It is near inconceivable to imagine a Prime Minister or President of any nation simply vanishing and never to be seen again. But when it is a nation as powerful as Australia, the idea becomes beyond belief.
And yet in 1967, the then-Prime Minister of Australia – Harold Holt – went for a swim, only to never return. An enormous search ensued, although no body was ever found.
Most believe this case has the simple explanation that Holt drowned. However, there are some theories that propose a different conclusion to this case.
This article reviews this disappearance. You will find a reader’s poll at the end of the article, which we invite you to vote in. We will be able to see what the consensus is among our readers as to what happened.
Harold Holt became the Prime Minister of Australia in 1966, having ran unopposed to replace incumbent Prime Minister Robert Menzies – who retired. Holt won a landslide election in 1967.
Becoming Prime Minister was Holt’s crowning achievement – and was the culmination of a successful legal and subsequent political career.
While Holt was unpopular for supposed close ties with the United States and support for the Vietnam War, he was also praised for his handling of foreign policy and the support of indigenous Australians.
Holt was a big fan of the ocean, and had several holiday homes in coastal areas around Australia. Swimming, diving and snorkelling were among the activities Holt enjoyed.
Such was Holt’s passion, he became known for having excellent endurance skills when it came to holding his breath underwater. Despite this, Holt almost died in May 1967 after getting into difficulty in the ocean, with his companions saving him and rushing him to a hospital.
Holt brushed off the incident – blaming it on a faulty snorkel. Unperturbed by the incident, Holt continued to enjoy spending time in the ocean.
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 was said to have strong knowledge of the area.
Conditions were very rough, with Holt only joined by one other person in the water – his friend Alan Stewart. Holt opted to swim deeper than Stewart, and appeared to get caught in a rip current.
Stewart, along with those back at the shoreline, shouted and called out for Holt after he failed to re-emerge. However, there were no cries for help or flailing arms from Holt, who eventually disappeared from view.
Stewart and the rest of the party raised the alarm to authorities, and within minutes, an enormous search had commenced in order to find Holt.
The strength of the ocean proved to be a significant barrier in the search for Holt. Initially, three amateur divers searched the area, but the inclement conditions stopped them from searching vast areas.
Soon enough, Police divers, helicopters and naval diving teams had joined the search, but again, the rough conditions meant searching the area became almost impossible. By the end of the day, almost 200 people were involved in the search.
The following days saw more searches taking place, with a specific focus on ledges near where Holt had last been seen. But continuously poor conditions hampered efforts.
On 5th January 1968, over two weeks after the initial disappearance, the search was called off. In hindsight, investigators believed that realistically, they would have had the first 48 hours to find Holt, before it became impossible.
Holt’s body was never located. The general conclusion was that Holt had died by drowning, having underestimated the power of the water. Some other theories have since been put forward.
Unlike most disappearances, no developments took place in the years following Holt’s disappearance. Most believe it was a clear-cut case, with only one possible explanation – an accidental drowning.
Holt is commemorated by the naming of The Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre – which is located in the city of Melbourne – in his native Australia. There are also other numerous items and places named after Holt.
John Gorton succeeded Harold Holt as Prime Minister of Australia. The nation encountered a difficult few years, with many still left reeling from Holt’s disappearance.
Many will believe there is only one answer in this case as to what happened to Holt. However, there are a few opposing theories to explain what happened.
We take a look at the evidence for a few theories:
Theory One: Harold Holt died by accidentally drowning
The most plausible explanation for Holt’s disappearance is accidental drowning. In 2005, an official inquest into Holt’s death reached accidental drowning as its verdict.
The belief is that Holt underestimated the conditions, while overestimating his own ability – creating a toxic mix. He was known to have minor health issues, and had been advised by his doctor to lower the amount of time he was spending in the ocean for health reasons.
Some point to the fact that Holt’s body was never found as proof that he did not drown. However, the rough conditions, and the nature of the Pacific Ocean, make it feasible that the body would not have been able to be located.
Theory Two: Harold Holt died by suicide
Some have proposed that Holt actually took his own life. Those at the shoreline noted that Holt did not appear to be fighting against the waves – perhaps Holt wanted to die in the water.
There have been suggestions that Holt may have felt his political career was coming to an end, and that he didn’t want to live to see this happen.
However, many have disputed that Holt would do such a thing – especially considering his position as Prime Minister at the time, and the fact he had never showed suicidal tendencies in the past. Friends have said that Holt would not do such a thing.
Holt also had a family, plans for the next few days, and many plans for Australia. But some believe this theory is accurate, and that he did choose to tragically take his own life.
Theory Three: Harold Holt faked his own death
In the absence of a body, it is possible that Holt was able to fake his own death. Perhaps he was tired of his position as Prime Minister, and wanted to start a new life.
But it would be incredibly difficult to pull this off, and then to subsequently not be recognised in the future. This theory has few followers, but does exist.
Theory Four: Harold Holt defected to the east
Another theory put forward in the past was that Harold Holt was a spy for China, and took the chance to defect to the east. Those supporting this theory argue that Holt was taken to a submarine, before he lived out his days in China.
The absence of a body does make this possible. However, there has never been a coagent argument put forward to explain why Holt would be a spy, and why he would take that opportunity to join up with his supposed Chinese comrades.
With the above theories in mind, we now invite you to cast your vote on the theory that you believe is most likely in the poll below.
Harold Holt’s body was never found, though he is presumed to have died by drowning. Holt’s memorial service was attended by numerous world leaders, with the nation of Australia left mourning his death.
For most, the disappearance of Holt is a case which there is little doubt in what happened. But for some, this is an example of a case where we need to look deeper.
There is a plaque that is bolted to the seafloor near where Holt vanished. The plaque, which was laid on the one-year anniversary of Holt’s disappearance, states “in memory of Harold Holt, Prime Minister of Australia, who loved the sea and disappeared hereabouts on 17 December 1967”.