Eighty years ago this month, one of Australia’s greatest political tragedies and most shameful political cover-ups took place.
On the 13th of August 1940 RAAF pilot Flight-Lieutenant Robert E. Hitchcock was one of two army pilots charged with flying a bomber jet to Canberra with ten people on board, including four distinguished passengers.
Amongst Hitchcock’s charges were the esteemed Minister of Air and former world war one pilot, James Fairbairn. Minister for Army, Graham Street. Vice-president of the executive council, Sir Henry Gullett; and chief of the general staff, General Sir Brudenell White.
The world was again at war and PM Robert Menzies needed his most trusted military brains in Canberra for a cabinet meeting. But rather than Flight-Lieutenant Hitchcock piloting the plane, James Fairbairn took control.
He was the lead pilot when it crashed into Mt Stromlo on its approach to Canberra. The air strip where he nearly landed was named in his honour a year later.
It wasn’t just four brilliant military and political minds that died that day. So too did the reputation of RAAF pilot Hitchcock secretly ousted from the cockpit by Fairbairn.
Two quick formal inquiries did not seek to establish who flew the plane. Witnesses to both changed their evidence, contradictions emerged. An eye-witness who saw Fairbairn’s body strapped to the pilot’s seat kept the secret for decades. It was war time scandals are buried, lies are told in the name of the national interest.
But then is not now. And now is the time for the truth that was buried with Flight-Lieutenant Hitchcock to see the light of day. Former MP Michael Wooldridge, who also kept the eye-witness’s account secret for thirty years, has now broken his silence. So, too, should the official wall of silence around this truth.
One of our community, Kaye Greene of Warragul, has a direct and tragic association with this event. Her mother Olive Blanch Hitchcock was married to Flight-Lieutenant Hitchcock. Cowered by shame and shaming, she took her own life. The pilot’s son and Kaye’s brother Bob Hitchcock now 81, has suffered humiliation and community barbs all his life.
We owe it to them and the families and descendants of the others who perished that dreadful day to publicly correct the record.
I have written to the prime minister in just those terms. I noted: ‘now that we know the truth, declaring it will set us free from the lie which has bound us. It is time to right this wrong.’
Watch this space for his response.