Leeds & West Yorkshire

Falklands veteran meets Argentine 'enemy' 30 years on

Neil Wilkinson has always been haunted by the memory of the pilot he shot down as a young gunner during the Falklands War.

He had always believed his enemy died in the wreckage of the crash.

But now the veteran has completed a remarkable journey to meet the Argentine airman he thought he had killed during the 1982 conflict.

Mr Wilkinson, from Leeds, came face to face with former enemy Mariano Velasco at his home in Argentina and was welcomed inside with open arms.

Mr Wilkinson said: "It's too massive to put into words.

"Part of it is closure really, but meeting him in the flesh I now know he is alive and we are friends."

Plume of smoke

The emotional meeting, just weeks before the 30th anniversary of the moment they clashed in battle, was filmed for a BBC Inside Out Yorkshire and Lincolnshire documentary to be screened on Monday.

Mr Wilkinson was a 22-year-old anti-aircraft gunner serving on HMS Intrepid when he opened fire and hit an enemy Skyhawk fighter jet.

The image of the stricken plane disappearing from view trailing a plume of black smoke, along with the assumption that the pilot had lost his life, haunted Mr Wilkinson for years afterwards.

Image caption Wreckage from Mr Velasco's plane still litters the crash site

He went on to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as he struggled to adapt to life outside the services.

"Your job is to deter them, to protect your ship. I thought about it many, many times. It's not something I gloat over. I just see the aircraft every day in my brain," he said.

"I thought 'he's dead, there's no way anyone could get out of that aircraft'."

But a chance viewing of a TV documentary to mark the 25th anniversary of the conflict in 2007 raised the possibility that he had not killed the Argentine pilot after all.

Agreeing to disagree

Mr Wilkinson heard the story of the Argentine serviceman Mariano Velasco, describing his part in the Falklands war as a 33-year-old flight lieutenant.

Mr Velasco told how he took part in the attack on HMS Coventry on 25 May 1982, which resulted in the loss of 19 British servicemen.

The pilot also relived the moment his aircraft was hit during an attack two days later, forcing him to eject and trek for 10 miles over the Falklands with a badly injured ankle to reach a deserted farmhouse where he eventually got help and returned to an Argentine base on West Island.

"I knew it was him," said Mr Wilkinson. The dates tallied and Mr Velasco's description of the incident also matched his recollections.

"I was the only weapon that fired that day."

Further checks with military records also confirmed that Mr Velasco's plane was the one hit by Mr Wilkinson's anti-aircraft gun and the Leeds resident decided to make contact by email.

Image caption The pair had an emotional reunion at Mr Velasco's house in rural Argentina

The two veterans, while agreeing to disagree about the reasons and justifications of the war, went on to become good friends.

Now Mr Wilkinson has completed a journey back to the Falklands, visiting the crash site of the aircraft he shot down on 27 May 1982, with the crater and wreckage still visible today.

As he approached the crash site Mr Wilkinson said: "It's a very strange feeling to look at this.

"There's bits strewn all over the place and it's still here and I just don't know how he got out of it.

"The feeling inside is that he got out and he did survive it and I'm really, really pleased."

'So ecstatic'

Mr Wilkinson also went on to Argentina to the remote village where Mr Velasco lives with his family after retiring as a commodore in the Argentine Air Force.

After the meeting, Mr Wilkinson said: "For all this time I've had the build-up… not knowing he was alive for 25 years then finding out he was alive, then eventually got here after five long years of trying to get here, and I'm so ecstatic."

Mr Velasco said: "Good soldiers should be able to forgive each other and afterwards why can't they be friends?"

More than 900 people died during the 74-day conflict, including 255 British servicemen, 655 Argentines and three islanders.

See the full story on Inside Out Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, BBC One (Yorks and Lincs) at 19:30 GMT.

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