How Australia's PM went swimming 50 years ago and vanished forever

Australian prime minister Harold Holt on the beach with his three daughters-in-law, circa 1966.

(CNN)"Australia's Prime Minister Mr Harold Holt is missing."

They were the words that echoed from television sets and radios across Australia on December 17, 1967 -- the day Holt stepped into the surf at Cheviot Beach near Melbourne and was never to be seen again.
The Australian leader was presumed drowned and a memorial service was held in his honor, attended by world leaders including UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson and US President Lyndon Johnson.
    But his body was never found, leading to a range of ever-more ridiculous conspiracy theories, including one book which claimed he had been taken by a Chinese submarine.
    Fifty years after his disappearance, Holt's lengthy career as a progressive and ground-breaking Australian politician has been completely overshadowed by the mysterious nature of his death.
    "The conspiracy theories have become so well-known and almost part of Australian folklore on their own," Tom Frame, Holt biographer and director of the Public Leadership Research Group at the University of New South Wales' Howard Library, told CNN.
    "I think none of us would want our death to overshadow our life."

    'First of Australia's modern prime ministers'

    Holt became Australia's Prime Minister in January 1966, only two years before he vanished.
    He'd been a loyal minister under the country's longest-serving leader, Sir Robert Menzies. Menzies was a stuffy Anglophile who could not have been a bigger contrast to the younger, 59-year-old Holt.
    "He was a breath of fresh air," John Warhurst, emeritus professor of politics at the Australian National University, told CNN.
    "He was younger (than Menzies), he was renowned as a very stylish, progressive man ... Viewed from today, he was the first of the modern Australia prime ministers."
    Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt during an official visit to London, July 7, 1966.