DISAPPEARANCES confound us. It’s 40 years since Neil Sharman went missing.
Sharman was one in a succession of young Sydney Morning Herald reporters who accepted the career-shaping opportunity as lone representative of that grand broadsheet in the industrial city of Newcastle, NSW.
They were an unconventional lot: Malcolm Brown, the eccentric subject of a 2012 ABC Australian Story, moonlighted as a heavyweight boxer earning the sobriquet Canvasback Brown for his propensity to finish prone.
Phil Jarratt took time out from a strenuous social life to become a surfing correspondent and author of 30 books. And then there was Neil Sharman. He stood six-foot in the old money, and looked like David Wenham playing the wild colonial boy.
Charming, pugnacious and hard-partying in a Barry McKenzie-meets-James Joyce sort of way, the affable larrikin occupied the company’s old flat in Alfred Street, Newcastle East, and surfed the nearby breaks in fearless fashion.
Sharman had a thirst for adventure. With the fall of Saigon less than a year away, the 23-year-old headed off to Indochina. In a letter to his brother Ian he said he was “going to Indonesia, Malaysia, India and all places in between and then on to Arab countries, if he could, without getting shot”.
In Laos, he formed a fateful association with a young American. Charlie Dean, 24, was a political science major from the University of North Carolina purportedly on a backpacking adventure to learn more about the world. His older brother Howard would later become a Democratic presidential candidate. It has been suggested Dean may have been a CIA operative, a theory that surprised those who knew him as an anti-war campaigner in his student days.
In 1974, Laos was a dangerous place. In trying to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply line from North to South Vietnam, US forces had dropped more bombs on Laos than the Allies unloaded on Germany and Japan in World War II. Additionally, the tiny country was in the grip of its own war between pro-Western, communist and nationalist factions. The pro-communist Pathet Lao guerillas would eventually prevail and seize power in 1975.
It’s been said that, rather than being close mates, the Aussie and the American were no more than recent acquaintances when they boarded a Mekong River ferry bound for Thailand. On September 6 they were stopped at a Pathet Lao checkpoint. Hearsay holds that when asked to hand over his camera, Dean threw it in the river. The two Westerners were marched away.
Intelligence reports would reveal that for several months they were held at different locations, including a Pathet Lao police compound, while US and Australian officials in the capital Vientiane tried to negotiate their release. Pathet Lao denied holding the pair, claiming instead it had detained two spies.
Although a non-combatant, Dean was listed as a POW-MIA which might suggest he was something other than a tourist. His family would later acknowledge the CIA and US military efforts in gathering detailed information on his whereabouts.
In mid-December Sharman and Dean were loaded on to a truck, handcuffed and taken away. The truck returned empty. They may have been killed by the Pathet Lao, or handed over to the North Vietnamese who had them executed.
In Australia, news was scarce. Publicly, Australian officials could shed no light on Sharman’s disappearance. His girlfriend, Joy Hooper, went on national television with a plea to the Department of Foreign Affairs for news. Nothing.
Word came to Sharman’s Newcastle mates from an interesting source. Newcastle Herald journalist Adrian Ashford, a son of pioneering restaurateur and adventurer Clem Ashford, had slipped quietly into Laos in 1975 to arrange safe passage and resettlement in France for the family of a Lao public servant who faced death or internment under communist rule. Ashford mentioned the camera-thrown-in-river story. The word on the Mekong, he said, was that Sharman and the American were dead.
It took until 2000 for a solid lead. Eyewitness accounts of the killings had indicated a burial site. In November 2003, what was thought to be their grave was excavated by a Pentagon unit created to find Americans missing in Indochina. The remains were flown to a US base in Hawaii for DNA identification. Personal effects found at the site convinced both families that it was indeed their missing boys.
Newcastle East is much gentrified since the days when young Sydney reporters competed with cockroaches for living space in that ruinous flat. Yet, there will always be ghosts in this old part of town. If you look east on Alfred, you might glimpse a young bloke with rusty hair and a winning grin, board under one arm, fresh out of the surf, bounding down the footpath. Sharman, you’re late for work.