Officer steadfast in the face of huge odds in Korea




2-6-1918 29-2-2012


BEN O'Dowd, a hero of the Battle of Kapyong, one of the iconic battles fought by Australian Diggers in the Korean War, has died at home in Mount Waverley, aged 93, after a long life of service to his country and to his community.

The child of a broken home and the tough Depression years, O'Dowd became proud patriarch of a large, loving family.

Born in Perth, he was frank about his early years, as he was about everything. His father was assistant government meteorologist, but "a gambler and a drunk, a bad combination". O'Dowd and his sister became wards of the state and were fostered to a World War I widow. "She needed a man around the house to mow the lawns and chop the wood, feed the chooks, chop the chook's head off on Saturday for Sunday's dinner, do all the things a man did around the house." For O'Dowd it was a house, not a home. Not family.

He left school at 14, basically uneducated, and when World War II broke out, he was working down a mine with pick and shovel. "I decided to annihilate all the King's enemies. I enlisted straight away."

The army provided O'Dowd with a structure. He loved soldiering and was very good at it, fighting in the deserts of Libya and the snows of Syria. He was a sergeant major leading a platoon in the New Guinea jungle when he was commissioned in the field as a lieutenant recommended by Lieutenant-Colonel Charlie Green, a brilliant soldier and, at 25, probably the youngest battalion commander in World War II.

After the war, O'Dowd did a short course at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, though he did not meet the educational requirements. It seems someone in the army was wise. When the Korean War broke out in 1950 with a lighting strike by communist North Korea across the 38th parallel, Captain Ben O'Dowd immediately volunteered. Australia's first contribution to the United Nations alliance, led by the United States, was RAAF 77 Squadron and its Mustangs, requested by General Douglas MacArthur. Along with the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR), 77 Squadron was the rearguard of Australian Occupation Forces in Japan.

Australia's minister for external affairs, Percy Spender, determined to win a formal strategic alliance with the US, nagged and prodded prime minister Robert Menzies to send ground troops to a war that seemed likely to end in a North Korean victory. Spender got his way, and 3 RAR was selected for the job, even though the Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Sydney Rowell, described it as not battleworthy. It was under-strength and under-trained, softened by an occupation life that included Japanese house boys and girls (and some mistresses), cheap beer and a black market that was a nice little earner.

O'Dowd (pictured) was delighted when his mentor, Charlie Green, was given command. Green toughened the men and gained an invaluable asset: battle-hardened veterans, officers such as O'Dowd and the World War II Diggers who volunteered in Australia for K Force.

Australia's 3 RAR could easily have been lost in the giant American military machine, but it consistently punched above its weight. After the Battle of Chongju, deep in North Korea, in October 1950, where nine Australians were killed and 150 North Korean dead were counted in front of 3 RAR's defences, Green had said: "They can send them down by divisions now. This battalion will accommodate them."

As soldiers do, O'Dowd knew about the lottery of war, the seconds or the centimetres that separated life from death. After the battle, he was responsible, as officer commanding headquarters company, for the layout of the camp. He sited a tent for Green, who had not slept for 48 hours, up a gully. Green was resting there when at 6.10pm North Korean artillery fired a salvo. Five shells hit a ridge, harmlessly. A sixth carried over and struck a tree. A single fragment from that single shell pierced the tent and Green's stomach. Remembering it, O'Dowd would shrug fatalistically and say "C'est la guerre", but he still had with him, at his own death, a photograph of Green he carried to his other postings and into civilian retirement.

O'Dowd had one of his brushes with death on March 4, 1951. During what he later called "a bad day out", an attack he was commanding in which 12 Diggers died, he was asking a South Korean officer about a promised supporting attack. There was a rain of mortar shells. The South Korean was blown to pieces O'Dowd had fragments in his left calf and right lung.

He was only three weeks out of hospital when he commanded a successful attack on a strong point British troops had failed to take. Then 3 RAR went for a deserved rest in a pleasant wooded area in the Kapyong valley. Sherwood Forest, the Diggers called it. The snows of winter had gone and there were wild azaleas on the hill sides Diggers gathered them to weave into wreaths.

The new commanding officer, Bruce Ferguson, had invited representatives of the nearby Turkish Brigade to an Anzac Day ceremony. The old enemies would come together as allies on the newest battlefield. After the Last Post, there would be much beer to drink.

It never happened. The Kapyong Valley is one of the traditional invasion routes from the north to the South Korean capital, Seoul, and on April 23, 3 RAR and the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry were suddenly ordered to take thinly stretched positions across the valley. To the north, a division of South Koreans shattered under the weight of the massive Chinese Fifth Offensives. It was left essentially to the Canadians and Australians to hold the surge.

O'Dowd commanded his A Company through that longest night, then, as senior rifle company commander, planned and conducted the withdrawal of the Australian forward companies, described as a superb military feat by historian Bob Breen.

Back in Australia in 1952, O'Dowd met army nurse Marie Stevens. She served in Korea after the armistice. In 1954, they married and produced their own army of nine children. He would blow a whistle he had used in Korea to summon them for meals.

O'Dowd retired from the army as lieutenant-colonel after 34 years service. For 10 years he served in the State Emergency Service, and for another 10 was administrative manager of a clinic for psychiatric care.

His passions were making lime prickles, cooking exotic curries, working actively in his local church and supporting Hawthorn. A man of many parts, O'Dowd was above all, a soldier and a family man.

He is survived by his wife Marie, their children Patricia, Bernard, Cate, Brigid, Martin, Gabriel, Imelda, Rachel and Rebecca, 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Want access to our latest research and new buy ideas?

Start a free 15 day trial and gain access to our research, recommendations and market-beating model portfolios.

Sign up for free

Related Articles