HOW Hans Fleer was not awarded the Victoria Cross still puzzles his mates. They talk in whispers about the day when the 20-year-old corporal, with his patrol pinned down by 600 Viet Cong near Nui Dat, earned his nickname "The Ice Man".
When Viet Cong machine guns unexpectedly raked his patrol on a hot afternoon in February 1970, nine of Fleer's mates fell, including the commander and the signaller.
The young infantryman didn't blink but instead took control. The Ice Man directed the remaining Diggers to cover him while he ran into machine-gun fire on what looked like a suicide mission to rescue his injured mates.
As his unit citation says: "With complete disregard for his own safety, Hans Fleer moved out under covering fire from his section to initiate the recovery of wounded men."
To this day, no one knows how the hail of bullets missed Fleer, who - after bringing the wounded Diggers to safety - then directed the safe withdrawal of his winged platoon.
For his courage, Fleer was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, second only to the Victoria Cross.
But when he returned to Australia, Fleer, a modest man, rarely spoke about that day again, even to his family and even though he would go on to join the SAS for a further 20 years.
This month, when Fleer died suddenly, aged 63, his children knew little more than that their beloved dad had been a good soldier. What happened next took their breath away.
"The surprise came in the days after his death," his daughter, Melanie, said yesterday.
"We were contacted by so many army guys who were floored by Dad's passing: I think everyone considered him invincible."
At his funeral last week, they came from all over Australia - soldiers young and old - to pay their final respects in Melbourne to a man who fellow soldier Rick O'Haire said was "an icon of the SAS".
"There must have been 200 soldiers and former soldiers at his funeral - there were people from his old patrol, from the SAS, commandos and even generals - it was incredible," said Fleer's son, Michael.
Even the head of the Australian Defence Force, General David Hurley, has paid homage to Fleer.
"I served with Hans in 1RAR in the mid-70s," General Hurley said yesterday. "He was measured and unflappable by nature, a very professional soldier and officer, and a tremendous role model for junior officers."
Martin Hamilton-Smith, a former SAS colleague of Fleer and now a Liberal opposition frontbencher in South Australia, was at his funeral last week. "Hans grew from a brave young soldier into a father figure in Australian Special Forces," Mr Hamilton-Smith said.
"He helped take young soldiers from the jungles of Vietnam, through counter-terrorism, on to the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Hans brought together the soldierly qualities of moral courage, mental toughness, a dry wit and a sense of mateship. Everyone he touched was better for having walked beside him."
At their dad's service and at his wake, Michael and Melanie learned more about his wartime exploits than during his lifetime.
"They also called him Major Fear," Melanie said.
"He was a Clint Eastwood type with a steely stare and a dark sense of humour. He had a very stoic face which you couldn't read and he would just look into you."
At his funeral, Fleer's mates told his kids how he should have received the Victoria Cross rather than the DCM for his actions that day near Nui Dat.
"Some of the old guys reckoned that decision (not to give him a VC) was political bull****," Michael said. "They told me that if you had to pick a man to go to war with, it was my father."
"It has been almost surreal because he never really talked about the army and what he did.
"And now we are hearing from so many SAS guys saying he was instrumental in their career and lives."
O'Haire, who served with Fleer for 40 years, said simply: "Hans was the bloke you wanted by your side on a cold, dark, windy night. We will never see his likes again."