Private Richard QX20656
2/25th Australian Infantry Battalion
by: Harry Willey 2010
Richard Kelliher was born at Ballybrannagh, Tralee in County Kerry, on the 1 September 1910. The seventh son and second youngest child of a cattle dealer Michael, and his wife Mary Anne Kelliher (nee Talbot).
At the completion of his schooling at the Jefferies Institute in Tralee, Richard trained as a mechanic, working for his eldest brother Timothy and attending the Technical College in Tralee. In 1929, aged nineteen, he and his 15-year-old sister Norah migrated to Australia.
Photograph of teenage Richard Kelliher
Courtesy Dr Christopher Noon. Ireland
Richard and Norah lived with their aunt and uncle in Brisbane, where Richard became a Sacristan at St Stephen’s Cathedral. With the depression making it impossible for Richard to find paid employment in Brisbane, he left his family seeking employment wherever he could find it. Constantly sleeping under bridges and with very little food to sustain him, his health quickly detieriated he contracted both typhoid and meningitis during his first year on the road.
Richards search for employment was to see him picking bananas, cutting sugar cane, which due to his poor health he found extremely difficult,. He then sort work as a painting contractor and secured a number of jobs ranging from small patch up jobs to painting whole houses inside and out, before finally trying his hand as a share farmer.
Despite the hard times he encountered he still managed to send some money to his widowed mother in Ireland. His greatest sorrow during this time was his loosing contact with Norah who unbeknown to him had married William Latter in 1936 and moved to Sydney to live.
The unemployment rate was still high when at 8pm on Sunday 3 September 1939, the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Gordon Menzies announced that Australia was at war with Germany. Thousands of men the majority unemployed then lined up at recruiting depots to join the army. Creating what many saw as “Economic Conscription”.
Richard was 30 years of age and
working as a labourer when he enlisted at Brisbane City Hall on 21 February 1941. A
single man, he was recorded as having dark brown hair and blue/grey eyes, being 5 ft 7½ inches tall, with a medium complexion. Accepted he spent his first night under canvas at the Brisbane Exhibition ground before being transferred to Grovely the following day to commence his four months initial training with the 2nd Infantry
Richard embarked from Sydney on 27 June 1941 with the ninth reinforcements for the
2/12th Battalion who were at Tobruk.
Disembarking in Palestine on 31 July he trained for a further 10 weeks with the 18th Infantry Training Battalion before being assigned to the 2/25th a Battalion who had lost a significant number of men during the Syrian campaign on 11 October.
Photo courtesy Mr Neil Hutton Ireland
When Australia declared war on Japan on 9 December 1941, Australia’s newly elected Prime Minister, John Curtin, ordered the 6th and 7th Division of the AIF, to return to Australia. Richard embarked for Australia 8 February 1942.
When the 2/25th arrived in Australia on 10 March they trained for jungle warfare in North Queensland. Richard was detached to the 57/60 Battalion on 30 June for two weeks before returning to the
2/25th. After further training he embarked from Brisbane on the 31
August for the voyage to New
Guinea. Arriving at Port Moresby on
9 September the 2/25th went straight into action against the Japanese.
Since they landing at Buna and Gona on 21 July the Japanese, having been ordered to fight to the death had inflicted very heavy casualties on the Australians, the 2/25th determinedly pushed the Japanese back down the Markham River toward Lae.
At 4.30pm on 12 November, as his section was attacking the enemy, Richard reported to
Company HQ, saying he had been sent by his Commanding Officer with information.
Here he was reported, to have told staff members, “It’s to bloody hot for me” and “I am not a bloody fool”. As a result, Richard was charged with ‘failing to get into his allotted position with his section’. His officer was killed before he could confirm or deny Richard’s claim and despite Richard’s vigorous defence of his integrity and the admission of both the accusing officer and Brigadier R. King the acting Officer in Charge of the 6th Australian Division, that they did not know Richard and that they had based the charge on the hear say of others, the Court Martial proceeded.
Richard left New Guinea on 17 January 1943 and arriving in Cairns two days later he was taken to Ravenshoe, to face a District Court Martial. On 27 March, found guilty of misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice, Richard was found not guilty on the alternative charge of “Conduct to the prejudice of good order and Military Discipline”. He was sentenced to 12 months detention. On 13 June suffering from malaria he was admitted to the 106
Casualty clearing station.
