Three Cheers for the Next Man to Die
It was February 1951 -- 3 a.m. to be exact -- when a 25-year-old World War II Veteran and serving member of K-Force, half lounged, half lay in a U-shaped position in the doorway to his mother's bedroom.
My eldest brother, Denis, and my mother had been talking non-stop since 10 p.m. I slept in an adjoining room, and much to my irritation, could hear every word, but wanted to go to sleep.
I heard my mother say, "I'll never know if anything happens to you."
His laconic reply was: "You'll know! I'll think of YOU! You get on your trusty old bike and peddle down to the church and pray like buggery!
"If I told you to get on your knees and pray, you wouldn't do it because it is too easy. The easy things in life never get done. It is the hard to do that get done."
I yelled. "For God's sake shut-up and go to bed will you!"
Denis was due to return to Korea in a couple of days.
He did not have to go back. He had been severely wounded at Chongju in October 1950, and repatriated home in time for Christmas.
He said he had made a commitment to be back in Korea for the "Spring Offensive". Most importantly he had made that commitment to his "mates".
He reported to the M.O. (Medical Officer) for an examination at Royal Park. The M.O. asked how his arm was healing. Denis said, "OK" and raised his good arm (the right), pumped it a few times and was given a clearance to return to Korea.
Denis had been severely wounded in his left arm -- his rifle support arm -- and it would not straighten.
The day of departure arrived. Members of the family and close friends gathered at No. 1 Platform, Spencer Street Railway Station.
Everyone present knew this was a final farewell. It was a real goodbye. Not a "see you later" goodbye.
The atmosphere was charged with emotion.
Agonising goodbyes were said by mother to son, by brother to brother and by brother to sister, and friend to friend.
Slowly the train began to pull out of the station. Suddenly Denis shouted, " I won't go"!
He was still yelling as his mates pulled him back on to the moving train.
Gradually all vanished from view. For a few moments after the train departed there was a heavy silence as those who remained on the platform came to grips with their emotions.
Then they slowly turned and attempted to comfort one another.
The small crowd dispersed and the people left behind made their way home.
The O'Briens went home to Croydon, full of sorrow and apprehension.
As is always the way, life went on as usual. Letters flew to and fro. There was a semblance of happiness in the little house as a family waited.
Immediately prior to ANZAC Day, 1951, I had been feeling edgy and nervous and found it extremely difficult to concentrate at work. By 5 p.m. I was more than ready to head home.
Without the aid of a telephone I knew instinctively that my mother was feeling as anxious as I -- maybe more so.
After nearly an hour travelling I got off the train at Croydon and caught a bus to take me on the last stretch home.
I was not surprised to see my mother waiting in the street for me.
By this time we both felt a quiet calm.
"Have you heard anything?" we asked each other.
"No!" we both replied.
I told my mother that I believed Denis (and Gerry) had been in extreme danger, but were now safe and alive. She felt the same.
As we walked together down the familiar street, she related a strange event which she had experienced that morning.
This morning I went to Mass as usual. After Mass I set off home. When I got to the corner of the street I was suddenly convinced that Denis was at home. Waiting! I considered the strange ways of the Army and thought it quite possible that he had been sent home.
"I made a conscious decision to let HIM surprise ME.
"I put my bike away, went inside and began to get my breakfast. I was expecting a tap on my shoulder and a 'Hello, Mum, I'm home'. But nothing happened. I then decided to go and look on the sofa in the sittingroom where he always flopped. He was not there. I tried to continue preparing breakfast, but he seemed so close that I was almost apologising to the broom.
"Then I suddenly remembered his words ... about praying for him. I got on my trusty old bike and rode back down to the church. I walked in, sat in the front pew and thought 'I must pray for him'.
"The altar faded and I saw a hill. The whole scene was lit up by a peculiar glow. Nothing I could name. Nothing like the reflection from a bushfire or a house fire; not like the air raids I saw on London during W.W.II. Nothing I had heard, seen or read described this light. It was terribly bright.
"A small group of soldiers -- three, four, five -- were standing on the hill. They were filled with fear. One of them was Denis.
"This strange fire and light seemed to be engulfing him.
"He looked out directly into my eyes and I sensed, more than heard, a single word - 'MUM!'
"I could see a path through the flames.
"Then, just as suddenly as the scene had appeared, it vanished. Everything was in its right place.
"I was just sitting on a pew in a little old wooden church in a small country town, looking at a simple altar.
"Had I been asleep? Had I dreamed it all? No! I certainly had not.
"I got up, walked out of the church, and rode my bike back home again."
She wrote immediately and told Denis all she had seen and felt.
Within days the metropolitian press came out with a story about the diggers in Korea who had been fighting at Kapyong in the 'true spirit of the Anzacs'. My mother and I thought that it must have been that action which had given us so much concern.
Then a letter arrived from Denis in Korea. He explained that his company had been engaged in heavy fighting and that they had been "caught in friendly fire" (napalmed in error by American forces).
Denis wrote of the great fear he had felt -- far greater than anything he had experienced in any campaign in World War II. He wrote that in the middle of the horror he suddenly thought "Mum"!
He said no one knew what had happened; no one knew which way to turn or which way to go to get away from the burning liquid -- napalm. Suddenly he saw a path, and followed by his mates, hurtled down it and through to relative safety.
