Unexplained Mysteries

The Disappearance of Harold Holt

Harold Holt was the 17th Prime Minister of Australia. Born on August 5, 1908, he would grow up to become a member of Parliament, in which he spent 32 years. On January 26, 1966, he became the prime minister. It would not last long. He was in office for roughly 22 months before he disappeared while swimming at Cheviot Beach in Victoria.

Harold Holt was prime minister during the Vietnam War. He was known for advocating a military presence in Vietnam and seeing the war through with the United States. While that was about as much of an impression as he could make in the time he was in office, he managed to make his exit very memorable. His disappearance on December 17, 1967 gripped the country and was international news. Whether it was as mysterious as some think it was or as simple as others think it was is an entirely different story.

Harold Holt

Harold Holt with LBJ 1967

That morning, Harold Holt was going to see Alec Rose, who was then sailing around the world, as he sailed through the area. He was with three friends and two bodyguards. They went to see the big moment as Alec passed through and then decided to go to Cheviot Beach around midday. The Prime Minister was a frequent swimmer and had done so at Cheviot in the past, despite the fact that the beach is known for having a strong current.

In the months prior to this day trip, Harold Holt had been going through some physical issues. He had collapsed due to what doctors said was a vitamin deficiency. Others speculated it was a heart condition. He was around 60 years old when this started happening. He was also prescribed a pain medication for his shoulder, as it was giving him a lot of trouble. He was reportedly told to lay off the swimming for a while. Nonetheless, Holt was an avid and able swimmer. The dragging waters of Cheviot did not intimidate him that day. He decided to dive in and go swimming on his own.

None of Harold’s companions wanted to accompany him into the water. That could be perceived as odd, given that it was a group outing. It could also go to show that Holt was being a little nutty by deciding to go in. Either way, they kept an eye out and soon lost their visuals of him. Harold was gone and those who had watched him disappear were the last to see him. His group quickly called for a search and rescue. Despite a massive search that included the Australian Royal Navy and Air Force, Harold was never found.

By December 19, Harold Holt was presumed dead and Australia was without a prime minister. Deputy Prime Minister John McEwen was sworn in to act as prime minister until such a time as a new one was chosen. The police issued a report, outlining the events and the testimony of all the witnesses, but saw nothing suspicious to suggest that an investigation was the next logical step. The report was the closest thing to an official inquiry at the time. It was not until September 2, 2005 that Harold Holt’s death was officially ruled an accidental drowning.

In spite of appearances, the story was never as neat and clean as it could have been. Given the status of the victim and the fact that a body was never found, it was not likely that this case would end without questions. People soon wondered what else could have led to such a sudden disappearance. Some say it was suicide, though Holt’s own son has come out and said that is not the case. The initial report showed nothing strange about Holt’s behavior. Furthermore, there is the question of whether a skilled swimmer would choose to try to drown himself.

A more sordid version of the story is that Harold Holt was cheating on his wife and wanted to get away unscathed. Therefore, he faked his own death and made off with his mistress. No media scandal. No divorce. All he had to do was vanish into the ocean. This seems a bit complicated. One might even say it sounds far-fetched. Is it possible? It is absolutely possible.

It is also possible that Holt suffered a natural injury and drowned. Another possibility is that he was pulled out by the current and went under before rescuers could reach him. Yet another is that he was eaten or pulled under by an ocean predator. The list goes on. Without a body, it is all just conjecture. It could be that no one is right. It could also be that he was abducted by aliens. Yes, there is a camp that supports that theory. Who knows?

Herald Sun, Harold Holt son rejects suicide theory, retrieved 8/27/12.
National Archive of Australia, retrieved 8/27/12.

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Shelly Barclay writes on a variety of topics from animal facts to mysteries in history. Her main focus is military and political history. She is a writer for the Boston History Examiner, Military History Examiner and the Boston American Revolution History Examiner. She also writes for a local historical society newsletter. Shelly was a professional cook for 10 years and still has a passion for food. She cooks and writes about cooking nearly every day. She produces a wide variety of content, on top of her niches. Shelly is a stepmother, a former military, current veteran wife, sister of four and aunt of seven (so far).

Historic Mysteries