Many of us veterans have been through the DVA mill and had our cases dismissed because of the evidence given by a group hired by DVA called Writeway Research.
This article is inspired by the events that led up to one of our veterans, William Bastion, taking his life. You can read the details here: http://lachlanirvine.tripod.com/history/id18.html
The Bastion Case
William Bastion was an RAAF veteran who applied to the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) to accept a link between his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and an incident that occurred while he was on operational service at Ubon, near the Thailand/Laos border, in June 1962.
The DVA commissioned a report from Writeway Research. In the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary, John Tilbrook of Writeway Research reported that the incident at Ubon, as described by Bastion, did not happen. The DVA rejected Bastion’s claim.
Feeling that he had been branded a liar, Bastion took his own life. His case succeeded however, at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), where Bastion’s advocate pointed out that there was a report of the Ubon incident in the official history of the RAAF in the Vietnam War, written by one of Australia’s most respected and prolific military historians, Chris Coulthard-Clark.
This case raises serious questions about Writeway Research, the DVA and the AAT, and their ability to interpret historical data.
There is plenty of evidence that the incident described by Bastion did happen. Writeway Research either deliberately withheld that evidence or, equally seriously, chose not to look for it. The DVA accepted that choice. Without ever leaving my desk, I was able to obtain all of the following information about the incident. This information began to flow back to me when I simply entered the words “Ubon, 1962” into an Internet search engine. This would seem to be a basic course of action for anybody seeking information about an incident that occurred at Ubon in 1962. Somehow it failed to occur to the people of Writeway Research.
The Facts of the Ubon Incident
The incident at the heart of this case occurred on the night of the 19th/20th of June 1962. For several consecutive nights, the American LION radar team at Ubon had detected what they indentified as possibly 20 low flying aircraft on their radar screens. They decided that the most likely explanation was that the Communist Pathet Lao was moving insurgents across the Thai border towards Ubon. Wing Commander Hubble, the Australian Commanding Officer at Ubon, ordered two Sabre jets, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Doug Johnston and Flying Officer Cliff Viertel, to take off and intercept the perceived threat. Hubble also ordered the ground crew to be issued with weapons and ammunition, to dig weapon pits and prepare to defend the base. William Bastion was one of those ground crew members.
The incident turned out to be a false alarm, and the radar blips were never adequately explained. William Bastion, however, clearly regarded it as a severe stressor, and the cause of his PTSD.
The Ubon incident has been well reported, and is a lasting memory for all who experienced it. It is recorded in the logs of the two Australian Sabre pilots. It is recorded in the history sheets of 20 Squadron, Royal Air Force, based at Chieng Mai, who remained on alert even after the Australians had returned to normal routine. As previously mentioned, it is reported in Chris Coulthard-Clark’s history of the RAAF in the Vietnam War. Eyewitness accounts have also been written for RAAF journals, by Cliff Viertel, and by a ground crew veteran, Stanley Curran.
With so many accounts of the incident available to any competent researcher, how could John Tilbrook possibly claim that it did not happen? The answer appears to be that Tilbrook broke some of the most basic rules of historical research. He chose to look at only a single source, and sought no corroboration. He then deduced a false conclusion from his flawed research. In his report, Tilbrook cites only Wing Commander Hubble’s daily log. The log is apparently filled with mundane details of life at Ubon, such as recreational activities and the need to order more tent-poles. A trained historian may be alerted by this trivia to the possibility that this daily log might not be the best place to search for operational orders. This does not seem to have occurred to Tilbrook. Instead, he reported the logical absurdity that its absence from this daily log was proof that the incident did not happen.
In fact, the order to scramble the Sabres and prepare to defend the base was sent as an “Ops Flash” message, classified secret. It was sent to the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) in Bangkok, to RAAF Butterworth, and to the Defence Department in Canberra. This was the normal chain of communication for an order of this kind. Tilbrook chose not to look for this communication. He also appears to have made a decision not to contact any veteran who had been at Ubon in June 1962. He appears to have decided not to search for any other document that may have reported the incident. He clearly decided not to consult Chris Coulthard-Clark’s history. It is clear that he also chose not to use the Internet to search for information.
In an email to me, Cliff Viertel discussed his own written account of the Ubon incident, and the account written by Stan Curran. Viertel explained why he was so certain of the details of the incident:
I am very sure as it is in my logbook and I also have a copy of the 20 Squadron RAF History Sheet (Chieng Mai) recording the call to armed alert from Bangkok.
It does not seem to have occurred to Tilbrook to check these sources.
Cliff Viertel’s account of the incident confirms Bastion’s account, that the ground crew had been issued weapons and placed on alert:
The RAF Hunter Squadron in Chieng Mai and all USAF and US Marine Squadrons were ordered to place two aircraft on 5-minute alert and two more on 30-minute readiness from first light until further notice.
