Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt Disappears

December 17, 1967

Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt on the beach
Australian prime minister Harold Holt (1908 - 1967) on the beach with three women. (circa 1966). Evening Standard/Getty Images

He might have been eaten by a shark. Or maybe he was assassinated by secret agents from the Soviet Union. Of course, he could have possibly been picked up by a Chinese submarine. Others have said that he might have committed suicide or been picked up by a UFO. Such were the rumors and conspiracy theories that ran rampant after Harold Holt, Australia's 17th Prime Minister, disappeared on December 17, 1967.

Who Was Harold Holt?

Liberal Party leader Harold Edward Holt was only 59 years old when he went missing and yet he had already served a lifetime in service to Australia's government.

After having spent 32 years in Parliament, he became Australia's prime minister in January 1966 on a platform that supported United States troops in Vietnam. However, his tenure as prime minister was very short; he had been prime minister for only 22 months when he went for a fateful swim on December 17, 1967.

A Short Vacation

On December 15, 1967, Holt finished up some work in Canberra and then flew to Melbourne. From there he drove to Portsea, a beautiful resort town where he had a vacation home. Portsea was one of Holt's favorite places to relax, to swim, and to spearfish.  

Holt spent Saturday, December 16 visiting with friends and family. Sunday, December 17's plan was to be similar. In the morning, he had an early breakfast, played with his granddaughter, and gathered some friends to watch a vessel arrive from England and go for a short swim.

The afternoon was to include a barbecue lunch, spearfishing, and an evening event.

Holt, however, disappeared around midday.

A Short Swim in Rough Seas

Around 11:30 a.m. on December 17, 1967, Holt met four friends at a neighbor's house and then went with them to the military Quarantine Station, where they were all waived through the security checkpoint.

After watching a ship pass through the Heads, Holt and his friends drove over to Cheviot Bay Beach, a beach that Holt often frequented. 

Stepping away from the others, Holt changed into a pair of dark swim trunks behind an outcropping of rocks; he left on his sand shoes, which were missing laces. Despite the high tide and rough waters, Holt went into the ocean for a swim.

Perhaps he had become complacent about the dangers of the ocean since he had a long history of swimming at this location or perhaps he didn't realize quite how rough the water really was that day.

At first, his friends could see him swimming. As the waves grew more ferocious, his friends soon realized that he was in trouble. They shouted at him to come back, but the waves kept him away from the shore. A few minutes later, they had lost him. He was gone.

A monumental search and rescue attempt was launched, but the search was eventually called off without ever having found Holt's body. Two days after he went missing, Holt was presumed dead and a funeral service was held for him on December 22. Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, and many other heads of state attended Holt's funeral.

Conspiracy Theories

Although conspiracy theories still abound surrounding Holt's death, the most likely cause of his death was the bad sea conditions.

Quite possibly his body was eaten by sharks (a nearby area is known to be shark territory), but it is just as likely that the extreme undertow took his body out to sea. However, since his body was never found, conspiracy theories continue to spread about Holt's "mysterious" disappearance.

Holt was the third Australian Prime Minister to die in office but is best remembered for the unusual circumstances surrounding his death.