Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Kirby, John William (1935–1967)

by Ashley Ekins and Ian McNeill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

John William Kirby (1935-1967), soldier, was born on 11 February 1935 in Sydney, only child of Australian-born parents John Edward Kirby, dealer, and his wife Alice Kathleene, née Casson. Young Jack was raised at Lewisham and attended Petersham Presbyterian Church where he was a leader in the Boys' Brigade. He was apprenticed to a motor mechanic and rose to sergeant in the Citizen Military Forces' regimental cadets.

Enlisting in the Australian Regular Army on 18 May 1953, Kirby served in the Republic of (South) Korea with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, in 1954-55. He was in Malaya with 3RAR in 1957-59, for part of the Emergency. Corporal Kirby was mentioned in the press in May 1959 for his bravery in leading three men on a forced march to obtain supplies for comrades at a remote jungle camp. On 10 June 1961 at St John Vianney's Catholic Church, Manly, Queensland, he married Beverley Anne Bailey, an assistant-chemist; they were to remain childless. Promoted sergeant that year, he served as an instructor (1963-65) at the Far East Land Forces Jungle Warfare School at Kota Tinggi, Johore, Malaysia. In June 1964 and March-April 1965 he was detached for service in Sarawak, Borneo.

Kirby was posted to 6RAR in July 1965 and promoted temporary warrant officer, class two, in March 1966. The battalion began a tour of duty in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in June, operating from Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province. Appointed company sergeant major to 'D' Company, Kirby soon became popular with national servicemen and regular soldiers alike; they respected him for his experience and abilities, and affectionately nicknamed him 'Big Jack'.

On 18 August 1966, while on patrol in a dense rubber plantation, the 108 men of 'D' Company encountered a formation of People's Liberation Armed Forces (Viet Cong) and North Vietnamese regular troops, estimated at 2500 in number. In the resulting three-hour 'fire-fight', later known as the battle of Long Tan, Kirby was a mainstay of the besieged Australians. Under continuous fire, he moved among the soldiers, distributing ammunition, organizing the collection and evacuation of the wounded, steadying and encouraging the men and even joking with them on occasions. At one stage he rushed from the company's defensive position and silenced an enemy machine-gun post being set up 50 metres from the perimeter. Immediately after the battle Sergeant Jim Myles, who arrived with the relief force, encountered Kirby carrying two Australian casualties—one over each shoulder. For his bravery and leadership, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

During Operation Tamborine misdirected artillery rounds from the 161st New Zealand Field Battery landed on 'D' Company's position on 6 February 1967. Kirby was hit in the chest and died before he could be evacuated. Private Ron Eglinton recalled: 'He was a big, gruff, heavy man, a real father figure to us all and he was dead . . . It was just so bloody pointless'. Kirby's remains were returned to Australia and cremated with Presbyterian forms. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Burstall, The Soldiers' Story (Brisb, 1986)
  • L. McAulay, The Battle of Long Tan (Melb, 1986)
  • S. Rintoul, Ashes of Vietnam (Melb, 1987)
  • I. McNeill, To Long Tan (Syd, 1993)
  • I. McNeill with A. Ekins, A Province for a Battlefield (Syd, 1998)
  • Australian, 18 Aug 1988, special edn.

Citation details

Ashley Ekins and Ian McNeill, 'Kirby, John William (1935–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kirby-john-william-10750/text19055, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 1 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014