On 25 June the findings of the Court Martial and the sentence imposed on Richard were quashed by the Adjutant General. Four days later, released from Hospital, Richard rejoined the
2/25th, who had returned to Queensland to regroup. The 2/25th sailed from Townsville for Port Moresby on 17 August.
On the 5 September, screened by thick smoke, American infantrymen and Australian artillerymen from the 2/4th Australian field regiment successfully combined in the first paradrop in the South/West Pacific. With less than two weeks parachute training they jumped from C-47 Dakota aircraft with their 25 pounders from the low height of just 600ft and took possession of the airstrip at Nadzab, in the Markham Valley on the north coast New Guinea.
Four days later, relieved to learn he would be making a conventional landing at Nadzab, Richard hurriedly alighted from the truck that had brought him to Moresby and boarded the waiting aircraft. With two fighters as escorts the large transport then circled above Moresby until it gained the height needed to cross the Owen Stanley Range. Safely across the mountains it quickly descending to within a few feet of the tree tops in an effort to avoid detection by the enemy. The particularly rough landing at Nadzab was; not the fault of the teenage pilot but the rough uneven ground, as he left the aircraft and staggered across the uneven ground Richard quickly dispelled thoughts of the rough landing as he passed two planes that had crashed upon landing.
The following day his unit encountered serious opposition at Jensen’s plantation as they pushed the Japanese towards Lae. On the 11th a strong Japanese force of 200 marines again halted them before, with the support of their artillery, they were able to advance through to Whittaker’s plantation. Two days later they were halted by Japanese marines who were stubbornly defending their position.
On 13 September, Private, later Lance-Sergeant Leslie John Brown, “told that during the attack on the Japanese position by the 11th Platoon of Captain Gilbert Alexander Thomson Gow’s ‘B’ Company, they were pinned down by very heavy machine gun fire from a Japanese entrenched position.” as they advanced toward Heaths Plantation
Five of Lieutenant, later Captain, Robert Thomas Campbell Burns’s 32 man platoon had been killed and three others were wounded including their section leader QX26271 Cpl William Henry Richards. Kelliher realised they were in trouble.
Cpl William Henry Richards
As Cpl Richards who was in a forward position, lay bleeding profusely, weakened by loss of blood from wounds to his arm, back and stomach, he shouted instructions to his men while sheltering behind a tree stump. Richard Kelliher who was uphill from Cpl Richards asked Johnson Henry Bickle for his remaining grenade, then saying “I’d better go and bring him in” he rose from where he was sheltering in a shallow ditch and ran 70 yards down the hill and threw the grenade into the enemy position. Realizing that he had not wiped out the post, Richard raced back to his platoon through the heavy enemy fire that was now being concentrated on him; grabbing a Bren gun he again charged through the clearing, firing from the hip once again realised he had not done the job so he returned to his platoon hurriedly grabbed another magazine and continued his attack.
Then without hesitation, despite heavy rifle fire from another Japanese position he went forward to where Cpl Richards lay and half dragged half carried him back to safety before
assisting his mate’s in the rescue of the two other wounded men.
A Japanese officer and eight of his men, four whom had been killed by the 11th platoon’s snipers, were found dead. Brown, who was unable to confirm if Richard Kelliher had killed the other five, continued in his praise of Richard. Saying that due to the enemy’s sustained gun fire
Cpl Richards had been without medical attention for some time he believed Richard Kelliher was responsible for saving Cpl Richards’ life and allowing their platoon’s advance to continue. Pte Brown’s opinion was shared by Privates James Alexander Cameron and James McGahey, who believed Richard Kelliher’s action, had inspired the whole platoon, who was full of praise for him.
Richard Kelliher was initially recorded as saying his actions were an attempt to erase the stigma of the charge of cowardice. He is the only person who really knows if this was true or if his actions were those of a well-trained soldier.
He later said, ‘I wanted to bring Billy ( Cpl Richards) back, because he was my cobber, so I jumped out from where I was sheltering, threw a few grenades into the Japanese position, when I did not kill them all, I went back for a Bren gun, and emptied the magazine into the post. That finished them. I didn’t think of doing it to get a medal I just wanted to bring Billy back! And the way I did it was the only way to do it’.
Thirty year later, when ex Corporal Richards who had been awarded a Military Medal for his actions that day and fifty former members of the 2/25th met in Canberra, they had no doubt as to the reason Richard Kelliher had taken on the Jap’s that day. To them he remains, as he had been on 13th September 1943, a Hero.
