It shows a man wearing a flight suit, with the surname Williams monogrammed across his chest. He is hoisting a bottle over an injured soldier being borne on a stretcher by three army medics at Nui Dat forward detachment. Ignoring the lit cigarette in his right hand, the plasma-bearer's eyes are fixed on the injured digger. In the background, an Iroquois helicopter is riddled with bullet holes, courtesy of the Viet Cong.

''I don't know why or how I survived intact,'' said Mr Williams, now 76, retired in Warners Bay in New South Wales.

''There are times when I wish I was injured or wounded. I can't explain my feelings; there are things I did over there that I am ashamed of, but I look at that photo now and I am proud, what I did actually meant something, it's positive.'' In 2012, the Department of Veterans' Affairs upset Mr Williams' fragile world. The department used, and altered, the photo for its Remembrance Day poster and calendar. The American cigarette in the right hand was photoshopped out. The bullet holes appeared to be closed over. And their records replaced Mr Williams in the image.

Instead, Dr Jack Blomley, a much-admired former Australian rugby union team member was inserted into this nicotine-free version of reality.

It was a decision that literally changed history, splitting military and veterans' associations and leaving two families with conflicting claims to the photograph.

Kathy Williams, the daughter of Kerry, said the official record of the now dead Barrie Ward stated that her father was carrying the plasma bottle. ''He is wearing his flying suit with his surname over his right breast. Dad never loaned his flying suits to anyone and his base was 20 minutes flying time from Dr Blomley. Dad remembers Barrie taking that photo, it's him in the photo, so basically he has been labelled a liar,'' she said.

''The mistake [the Department of Veterans' Affairs] made caused such a mess, both for dad, our family, Blomley's family, other vets and the department itself.

''We complained for a long time. The minister never got back to me, but the department told us it had been resolved. Then when dad told me the photo appeared again with the wrong identity, I couldn't help but think, someone in the department is deliberately playing God once more.''

Patsy Graham, the younger sister of Dr Blomley, said her brother was correctly identified. Two of the army medics in the image, Trevor Skinner and Bert Kuijpers signed declarations that the plasma carrier was Dr Blomley. They added the rule-breaking doctor often wore a discarded and ripped flight suit because its material eased his severe suffering from prickly heat.

''I know it's my brother,'' Mrs Graham said. ''Anyone from our family or who served with him immediately say that's Jack. You can tell by the cowlick in his hair and the shape of his face. He was a larrikin, but greatly loved, and no one assumes he borrowed the flight suit from Kerry. He just would have taken a discarded one where he found it. There were a number of other Williams in the squadron.

''The department has handled this terribly.''

In 2013, the Australian War Memorial ruled that Kerry Williams was the man holding the bottle, citing the name tag, hairline, face shape as evidence, as well as other comparative images in their collection. However, Veterans' Affairs continued to publish online the black and white image with Dr Blomley identified as the man.

Late on Friday afternoon, after earlier Fairfax Media inquiries, the department advised that it would follow the War Memorial ruling and change its caption to identify Kerin Williams in the photo (Kerry is his preferred name). It rejected suggestions bullet holes in the helicopter were removed but admitted photoshopping the cigarette out of the image.

The family and comrades of Dr Blomley still believe that he is the man holding the plasma bottle. No one, however, disputes both men were at Nui Dat on that August day.

Williams, then 29, a leading aircraftman from the RAAF 9 Squadron, was standing on the skids of the Iroquois as the chopper hovered over a jungle clearing close to Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province. They were waiting to evacuate wounded Australians. Instead, black-clad Viet Cong emerged from the jungle, firing their AK47 assault rifles.

Bullets ricocheted, slicing the shoelaces of the pilot, shrapnel grazed a medic's forehead and perforated the aluminium skin of the Iroquois. Yet they missed Williams.

''I was born in Rockhampton but grew up in Vietnam on that day,'' he said. ''We went back to Nui Dat, the closest base. As we were waiting for a replacement, the wounded started arriving and I just jumped in to help … it was then that Barrie Ward took the photo.''

The personality of Dr Blomley, then 39, dominated the Nui Dat forward detachment. Often shirtless and wearing suede desert boots without shoelaces, ''Jack the Quack from Nui Dat'' took every opportunity to ignore military protocol. He was larger than life that day, too.

But the bonhomie of the Australian army captain, his family says, hid a heavy heart. The reality of war and the ''meatball surgery'' of field casualty care wore him down. He died five years afterwards from a massive coronary, leaving behind a wife and five children.

The search for truth, the first casualty of war, continues.

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