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Birchell, Michael James (1945–1967)

by John Knott

This article was published:

Michael James Birchell (1945-1967), panel-beater and soldier, was born on 2 June 1945 at Marrickville, Sydney, only child of native-born parents James William Birchell, shop-assistant, and his wife Alice Catherine, née Taylor. James had served in the Australian Imperial Force in World War II; after his discharge in August 1945, the family settled at Coonabarabran. Educated locally, Mick competed for his high school in swimming, captained its Rugby League team and gained his Intermediate certificate. In 1962 he moved with his parents to Tamworth where he worked for a firm of panel-beaters and studied welding at night at the technical college. Birchell continued playing Rugby League as full-back for Tamworth City juniors; solidly built and 5 ft 9 ins (175 cm) tall, he earned a reputation for being a tough but fair opponent. His other interests were parties and girls.

In 1965 the Federal government began inducting, by ballot, 20-year-old single males for two-year engagements in the Regular Army Supplement: the conscripts could be required to serve overseas. In April the government announced that combat troops would be sent to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). When news of his call-up arrived, Birchell informed his parents that he would 'make the best of it'. He enlisted on 30 June 1965 and was posted in September to the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, based in Brisbane. In January 1966 it was confirmed that his battalion was to proceed to Vietnam. Birchell's mother and father came to Brisbane to watch their son march off to war on 21 May. Arriving in Saigon in June, Birchell was sent to the 1st Australian Task Force base at Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy province. Apart from an occasional major operation, 6th R.A.R.'s principal duties were to protect the camp perimeter and to undertake long-range patrols. A member of No.5 Platoon in 'B' Company, Birchell prided himself on never missing a patrol.

On 17 February 1967 the battalion was ordered into positions near Lang Phuoc Hai to block the withdrawal of an enemy force. Instead of a party of retreating troops, it encountered a unit of the People's Liberation Armed Forces (Viet Cong) which was well armed, dug-in and hidden by dense scrub. 'B' Company arrived in helicopters and began an attack, but met sustained resistance. As No.5 Platoon continued forward, three undetected machine-guns opened fire on its right flank, halting the assault and inflicting heavy casualties. Removing the wounded became urgent. Birchell was instructed to provide cover with his machine-gun. Despite the enemy's intense fire, he ran to take up his post, but was seen to fall. It was later found that he had been hit by two rounds and killed outright. Of the 28 men in No.5 Platoon that day, 14 were either killed or wounded. A total of 187 national servicemen from Australia lost their lives to enemy action in the Vietnam War.

Following a military funeral with Anglican rites, Birchell was buried in West Tamworth lawn cemetery. A number of his comrades were to name their sons Mick in his honour.

Select Bibliography

  • I. M. Williams, Vietnam (Syd, 1967)
  • P. King, Australia's Vietnam (Syd, 1983)
  • F. Frost, Australia's War in Vietnam (Syd, 1987)
  • Northern Daily Leader, 20 Feb 1967
  • private information.

Citation details

John Knott, 'Birchell, Michael James (1945–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 March 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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