SUBANG AIR BASE, Malaysia (AP) — The bodies of 32 Australian service personnel and their dependents, many of them killed during the Vietnam War, were handed over by Malaysian soldiers to their Australian counterparts Tuesday. Australian officials say it's among the biggest single repatriations in the nation's history.
The remains handed over at Subang military air base had been interred for decades at Terendak Military Cemetery in Malaysia. Malaysia soldiers carried coffins draped with Australia flags to the tarmac, where Australian troops carried them aboard two Royal Australian Air Force C-17 Globemaster aircraft.
Malaysian officials said 21 of the deceased were Australian soldiers killed in Vietnam and three others died in the fight against communist insurgents in Malaysia. The remaining eight consisted of two wives and six children of Australian military personnel who died from accidents or sickness, they said.
The bodies, plus one additional set of remains from Singapore, are to arrive in Sydney on Thursday. After a formal military repatriation ceremony that will include some veterans who served with those killed, a private memorial service will be held.
The Australian government offered a year ago to repatriate 36 Australian servicemen and dependents from Malaysia and Singapore. The families of 33 servicemen and dependents accepted that offer.
Before January 1966, Australia's policy was to bury soldiers killed in battle in foreign countries in the nearest Commonwealth war cemetery.
"As 2015 marks 50 years since the arrival of combat troops and the escalation of Australian involvement in Vietnam, it is right and proper that we honor their service with this gesture," then Prime Minister Tony Abbott told Parliament in May last year.
Australia deployed more than 60,000 military personnel to the Vietnam conflict between 1962 and 1973, of whom 521 were killed.