UNSOLVED: The Day Australia’s Prime Minister Harold Holt Vanished While Swimming In The Ocean

Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt went swimming at Cheviot Beach, Victoria, on December 17, 1967, and was never seen again, sparking a mystery that continues to this day.

Holt was elected prime minister in January 1966, and served for less than two years before he disappeared without a trace. On that fateful day, Holt, who loved the ocean and spearfishing, convinced a group of friends to go swimming at the remote Cheviot Beach, a beach he claimed to know “like the back of my hand.”

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The water was rough that day, so only one of Holt’s friends, Alan Stewart, decided to join Holt for a swim. While Stewart didn’t venture very far into the ocean, Holt ventured out into deeper water.

The prime minister, however, had shoulder surgery on Friday and reportedly was told by his doctor to “take it easy” following the operation, CNN reported.

“So he played tennis on Saturday and went near the water on Sunday. So it was against doctor’s orders,” said Tom Frame, Holt’s biographer.

Holt’s friends would later tell police that the tide was high that day – higher than they had ever seen – and that there was a strong undercurrent. Holt still decided to swim into deeper waters, according to a 1968 police report.

“[One witness said] she had watched Mr. Holt continuously from the time he entered the surf and she saw the water become very turbulent around him very suddenly and appeared to boil and these conditions seemed to ‘swamp on him,’” the report said. “He was not seen again.”

In his own book about Holt, Frame spoke to Marjorie Gillespie, who witnessed the prime minister’s disappearance, saying it was “like a leaf being taken out […] so quick and final.”

News of the prime minister’s disappearance stunned the nation.

“I think after the assassination of US President John F Kennedy most people thought world leaders would have a security detail who would not be far away and, if he got in any difficulty, would help him out,” Frame told CNN in 2017, on the 50th anniversary of Holt’s disappearance.

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Holt’s disappearance launched one of the country’s largest search operations, with up to 300 people searching for the prime minister at any given time. The search was called off on January 5, 1968, with no trace of Holt ever found.

All that was left was a pile of clothing he had removed before wading into the ocean.

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Just one day after Holt disappeared, on December 18, 1967, around 10:00 p.m. local time, then-Governor-General Richard Casey terminated Holt’s position as prime minister, presuming him dead. On December 19, John McEwen, leader of Australia’s Country Party, was sworn in as interim prime minister until Holt’s party, the Liberal Party, held a leadership election on January 9, 1968, and named John Gorton the new party leader, making him the new prime minister.

Holt’s disappearance sparked numerous conspiracy theories since his body was never recovered. John Warhurst, emeritus professor of politics at the Australian National University, told CNN in 2017 that the media speculated back in 1967 and 1968 that Holt may have committed suicide over an allegedly crumbling marriage, or because he was stressed from his job. The 1968 police report, however, dismissed these theories.

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Warhurst also noted that other, more fanciful conspiracy theories took hold after the disappearance, saying that some claimed “there was some sort of foreign power involved, that he’d been picked up by a Russian or Chinese mission and been whisked away against his will.”

One of the most wild theories came from a book by British journalist Anthony Grey, who alleged that Holt was a spy for the Chinese government and had been picked up the day he went missing by a Chinese submarine and taken back to China for the end of his mission.

“None of them have any evidentiary basis whatsoever … they do not hold water, they do not make sense,” Holt biographer Tom Frame told CNN. “The most simple, straight forward explanation is he just drowned, that’s it, and people thought ‘prime ministers can’t do that.’”

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