Biography of Ben O’Dowd published in 2019 by Hesperian Press, in Perth
Ben O'Dowd - Hero of Kapyong
by Rory Steele
ISBN 978-0-85905-752-3, [New, 2019], 160 x 240, French flaps, section sewn, illustrated, 197 pages, 500 grams, $50.00*
In their most important engagement in
the Korean War, Australian troops were cut off from other battalions and
surrounded by units of China's People's Liberation Army. Earlier, as members of
a United Nations force responding to the invasion of South Korea by the North,
they had fought their way up the peninsula. China then intervened and turned
the tide with a series of massive offensives; in late April its forces were poised
to break through the UN line and descend on the South Korean capital. Defending
a hillside above the Kapyong Valley four hundred men of the Third Battalion,
Royal Australian Regiment, confronted a determined enemy ten times their number
who came at them in wave after wave. Fighting went on for a night and the
following day until the order came to the senior officer on the ground to
withdraw. Major Ben O'Dowd led the four rifle companies under fire to safety
without suffering a single loss. His heroism was never properly recognised. The
Chinese onslaught was checked at Kapyong and the war went into stalemate.
O'Dowd, taken into state care at the age of four, left school at fourteen and fended for himself during the Depression. A miner at Kalgoorlie, he enlisted as a private in 1939 and was sent to the Middle East where he was wounded. Later in New Guinea he was decorated for bravery and commissioned in the field as an officer. From 1945 to 1950 he was stationed with occupation forces in Japan. After Korea he served with the British in the Malayan Emergency and became deputy commander at Australia's jungle training centre in Queensland. For ten years after retiring from the Army Ben O'Dowd played a major role in building up the nascent Victorian State Emergency Services into a major institution.
Bernard Shelley O’Dowd – always known as Ben - was born in Perth in 1918 and died in Melbourne in 2012. The central part of his life was in the Australian army, and he had impressive combat experience in Libya, New Guinea and Korea. His heroic contribution in April 1951 to the outcome of the battle of Kapyong, when British Commonwealth forces successfully stood against vastly superior numbers of attacking Chinese troops, was unsurpassed, and it was never properly recognised.
In 1992 Ben O’Dowd gave a typically modest, witty and understated account of his life, in a lengthy interview arranged by the Australian army and held in the archives of the Australian War Memorial: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/F04842/
The 1992 tape begins with a harrowing account of his early childhood. His father, an erudite man and assistant government meteorologist, was however "a gambler and a drunk, a bad combination". When Ben was four he and his little sister were first looked after by their grandparents and then taken into care by the State authorities who arranged for them to be fostered out. Ben left school, and that foster-home, at 14 and sought what work he could get during the Depression years, He went to the goldfields in Norseman and Kalgoorlie where he worked as a bogger with pick and shovel, adding a year or two to his age to qualify for work underground and better pay. When World War II broke out he enlisted immediately
Ben joined the 2/11th Australian Infantry Battalion, was sent to the Middle East and was wounded in fighting in Libya. After a long period of training including in jungle warfare the 2/11th was sent to New Guinea where in the last months of the war it fought a fierce campaign against a Japanese army that had been left behind as the main action moved further north, but that was ready to fight to the death. Ben, who had started out as a private had been progressively promoted and by this time was a Warrant Officer; given temporary command of a company, he fought with such distinction that he was rewarded with an MBE and, a rare occurrence, was commissioned in the field as an officer.
Unwilling to quit the army when war ended, Ben joined the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. It was on the point of being wound up when in June 1950 South Korea was invaded by forces from the North and Seoul, its capital, at once fell. Prime Minister Menzies promptly committed Australia to become part of a United Nations action against the aggression and Ben accordingly went to Korea as an officer in the recently-formed 3 RAR. The regiment became part of a British Commonwealth battalion and fought its way into North Korea and past the capital Pyongyang in the bitter winter of 1950-51.
China then intervened in the war and pushed the UN forces down to the middle of the peninsula. In April 1951 China launched a massive offensive whose initial aim was to retake Seoul: Kapyong lay squarely on the invasion route. For two nights and an intervening day 3 RAR withstood the onslaught in fighting that was at times hand to hand. Ben, commanding the foremost company and with his CO committed in the rear, led his Diggers throughout the engagement and then when the order came ensured their safe withdrawal in perilous conditions that included napalm accidentally being dropped on one of his platoons by a friendly US bomber.
Ben O’Dowd was rotated out of Korea after Kapyong. From 1952 to 1954 he served as an Australian jungle warfare expert with the British forces in the Malayan Emergency, and was Mentioned in Despatches for his role there. He subsequently commanded the Army’s jungle training centre at Canungra in Queensland. After retiring from the Army in 1973 he was taken on by the Victorian State Emergency Services and over ten years helped transform it into its modern shape. While he was Emerency Services Controller numbers of volunteers increased from approximately 500 to 5,000. For the decade that followed he was a senior administrator at the Hofbauer Centre, a clinic for psychiatric care in East St Kilda, Melbourne.
O’Dowd died peacefully at home in Mount Waverly, Melbourne, on 29 February 2012
after a bout of pneumonia. He left behind Marie whom he had married nearly
sixty years earlier, two sons, seven daughters, eighteen grandchildren and four great-granchildren.