As Lae fell to the Australians three days later, Richard was admitted to hospital with Malaria.
A recommendation that he be awarded a Victoria Cross was initiated by his Platoon leader, Lieutenant Robert Thomas Campbell Burns, endorsed by Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Harold Marson DSO, the Commanding officer of the 2/25th and approved by Brigadier Kenneth William Eather CB, CBE, DSO,ED, Commander of the 25th Brigade and Major General George Alan Vasey CB, CBE, DSO & Bar, Commander of the Australian 7th Division. Then signed by the Commander of the 2nd AIF and its 6th Division, General Sir Thomas Blamey GBE, KCB, CMG, DSO, ED, submitted.
Richard was a patient in a Australian General Hospital at Port Moresby when his Victoria Cross was gazetted on 30 December 1943. The fifth Victoria Cross awarded to an Australian serviceman during the Second World War.
Photograph of Richard Kelliher VCs Medals courtesy Richard and Doug Arman.
Twelve days later he received a letter of congratulations from the Hon Francis Michael
Forde MP, the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and Minister for the Army.
Sydney newspapers reported the award of a Victoria Cross to Kelliher and his bad health. The same papers carried stories of; Sydneysiders protesting the proposed meat rationing; The decision to raise coal miner’s wages in an attempt to combat their high rate of absenteeism; The record crowds that had visited Sydney’s beach’s the day before. Highlighting the indifference of many Australians to the closeness and seriousness of the war.
Francis Forde, who wrote to Mrs Kelliher in Ireland informing her of her son’s award, was upstaged by a very proud Prime Minister, the Hon John Curtin, MP, himself the son of a Irish immigrant, who sent a cablegram to Mrs Kelliher.
This was the first cablegram received at the Post Office at Ballybeggan a village near Tralee. It was received with such enthusiasm that the Irish press (which had previously banned any mention of the deeds of Irishmen serving with the American or British services) carried stories of Richard’s act of bravery and the Australian Prime Minister’s cable to his mother.
Due to his deteriorating health, Richard was granted twelve months convalescent leave. This did not deter him from marching with the 2/25th (a Queensland Battalion) as they paraded through the streets of Brisbane on 8 August on their return from training at Walgrove, NSW.
While convalescing, Richard received an invitation to Admiralty House, Sydney to be invested with his Victoria Cross by Lord Gowrie, the Governor General of Australia. Gowrie himself had been awarded a VC in 1899 for his actions in the Sudan. Richard declined the invitation and claiming it was his right as a VC recipient to have this award personally presented to him by King George V1.
Returning to duty, Richard was medically classified as B1 and restricted from duty in humid climates, long marches and any positions of responsibility which might cause him mental strain. He was assigned to the 11thAustralian Advance Workshop and learning his sister Norah was travelling from Sydney to see him, he applied for 10 days compassionate leave from the 13/23 April 1945, to meet and spend time with her. He was granted only the four days leave due to him as it had been arranged that he would talk on the ABC radio in support of the Third Victory Loan on 21 April.
Discharged from the army on the 20 August 1945, Richard Kelliher VC. Was classified as being 10% disabled, suffering from post-malarial debility; fit for light work only, he was granted a pension of 5/- (50c) a week. His only other income was the VC pension of sixty two pounds ($124) per year, which was paid quarterly to all living VC recipients.
Following many weeks of unsuccessfully seeking employment, Richard found work as a cleaner at Brisbane City Hall on a salary of 4 pounds 17 shillings ($9.70) a week. In January
1946, while employed at City Hall, he entered a ballot, restricted to ex-servicemen in an attempt to gain a Taxi plate. This would have allowed him, to purchase a car for use as a taxi. While unsuccessful in the ballot, he witnessed many who were successful hand back their plates due to their inability to secure a loan.
Richard was accessed by a panel of Doctors as to his fitness to be included as a member of the ‘Australian Victory Contingent’ for the Victory celebrations in London. He was accepted as a member of the Contingent on 28 March 1946 just three weeks before the A.V.C. comprising of 236 men and 19 women, representing all branches of the services, sailed following a march through Melbourne.
The march through the streets of Melbourne was the first of many marches to be undertaken by this contingent, whose members had collectively received 162 Bravery Awards.
