Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kelliher, Richard (1910–1963)

by Richard E. Reid

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Richard Kelliher (1910-1963), by unknown photographer

Richard Kelliher (1910-1963), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 068155

Richard Kelliher (1910-1963), soldier and gardener, was born on 1 September 1910 at Ballybranagh, near Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland, son of Michael Kelliher, labourer, and his wife Mary Anne, née Talbot. Dick attended technical college at Tralee and worked as a mechanic in his brother's garage. In 1929 he emigrated to Brisbane with his 15-year-old sister Norah. She later said that, although he was good natured and 'not a very big fellow', he 'wouldn't take it if anyone were nasty'. During the Depression he worked at a variety of jobs: he was sacristan at St Stephen's Cathedral before moving to the country where he was employed as a farmhand. Sickness dogged him, and he contracted typhoid and meningitis.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 21 February 1941, Kelliher sailed for the Middle East and was assigned to the 2nd/25th Battalion in October. He performed garrison duties in Syria and returned to Australia in March 1942. Six months later he was with his unit in Papua, helping to drive the Japanese from Ioribaiwa to Gona. Back home from January 1943, he was admitted to hospital with malaria in June. He was again sent to Papua in August. Next month he was based at Nadzab, New Guinea, whence the 2nd/25th advanced towards Lae.

On 13 September, near Heath's plantation, Kelliher's platoon came under heavy fire from a concealed Japanese machine-gun post. Five men were killed and three wounded, among them the section leader Corporal Billy Richards. On his own initiative, Kelliher dashed towards the post, hurled two grenades at the enemy and killed some of them, but was forced back to his own lines. Seizing a Bren-gun, he ran to within 30 yards (27 m) of the machine-gun nest and silenced it with accurate shooting. He then crawled out under enemy rifle-fire and dragged Richards to safety, probably saving his life. Kelliher was awarded the Victoria Cross.

After further spells in hospital with malaria, he was sent to Brisbane in November and posted to the 11th Australian Advanced Workshop next month. He took part in his old battalion's march through the city on 8 August 1944 and was discharged from the A.I.F. on 20 August 1945. In 1946 he was selected in the Australian contingent for the victory parade in London. King George VI presented him with his V.C.; the Kelliher family from County Kerry attended the investiture. Kelliher returned to London in 1953 for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and in 1956 for the V.C. centenary celebrations. On each occasion he visited Tralee.

At Epworth Lodge, Bowen Hills, Brisbane, on 30 August 1949 Kelliher had married with Methodist forms Olive Margaret Hearn, a 19-year-old machinist. They moved to Melbourne where he worked as a gardener. He died of cerebral thrombosis on 28 January 1963 in the Repatriation General Hospital, Heidelberg, and was buried in Springvale cemetery with Catholic rites and military honours; his wife, son and two daughters survived him. Olive remarried. In 1966 she sold Kelliher's V.C. and campaign medals to his battalion association which donated them to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily (Canb, 1963)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 15 Jan 1944
  • Herald (Melbourne), 31 Jan 1963
  • Canberra Times, 10 Sept 1966
  • war diary, 2/25th Battalion (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Richard E. Reid, 'Kelliher, Richard (1910–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kelliher-richard-10672/text18969, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Richard Kelliher (1910-1963), by unknown photographer

Richard Kelliher (1910-1963), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 068155