The Australian Commander sent ‘Ops Flash’ messages, (classified Secret) to Canberra and Butterworth through the AOC channels in Bangkok, notifying them of the threat and reluctantly issued arms and ammunition to all personnel late on the evening of June 19. Slit trenches were dug around the camp and aircraft dispersal areas and were manned by armed personnel before dawn.
Two Sabres, armed with 30mm HE ammunition, took off at dawn and were vectored right on to several target areas but could see little. Our Rules of Engagement (borrowed from the USAF, as we were still waiting for the official Rules of Engagement from Canberra, which did not arrive until late July) permitted us to fire only if fired on. I flew the mission as No 2 to Flt. Lt. Doug Johnston. We expected to be fired on if insurgents were present and our armament switches were on, ready to return fire. We could see the treetops along the roads and could see that the patchy cloud base was about 200 feet. There was little horizontal visibility due to shallow raised fog layers. The section leader decided to drop below the cloud patches, where adequate forward visibility with the low angle rising sun showed that the road and surrounding relatively open area was clear. ‘LION’ Control was advised and we returned to base after a 40-minute flight.
Our commander, Wing Commander John Hubble was convinced that it was a false alarm, but AOC Bangkok did not call off the general alert and aircraft readiness for several days. RAF records show that No 20 Squadron RAF remained with two armed Hunters on 5-minute alert and two more on 1-hour alert until June 22.
Stan Curran also backs up Bastion’s account, down to such small details as the softness of the soil at Ubon. The AAT transcript quotes Bastion as saying that it did not take long to dig the trenches because the ground was very soft. Stan Curran says:
The all clear was given and we went back to base camp for breakfast. When we arrived there the camp was an amazing sight. There were slit trenches everywhere with armed men in them. The guys at base really must have worked hard even though the soil was fairly sandy.
Curran’s account, written from memory, begins as he is woken by the Commanding Officer with the words: “It’s the C.O. here. We have an emergency. There are forty slow flying aircraft approaching.”
Cliff Viertel recalls that, in addition to being a fighter pilot, he was also the Adjutant at Ubon. He remembers discussions with Wing Commander Hubble. While willing to scramble the Sabres, Hubble had been convinced that the incident would turn out to be a false alarm, and was therefore reluctant to issue the order to arm the ground crew and prepare to defend the base. He eventually decided to play it safe and issue the order. The fact that he had always been confident the incident would turn out to be a false alarm might explain why the report in his daily log mentions the scrambling of the Sabres but not the arming of the ground crew.
Another listing in Wing Commander Hubble’s log suggests a further possible reason that the base commander may have wanted to play down the seriousness of the Ubon incident. According to the AAT transcript, Tilbrook reports that Hubble was expecting a visit from Sir Garfield Barwick on the 23rd of June. Tilbrook incorrectly calls Barwick the Australian Defence Minister. In fact, he was the Minister for External Affairs. The incident at Ubon happened only weeks before Australia entered the Vietnam War. Australia started sending advisors to South Vietnam in July 1962. In late June, Ubon was Australia’s nearest military base to the “sharp end” of the Vietnam War. The visit of the Minister for External Affairs to Ubon at such a time was of considerable political significance. Wing Commander Hubble would be unlikely to want to jeopardize that visit by pronouncing Ubon unsafe.
Cliff Viertel’s role as adjutant sheds further light on the question of Tilbrook’s assertion that the absence of a report of an incident in a single document is evidence that the incident did not happen. Viertel recalls that, as adjutant, he wrote daily reports in quadruplicate on a typewriter, using carbon paper. Years later, he was conducting research for his own history of 79 Squadron’s time at Ubon. He checked the archives and could not find a single copy of any of his daily reports. Does that mean that none of the incidents about which he wrote in his reports actually happened? The suggestion is logically absurd.
So much evidence was freely available in this case that it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the decision not to look for it was deliberate. Tilbrook is paid to produce results for the DVA. The logical conclusion from the Bastion case is that when he found a document that he believed he could use to cast false doubts on Bastion’s account of the events at Ubon, Tilbrook decided that he had found what his client wanted, and he chose not to look any further. Qualified researchers, aware of the ethics of their profession, do not behave in this manner.
The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Bastion case
On the 3rd of March 2000, the DVA issued Departmental Instruction number C12/2000, Researchers for Historical and Factual Information. This document includes guidelines that the Department’s contracted researchers must follow. One of its instructions states:
The report should be factual and non-judgemental.
The AAT transcript of the Bastion case indicates that John Tilbrook of Writeway Research breached this guideline on a number of occasions.
Tilbrook’s report suggests that the RAAF went to Ubon merely to conduct exercises. He also expresses the opinion that “boredom, tedium and isolation” were the biggest issues facing the RAAF at Ubon. This is not factual, it is only Tilbrook’s opinion.
By contrast, the RAAF Museum’s website states that:
Reforming in 1962, 79 Squadron proceeded to Ubon, Thailand, where it was to help resist an expected invasion of Thailand by North Vietnamese forces. Although no attack eventuated, the squadron’s Sabres were kept fully armed, maintaining a state of constant operational readiness.