To friend in Australia he wrote "... when the first napalm bomb landed among us it was like a wall of flame. There was a general exodus off the hill (a shallow trench isn't much good against a wall of flame).
"Gerry, Sam, Ron (3/400087 J (Gerry) Gason, WIA 5 November, 1950, WIA 23/24 April, 1951; 3/400002 Sam Laycock; 3/400073 Ron Marley) and I went down together -- half falling, sliding, doing every dancing step in the book till we got off the hilltop. We looked up and it was a wall of flame. Then it dawned on us we were running towards the Chinese lines. You've no idea what we thought!! We realised the Yanks had recognised their error, and we moved back up the hill. Gerry had seriously injured his knee; he carried on until the battalion got back to friendly lines. That night we slept near the guns and Gerry went to hospital in the morning. Life is peaceful now."
In May 1951, I joined the Womens Royal Australian Airforce (WRAAF). Denis went on leave to Japan and told one of his mates that he knew he was going to die.
"He had a sort of premonition about being killed in the next action," said Keith (3/400252 Langdon) one of his mates who was with him.
They returned to Korea and Denis and his mates fought on with D Company. (12 Platoon) 3 RAR, until October. Denis had served as a Bren gunner, but first and foremost, he was proud to be rifleman -- "A Digger with a rifle on his shoulder".
Keith continued, "The night before the assault (Maryang San, October 5, 1951) he still had this uneasy feeling that he wouldn't come back. We all sat around and had a sing-song. The song the boys sang was 'Three Cheers for the Next Man to Die' -- which was quite a usual thing before we put in an asault. We then crawled into our sleeping bags to get a night's rest".
As the morning mist began to rise on Hill 317 Denis was the first 'D' Company casualty, with gunshot wounds to the head. Denis was in the lead of the Platoon in the assault on Feature 'Victor'.
Keith, fighting alongside him, called for the medics. Denis was patched up, spoke a couple of words to comrades and was put on a stretcher. He was evacuated by tank, but died before he reached RAP (Regimental Aid Post).
Tanks of the 8th Royal Irish Hussars were used as mobile artillery support in this action.
One of the last men to see Denis alive was 4/40006 W.O. 2 Len Opie DCM.
We have learned from Len Opie that the tank taking Denis out was swamped as it crossed the Imjin River and he would have drowned even if he had survived the massive head wound which is highly doubtful.
Denis never came home. His body lies buried in Pusan's "Field of Graves" in South Korea.
After his death, Mass was said in that same little wooden church in Croydon where our mother prayed so often. After Mass the congregation filed up the road to the Croydon War Memorial, where the hauntingly beautiful sounds of the Last Post floated out over the hamlet and eyes and throats ached with unshed tears and efforts to choke back sobs.
Mass was also said for Denis in Canberra at the request of a friend who had guided him through some of his post-war traumas onto the road of teacher and towards his B.A. This friend of the late Professor Manning Clark.
My Mother donated a black marble and silver doored tabernacle to be placed in the United Nations chapel in Kure, Japan, in memory of Denis. The soldiers have all gone home and the chapel is closed, but it was opened especially for Denis' brother, Roger and his wife, when they visited the chapel while on a tour of Japan and Korea in 1973.
In the 1980s another brother , Paddy, walked to the top of Kapyong with a group of people who were paying tribute to the men who fought to secure the position for the Allies. He also visited the War Cemetery in Pusan and obtained a copy of Denis' death certificate.
The death in Korea of Denis closed a chapter and an era ended for a family. Our lives were changed forever.
The passing years have blurred the hurt of Denis' death, but never the memory of the anguish and agony I saw in my mother's face and heard in her voice as she talked of her son as a baby, a toddler and a schoolboy. She did not know his teenage years. He spent most of those years in the Army.
Denis celebrated his 16th birthday (1941) in the Army. He served with the 7th Division (2/25 Battalion) until 1946. He came home from Borneo -- ravaged by all he had experienced -- six months before his 21st birthday.
He never learned to dance or be a care-free teenager; he never learned how to interact with women. Despite all that he never lost his sense of humour and fun. He loved poetry and was forever quoting it.
Denis Austin O'Brien may have been killed in Korea, but his memory lives on in those who knew him and those who have woven his life into the mythology of their own.
When The Melbourne Herald war correspondent, Charles Madden, wrote a story about him in the 1950s soon after his death, the headline read "Denis died fighting for a cause". He fought for many causes, but I don't know which one he died for. Maybe it was a bit of all of them.
It is now more than 50 years since he died on that Irish tank being evacuated across the Imjim River. In that half century one by one most of his comrades -- his mates -- have died. He is no longer alone in death.
In 1983, 32 years after he was killed, his name was carved into the War Memorial at Croydon -- no longer a quiet village at the foot of the Dandenong Ranges, but a bustling outer suburb of Melbourne. A very belated recognition of his service.
It was to be 50 years, the year 2000, before a Memorial built in Canberra and with it Government recognition of Australia's contribution to the Korean War and the men who served.
The building of the Memorial has helped those who served feel less neglected.
So it was with happiness and joy that families of the deceased, veterans and their families went to Canberra to celebrate the opening of the Korean War Memorial on Anzac Parade in April 2000. It helped lay many ghosts of the difficult and hard-fought war which had been swept under the carpet for so long that it became known as the "Forgotten War".
Denis and his mates have received the recognition they deserved. A memorial on Anzac Parade. A place in the sun and a place in our military history.
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