Murder Monday: Harold Holt

Every Monday, Weird Shit Blog features an unsolved or mysterious death, murder, or crime. I call it Murder Monday.

There’s been a huge shitstorm over Afghanistan these last few months. It looks more and more like we’re getting into a long, drawn-out war that we can’t just up and leave. (Because then, hey, we just left a nice power vacuum and the craziest fuck around who jumps into that spot is pretty likely to be real pissed at us in a few years.) A lot of parallels are being made to Vietnam, but Vietnam was, to date, still quite a bit worse. Lots more dead, lots more innocent civilians killed, lots more time spent over there, etc. etc.

Artist’s rendition of comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam.

Vietnam’s still a sore subject, even 35 years later. Popular conception today still paints it as an unnecessary war, filled with bad excuses, governments unwilling to back down from poorly formed plans, paranoia, and American zeitgeist. That last point is especially true of people from a country that I continue to find further and further crazy shit in: Australia.

This is what Australia looks like to us in America. And there went half of my Australian readers.

You see, Australians wanted to get involved in Vietnam even less than the U.S. did. The majority of them saw it as an American problem that they had no business getting involved in. But then came a man named Harold Holt. Harold Holt was the Prime Minister of Australia from the beginning of 1966 until the very end of 1967, less than two years in office. And those not-quite two years were very contentious, because Holt was very keen on ramping up Australia’s role in the Vietnam War. He was particularly mocked for his “All the way with LBJ” quote, referring to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson.

“All the way, until you start driving your car into the lake. Then we’re done.”

Today, Harold Holt is known for only two things: His previously referenced position on the Vietnam War and his mysterious disappearance. I mentioned how his term lasted less than two years, right? That whole disappearance thing, that would be why.

But allow me to back things up a little. Throughout his life, Holt was known to be a sportsman. He loved tennis, swimming, and sailing. In fact, he was particularly fond of “skindiving”.

Not as sexy as it sounds.

However, his love of sports had also caused him an old recurring injury in his shoulder. (I can dig that, I broke my collarbone in a car wreck ten years ago and that shit still hurts sometimes.) At the time of his disappearance, Holt’s shoulder had begun getting worse, causing him tremendous pain, for which he took large amounts of pain killers. (Remember that, it’s important.)

Now that you have all of the background, let’s talk about the disappearance itself. On December 17th, 1967, Harold Holt and a group of his friends drove from Melbourne down to the southern coast of Australia to see English sailor Alec Rose pass by on his solo sailing trip round the world. After Rose’s yacht passed, Holt decided to go for a swim. Conditions were poor that day, however, and the tide was especially strong, and so Holt’s friends urged him not to swim, but he brushed them off. After a few minutes, they realized that they could no longer see the Prime Minister and alerted authorities.

“Uh… fuck.”

Two days later, the Australian government declared Holt dead. Later research showed that Holt was probably hopped up on pain meds at the time he dove into the water, and he was likely unable to make a good judgment of his swimming abilities, in addition to the poor ocean conditions previously described. So what’s so weird about this? Some dude made a mistake and drowned. Big fucking deal, right? What’s so weird is the sheer number of crazy conspiracy theories involved in Holt’s disappearance. Most start with the supposition that Holt was a strong swimmer, and therefore unlikely to have been taken away by the tide so easily. In addition, the Australian government only spent two days looking for him, never found a body, and never opened an official investigation. These are the conditions for a conspiracy theory, my friend.

From there, multiple ideas branch out. Some say he committed suicide because the stress of his job was weighing on him. Others claim that he was intending to fake his death so that he could run away with his mistress. (Like any politician ever needed a fake death as an excuse for that.) Another popular belief is that some shadowy government agency, either Australian or American, had him murdered. The strangest one of all, though? He was a Chinese spy and got picked up by a submarine.

“Thanks guys. By the way, how did you open the hatch without surfacing?”

This theory was originally proposed by writer Anthony Grey in his 1983 book, “The Prime Minister Was a Spy.” (Proposed subtitle: “You Don’t Need to Pick This Shit Up to Know What It’s About. Seriously.”) Grey, however, claims he got the information that made up the meat of the book from an Australian naval officer named Ron Titcombe, (snicker) who claimed that Holt was a Chinese spy since he was a teenager and was about to be found out. (Although I’m not sure how this reconciles with Holt wanting Australia to be involved in the Vietnam War, seeing as North Vietnam was supplied by and an ally to the Chinese.) Therefore, to protect their spy, the Chinese arranged for Holt to be picked up and transported back to China. The only problem is that a) Titcombe offered no evidence to back up these claims, and b) Titcombe had left the navy “under duress” in 1968 and, in 1982, was kicked out of the Melbourne Club (a very powerful social group) because he hadn’t disclosed past financial problems, leading some to say that Titcombe was not a reliable source, including a former fellow colleague describing him as a “professional con man.”

To date, Australia still considers the case of Harold Holt to be a simple drowning.

Or maybe he just started a colony of dudes who fuck fish.

Wikipedia (Chinese propaganda)
The Age