The departure of the A.V.C. was delayed when the three Victoria Cross recipients, Richard Kelliher, Frank Partridge and Reg Rattey joined with other members of the contingent and refused to board the 15,000 ton HMAS Shropshire until VX58273 Sgt Albert Curtin MM was onboard.
Curtin, a former Medical attendant, was told at the last minute that as his rifle drill was not up to standard he was to remain in Australia. A compromise was reached allowing Curtin to make the trip as a medical attendant to look after the men who were subject to Malaria attacks.
HMAS Shropshire was stocked with an ample supply food for the contingent during their voyage and stay in England. In addition it carried a large gift of food for the people of England. Departing Melbourne at 4pm on 18 April 1946, the ship cleared Port Phillip Bay and sailed into gale force winds with the weather further deteriorating as they sailed west.
Arriving in Fremantle at 8am Tuesday 23rd the AVC marched through the streets before they were granted leave.
Leaving Fremantle at 10am the following morning the “Shropshire” sailed for Cape Town. Many of the men voluntarily assisted in the cleaning and painting of the upper deck while others, including Curtin, practiced their rifle exercises. One had his appendix removed on 30 April. The “Shropshire” arrived at Cape Town on 9 May where a planned dress rehearsal for the London march had to be abandoned due to wet weather.
After crossing the line at 10am on 18 May the troops made plans for their expected leave at
Sierra Leone. On 21 May they were again disappointed when no leave was granted and the Shropshire sailed immediately refuelling was complete.
HMAS Shropshire berthed at Portsmouth at noon 30 May and the women were taken to the WRNS Barracks. The men remained onboard till noon the following day when they marched
2 km through heavy rain to Plymouth Rail Station where they entrained to London. The Australians were accommodated with the Canadian and New Zealand troops in small circular seven man tents which had been set up for them in Kensington Park near the Albert Memorial, by German prisoners of war awaiting repatriation.
The King, Queen and Royal Princesses visited the Australian Contingent and while the Queen and Princesses spoke to the men; the King spoke at length with the three VCs, Kelliher, Rattey and Partridge.
The first Saturday after disembarking the contingent marched from Westminster Bridge through the Mall to Australia House where they were greeted by Mr John Albert Beasley, Australia’s resident Minister in London. Beasley had arranged a reception for them which was followed by a dinner and dance.
Sir Winston Churchill inadvertently met the Australians when on returning to London his car had been halted by the Australians as they returned to camp. Churchill left his car and mingled with the men.
The setting up of the camp in Kensington Park upset many London residents who complained bitterly to ‘The Times’. One reader wrote the following, ‘To imprison for three lovely summer months one of London’s most loved playgrounds, is hardly a worthy way of celebrating our victory.’
Albert Curtin who had spent much of his time on the voyage to England practicing his rifle drill subsequently took part in the Parade, on 8 June when the ‘Fighting Men and Women of the Empire’ marched through the streets of London.
Marching 12 abreast the parade, made up of representatives from all the Allied countries with the exception of USSR, Poland and Yugoslavia, took two hours to pass the saluting base. Following the Parade members of the A.V.C. were given 19 days leave. During this time Richard Kelliher and Albert McNally visited Ballybeggan, staying with Richards’s mother and his brother Tim for the duration of their leave.
When the Contingent sailed for Australia on 30 June, Richard Kelliher and Reg Rattey remained in England to be invested with their Victoria Crosses at Buckingham Palace by King George V1 on 9 July 1946.
Richard and Reg, left England on 25 July onboard the “Dominion Monarch”. Richard was admitted to the ship’s hospital for nine days with malaria. Onboard the ship was 246 British war brides and their children travelling to their new homeland. “Dominion Monarch” arrived in Melbourne on 22 August 1946, the same day as the HMAS Shropshire.
On the 30 August 1949, Richard Kelliher VC married nineteen year old Olive Margaret
Hearn in Brisbane.
Richard visited England again in April 1953, as a member of the Australian and New
Zealand Coronation Contingent. On this occasion with Reg Rattey VC, and Frank Partridge VC he was joined by Edward Kenna VC, and New Zealander John Hinton VC. They embarked on board the Aircraft Carrier, HMAS Sydney from Sydney on 21 March and sailing by way of the Suez Canal they arrived in Plymouth on 5 May. They took part in the Coronation Procession on 2 June.
