It is near inconceivable to imagine a Prime Minister/President of any nation simply vanishing – never to be seen again. Yet when it is a nation as powerful as Australia, the idea becomes beyond belief. Yet in 1967, Harold Holt – the Prime Minister of Australia, went for a swim, only to never return. Despite an enormous rescue mission being launched, no body was ever found. The absence of a body has led many to speculate what happened. In this article, we take a look at the story behind this mysterious disappearance, and examine some of the theories attributed.
Holt was elected in 1966 – with this achievement being the culmination of a successful legal and subsequent political career. Holt was largely popular in Australia, with many of his policies and views respected. He was however criticised for his supposed close ties with American President Lyndon B. Johnson, and various other controversies. By the time of his death however, Holt was mostly respected.
Holt was a big fan of the ocean, and boasted holiday homes in several coastal areas around Australia. Swimming, diving and snorkelling were all activities Holt enjoyed. Holt developed a reputation for having an incredible level of endurance when holding his breath underwater. Despite this, in May 1967 Holt got into difficulty at Cheviot Beach, only to be rescued by companions. Holt subsequently turned purple, and had to be rushed to hospital. Holt brushed off the incident however, blaming it on a faulty snorkel.
On 17th December 1967, Holt and some friends were out driving when they decided to stop at the secluded Cheviot Beach for a swim before lunch. Holt claimed to know the beach ‘like the back of my hand’. Conditions were rough, meaning only one other person joined Holt in the water. Holt opted to swim deeper than his friend, and seemed to be caught in a rip current. His friends called out for him, though there were no cries for help, nor flailing arms. Holt eventually disappeared from view.
Holt’s friend raised the alarm, and within minutes an enormous search had commenced in order to find Holt. Divers sent in to search struggled due to the inclement conditions. Helicopters, Police divers and local cadets were all among those to help in the search. The search in the 48 hours following his disappearance was severely disrupted by the poor conditions. Two weeks later the underwater search was called off, with beach patrols being the only form of search. Tragically, the body was never found.
- Accidental Drowning: The most plausible explanation for Holt’s disappearance is accidental drowning. In 2005, an inquest into Holt’s death found this as the verdict. Most have reached the conclusion that Holt underestimated the conditions – yet overestimated his own ability, which would be a toxic mix. There have also been suggestions that medication Holt was on at the time might’ve affected his judgement. However, because of the absence of a body – there have been a range of alternative theories to explain his disappearance.
- Suicide: Eyewitness accounts state that Holt didn’t appear to be fighting against the waves, instead calmly letting them take him over. Holt could’ve committed suicide – though this has been disputed by those close to Holt – who said this wouldn’t have been in line with his character.
- Holt Faked His own Death: In the absence of a body, it is possible Holt was able to fake his death. Perhaps he was tired of his position as Prime Minister and wanted to start a new life. As always, it is very difficult to consider this method succeeding – but is possible. There have never been any confirmed sightings of Holt either – further discrediting this theory.
- Defection to the East: Some suggested that a submarine may have picked up Holt and taken him to either China or Russia – where he opted to defect. The absence of a body suggests this theory could be feasible. However, Holt again was never seen from – raising questions to this theory.
- Assassination: Another theory that isn’t too well revered is the suggestion that the CIA assassinated Holt. How they would have known to be in that exact place at the exact time is unknown, but it has been suggested in any case.
- Alien Abduction: Finally, as has been a recurrent theme in mysterious disappearances, there is a chance Holt was abducted by aliens, and taken away into a different location. Needless to say, this theory hasn’t gathered much support.
As mentioned, Holt was presumed to have died by drowning. A memorial service was held five days later, with numerous world leaders attending. Holt is commemorated, somewhat ironically, by the Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre. He was succeeded by John Gorton, and was unfortunately the third Australian Prime Minister to die while in office. In 1969, a plaque was bolted to the seafloor to commemorate Holt, with the plaque simply reading:
“In memory of Harold Holt, Prime Minister of Australia, who
loved the sea and disappeared hereabouts on 17 December 1967″.