The Air War Vietnam website says:
In 1962, as a response to a threat to Thailand from across the Laotian border, four member nations of SEATO, the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia, sent armed units to create a holding force to Thailand, These units were intended to withstand any initial attack until full scale reinforcements could be sent.
It is easy to see how language can be manipulated to create a desired impression in a reader when a researcher fails to be factual and non-judgemental. Tilbrook claims that the RAAF at Ubon was conducting exercises amid an atmosphere of boredom and tedium. Those who were actually at Ubon claim that they were there to resist an expected invasion and withstand an initial attack until reinforcements could be sent. This use of slanted language by Tilbrook is a clear breach of the DVA guidelines.
The AAT transcript reveals that Tilbrook expressed the opinion that the account of the Ubon incident in Chris Coulthard-Clark’s official history was uncorroborated. Again, Tilbrook is in breach of the Department’s instructions. This is not factual; it is only Tilbrook’s opinion. It is also false, and it demonstrates that Tilbrook lacks understanding of one of the most basic, yet important, concepts of historical research.
Coulthard-Clark’s account of the Ubon incident was obtained from the two pilots who were scrambled to intercept the perceived threat. It is corroborated by their pilot’s logs. Three eyewitness accounts of the incident are given in the Bastion case: those of Bastion and the two pilots. They all agree. That is one hundred percent of the eyewitness accounts, backed up by documentary evidence in the form of the pilots’ logs. That is exactly what corroboration means. The only uncorroborated evidence presented at the AAT is Tilbrook’s report, which cites one source only. Tilbrook did not seek any corroboration from any other source. This failure of Tilbrook to understand the meaning of corroboration is quite disturbing, and raises considerable doubt about the Department’s continuing use of his dubious research skills.
When Tilbrook’s report was received at the DVA, somebody surely noticed that it actually contained no evidence that Bastion’s account of the Ubon incident was wrong. Absence of proof is not proof of absence. It is, therefore, arguable that the Department went ahead with this case knowing it had no evidence that would disprove Bastion’s case to the standard of proof required by the Veterans Entitlements Act. In doing so, the Department was in breach of its obligations under Section 119 of the Veterans Entitlements Act. The Act states that the Department:
shall act according to substantial justice and the substantial merits of the case,
and further, that it must:
take into account any difficulties that, for any reason, lie in the way of ascertaining the existence of any fact, matter, cause or circumstance, including any reason attributable to:
the absence of, or a deficiency in, relevant official records, including an absence or deficiency resulting from the fact that an occurrence that happened during the service of a veteran … was not reported to the appropriate authorities.
The Department failed to take into account logical reasons for the absence of the Ubon incident from Wing Commander Hubble’s log; reasons that perfectly fit the description in Section 119. Further, it went to the AAT with an argument that it knew to be false: that the absence of a record of the Ubon incident in a single document was evidence that the incident did not occur as described by Bastion and the two pilots. By proceeding with an argument known to be false, the Department failed to act according to substantial justice and the substantial merits of the case.
The AAT and the Bastion Case
While the AAT eventually found in Bastion’s favour, it failed to ask a number of pertinent questions about Tilbrook’s report.
Since Tilbrook was not an eyewitness to the Ubon incident, and since he was not presenting any evidence that could disprove Bastion’s version of events (again, at the risk of being repetitive, the AAT members know that absence of proof is not proof of absence, and are well aware of Section 119 of the VEA), and since all he was doing was presenting his opinions, the AAT was entitled to ask what standing Tilbrook, and his opinions, had in this case.
In a similar case, Anderson and Repatriation Commission (AATA 383, 1983), The veteran produced statements from eye-witnesses, while Tilbrook provided only his own opinions, and the lack of an official record of the incident described by the veteran. The AAT correctly ruled in that case that Tilbrook’s evidence was of no merit, and accepted the fallibility of record-keeping in wartime.
In another similar case, coincidentally also from 2003 and also titled Anderson and Repatriation Commission, but this time numbered AATA 292, the veteran provided eye-witness reports, while Writeway Research offered the opinion of one of its researchers, Colonel Church, that the incident was unlikely to have happened as described by the veteran. The AAT correctly pointed out that its responsibility was to apply the provisions of Section 119, and accept that the absence of an official record is not proof that an incident did not occur.
In the Bastion case, the AAT did not mention Section 119 in relation to the Writeway Research report, although it did accept that it could not be convinced beyond reasonable doubt by the absence of a report of the incident. It is unfortunate, however, that the Tribunal made several references to the opinion of John Tilbrook without ever pointing out that those opinions have no standing in this case.
On the evidence of the Bastion case, I am drawn to the conclusion that Writeway personnel are unqualified for the research work for which the DVA has generously paid them. They lack competence in the field of historical research, and they appear to lack any understanding of the concept of professional ethics. I have studied many other cases, using AAT transcripts, and they confirm these conclusions.