JAMES BOWEN - PROFESSIONAL CAREER- ARMY SERVICE

Service In the Australian Regular Army and Reserve (1967-1974)

In March 1997, the author was appointed Deputy Assistant Director of Legal Services at Australian Army Headquarters, Canberra.

In January 1968, the author travelled to Vietnam to prosecute in the court martial of an Australian soldier for the alleged murder of his officer at an Australian fire support base in Viet Cong infested territory in Phuc Tuoy Province. The timing was unfortunate, because it coincided with the launching by the Army of North Vietnam (ARVN) and the Viet Cong of their first Tet Offensive.

Major James Bowen at the Australian Task Force Base at Nui Dat in Vietnam in January 1968.
At this time the first Viet Cong and Army of North Vietnam Tet Offensive had just begun.

When the author arrived at the Australian Task Force Base at Nui Dat, he found that the military police investigation was virtually non-existent. No measurements or photographs had been taken by the military police at the fire support base and they had neglected to interview the suspect until he had been removed to the Australian Logistic Support Base at Vung Tau on the coast. When the military police finally decided to question the suspect, he had been allocated defence counsel, and refused to answer any questions.

If military conditions had permitted such a course, the author would have travelled to the abandoned fire support base with key witnesses to reconstruct the circumstances in which the officer was killed, but with the Tet Offensive in full swing, it was too dangerous to leave the heavily defended Australian military enclaves at Nui Dat and Vung Tau.

The only prosecution evidence was a threat by the suspect to kill his officer by throwing a hand grenade into his tent, followed by the officer's death in the centre of the fire support base that night caused by an M-26 grenade being rolled into his tent while he was asleep. The base was in complete darkness at the time and no one saw the person who threw the grenade. There was no evidence as to the location of the suspect on the base when the grenade was thrown. M-26 grenades were stowed within easy reach beside each of the four guns at this base. A conviction ensued, and it was only then that the senior military police officer at Vung Tau told the author that the suspect had informally confessed his guilt to him while awaiting trial in the Vung Tau military prison. The military police officer said that he had remained silent until the end of the trial because he thought that he shared the same moral obligation as a priest to respect something confessed to him. Although tempted to violence, the author retained sufficient control to inform the military police officer that he shared none of the constraints of the confessional. The conviction was overturned on appeal on the ground of insufficiency of evidence.

The author returned to Australia with a deep distrust of the competence of Australian military police and an enduring legacy of Vietnam in the form of hearing permanently damaged by close proximity to heavy artillery being fired at ten minute intervals over his tent.

After two years in the Australian Regular Army, the author informed the Adjutant General that he was not comfortable with the manner in which justice was administered in the Australian Army and that he wished to return to civilian legal practice.

Although prepared to grant the author's request to return to civilian law practice, the Adjutant General pressed him to accept a secondment as a Reserve officer to the military police as Assistant Provost Marshal at Army Headquarters for the purpose of training military police in correct procedures for investigation of serious crimes. Although the author had already been offered a civilian appointment as Assistant Crown Prosecutor at Canberra, he accepted the additional responsibility, and for the next five years, wrote material dealing with investigation of serious crime and lectured on crime investigation at the military police school at Holsworthy.

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