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Oom, Karl Erik (1904–1972)

by J. S. Compton

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

Karl Erik Oom (1904-1972), by unknown photographer

Karl Erik Oom (1904-1972), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 305299

Karl Erik Oom (1904-1972), naval officer, was born on 27 May 1904 at Chatswood, Sydney, fourth child of Gustaf Peter Ludwig August Oom, a draftsman from Sweden, and his English-born wife May Isabel, née Le Guay. In 1918 Karl entered the Royal Australian Naval College, Jervis Bay, Federal Capital Territory, as a cadet midshipman. Noted for his individuality and physical fitness, he graduated in 1921. He trained at sea and completed courses in England before returning to Australia in March 1926.

Commencing his career in the R.A.N.'s Hydrographic Branch, Oom joined the survey ship, H.M.A.S. Moresby, in May that year. In July 1927 he was promoted lieutenant. He gained respect for his initiative and ability to handle boats, and for the speed and accuracy of his work. These qualities led to his selection as a member of Sir Douglas Mawson's British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (1930-31), on which his surveys and cartography proved valuable.

In 1932-34 Oom was on loan to the Royal Navy, serving in H.M.S. Challenger. He spent most of the next five years either aboard H.M.A.S. Moresby or with detached boat-parties, surveying Torres Strait and the seas off Queensland, the Northern Territory, Papua and the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Again with the R.N. in 1939, he was posted to H.M.S. Franklin. On 17 June that year at the register office, Hammersmith, London, he married Evelyn Margaret Stewart Mocatta, née Jeffrey, a 29-year-old divorcee; they were to remain childless. From February 1941 to January 1942 he commanded H.M.S. Gleaner and performed well in anti-submarine and escort operations in the North Sea.

Returning to Australia, Oom was posted to command H.M.A.S. Whyalla in November 1942. He was ordered to produce reliable charts for ships involved in the allied offensives in Papua and New Guinea. While off Cape Nelson, Papua, on 2 January 1943, Whyalla was repeatedly bombed. Spray from near misses washed survey sheets and the plotting-board over the ship's side; the work had to be immediately and painstakingly redone. Oom transferred to Shepparton in May 1943 and was promoted commander in June.

Two months later he was appointed officer-in-charge of the Hydrographic Branch and commander, Task Group 70.5, which was responsible for survey operations in the South-West Pacific Area. He sailed in various ships to find and mark safe passages for allied landings in New Guinea, the Philippines and Borneo. For his achievements he won the Gill memorial award of the Royal Geographical Society, London, in 1945, and was appointed O.B.E. and to the United States of America's Legion of Merit in the same year. In March 1945 he conducted a survey off Zamboanga, Philippines, under enemy fire for which he was awarded the U.S.A.'s Bronze Star Medal (1947).

After the war, Oom helped to formulate a new policy by which the Naval Board—through the senior officer, Hydrographic Service—became the charting authority for waters around Australia and the Territory of Papua-New Guinea. From May 1946 he commanded H.M.A.S. Warrego. In November 1947 he was appointed to command H.M.A.S. Wyatt Earp and to take charge of Antarctic surveys. Captain W. F. Cook described him as a self-assured, imperturbable and splendid seaman, with an impish sense of humour; in other regards Cook found him an enigmatic man who kept his own counsel.

From April 1948 Oom again headed the Hydrographic Branch. He was passed over for promotion to captain in 1951 and in December returned to sea in Warrego. In poor health, he was posted ashore in February 1952 and invalided from the navy on 30 October. A widower, he married Jean Miriam Kearney, née Wells, a 42-year-old divorcee, on 14 March 1955 at the registrar general's office, Sydney. They retired to the south coast. Oom suffered from cirrhosis of the liver. He died of pulmonary thrombosis on 22 June 1972 at his Turlinjah home and was buried with Anglican rites in Moruya cemetery. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • F. B. Eldridge, A History of the Royal Australian Naval College (Melb, 1949)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945 (Canb, 1968)
  • A. Savours, The Voyages of the Discovery (Lond, 1992)
  • R. J. Hardstaff, Leadline to Laser (Syd, 1995)
  • P. G. Law, The Antarctic Voyage of HMAS Wyatt Earp (Syd, 1995)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 14 Apr 1945, 8 Nov 1947
  • Navy (Sydney), Jan 1948, p 12, May 1949, p 18
  • People (Sydney), 15 July 1953, p 17
  • Naval Historical Review, Dec 1978, p 5
  • A3978/10, K. E. Oom (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. S. Compton, 'Oom, Karl Erik (1904–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oom-karl-erik-11309/text20187, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 16 December 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 15

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