On the 7 January 1955, The Sun. a Sydney Newspaper, published an article, on the lives of nine of Australia’s living VC’s. The article revealed that Richard was still having a hard time, disclosing that. “He is a sick man who has gone from one poor job to another. He was a cleaner at the Brisbane Town Hall, before moving to Victoria and working a concrete machine for the Camberwell Council, in 1951 he was employed by the Albert Park Grounds Committee”. “During 1954 Kelliher spent three months in the Repatriation General Hospital (R.G.H) at Heidelberg, where he is to return in March for further surgery”.
At the time the article was written Richard was a T.T.I. (Totally and Temporarily Incapacitated) pensioner, living in a Housing Commission House in Burwood, with his wife and two children. The article reported that “His pension is barely enough to keep his family”. The story concluded telling its readers that aged 44 years, Kelliher was frail and bent, but proud that he had what was undeniably the best kept garden in the street.
In 1956 Richard sailed on the SS Orcades as one of the 35 Australian VC recipients who were to attend the Victoria Cross Centenary Celebrations in London.
Richard Kelliher VC, was the recipient of a TPI (Totally & Permanently Incapacitated) pension when he died on 28 January 1963, in the RGH, Heidelberg, 12 days after suffering a stroke. He was survived by his wife Olive and three children, Kerry, 11, Richard, 9 and Mary- Ellen, 7 years of age.
His funeral, conducted with full military honours at Springvale Cemetery, followed a Requiem Mass at St Benedict’s Church, Burwood. It was attended by World War One Victoria Cross recipients, Laurie McCarthy V C, and William Ruthven V C and a large number of mourners including many of his former comrades from the 2/25th.
The Kelliher VC. Display. at Australian War Memorial.
Courtesy of Richard and Doug Arman
Olive Kelliher remarried in 1965 and now Mrs Ron Rawkins she lived with her family in Mahoney’s Road, Forest Hills. Olive learnt of the listing of Brunswick’s Gallipoli hero, Lieutenant William John Symons Victoria Cross at a coming Sotheby’s auction in London, with a reserve price of one thousand pound ($A2,000). This led to Olive mailing Richard’s medal group to Sotheby’s so it could also be listed for sale saying she needed the money to pay for her son’s education.
Sotheby’s immediately offered the medals to the Australian War Memorial for 1,000 pound. Believing it may encourage other VC recipients or their families to sell their medals The Director of the AWM, Major J. J. McGrath OBE, refused the offer.
The Secretary and Treasurer of the Victorian branch of the 2/25th Battalion Association, Bruce Ruxton and Jack Spooner, visited Olive and offered to raise the 1,000 pounds for the Medals.
Olive initially agreed but changed her mind the next day after she had fully considered the conditions Ruxton had imposed on his offer. Olive then announced that the sale of the Medals in England would proceed.
Two months later, after strong protests from the Victorian public and former members of the 2/25th, Olive withdrew the medals from the auction.
Bruce Ruxton then launched a public appeal, which succeeded in raising the money in time for the medals to be purchased and donated to the Australian War Memorial on 13
September 1966, the 23rd anniversary of the battle for which Richard Kelliher was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Richard Kelliher’s medal group consisted of The Victoria Cross., 1939/45 Star, Pacific Star, Defence Medal, War Medal 1939-45, Australian Service Medal 1939-45 and Queen Elizabeth 11 Coronation Medal.
News of the controversy failed to reach the Kelliher family in Ireland, who remained oblivious to the fate of Richard’s medals until I contacted them forty five years later while researching this story.
Richard Kelliher’s niece, Margaret (Peggy) Murphy, who had been his guest at the Buckingham Palace ceremony in July 1946, believes that had the family known they would have made every possible effort to keep the Medals in the hands of the family.
Richard Kelliher Jnr aged 49 years, proudly marched with the 2/25th Battalion Association for the first time in the 2002 Melbourne Anzac Day March.
On 11 November 2002 the Australian Governor General dedicated a picnic area in parkland at the rear of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, as ‘Richard Kelliher VC Memorial Park’.
A portrait of Pte Richard Kelliher VC., by George Browning is held by the War
© Harry Willey. 2010
My thanks to family members of Richard Kelliher VC both in Australia and Ireland. The Military Historical Society of Australia. Dr Richard E Reid, Australian War Memorial, The National Archives of Australia. Ex Corporal Reg Fletcher MM. The family of the late Reg Rattey VC. Richard & Doug Arman, Dr Chris Noon and Neil Hutton of Ireland.
The Richard Kelliher VC. Memorial Park. Photographed by Harry Willey 2003.
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