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White, Osmar Egmont (1909–1991)

by Richard Trembath

This article was published online in 2018

Osmar White, Herald and Weekly Times Ltd Collection, c.1960

Osmar White, Herald and Weekly Times Ltd Collection, c.1960

State Library of Victoria, 49347033

Osmar Egmont Dorkin White (1909-1991), war correspondent and journalist, was born on 2 April 1909 at Feilding, New Zealand, only child of English-born Hubert Edgar White, commercial traveller, and his locally born wife Mary Grace, née Downey. The family moved to Queensland when Osmar was five and he attended primary school at Toowoomba. By 1916 they had relocated to Katoomba, New South Wales, where he continued his education at the local intermediate high school (class dux, 1920 and 1922).

From the age of seventeen White wrote short stories, sometimes under pseudonyms, that were widely published in Australia, the United Kingdom, and later the United States of America. In 1927 he commenced his journalism career with the Cumberland Times (Parramatta) and briefly studied at the University of Sydney. He then had stints at the Parkes Post and the Wagga Wagga Advertiser, and contributed articles to the Sydney Daily Telegraph as a district reporter. His lifelong taste for travel began with trips to the Mandated Territory of New Guinea and to China in the early 1930s. By 1934 he had returned to New Zealand and was soon working for the Taranaki Daily News. Three years later he was editor of the New Zealand Radio Record. On 23 July 1937 he married Olive Mary (Mollie) Allen, a journalist, at St Mary’s Anglican Church, New Plymouth.

In 1938 White accepted a position as a reporter with the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd newspaper group in Melbourne. He planned to enlist for service in World War II, but the managing director, Sir Keith Murdoch, convinced him to become an HWT war correspondent instead. White was posted to Port Moresby in early 1942. His wiry rock-climbing physique and prior knowledge of the New Guinea landscape made him well-suited to the task of reporting from the front line. In his early articles he called for Australian soldiers to improve their jungle-fighting skills in order to defeat the Japanese, such outspokenness not always endearing him to the military authorities. His experiences with Kanga Force outside Japanese-occupied Lae and Salamaua, and then his time on the Kokoda Track, formed the basis for his best-known book, Green Armour, which was published to critical acclaim in 1945.

From early 1943 White had been attached to United States forces in the South Pacific. In July Japanese bombing of Rendova Harbour, New Georgia (Solomon Islands), left him severely wounded in his legs and feet. He claimed the sympathetic intervention of an American officer, who secured him skilled medical attention, saved his limbs from amputation. Restored to work after extensive rehabilitation in the United States and Britain, he accompanied the Third US Army in Western Europe from 1944. In Germany he witnessed the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945, and in France the Nazi surrender at Reims on 7 May. His account of his European experiences, Conquerors Road, was completed by 1946 but would not appear in print until 1996.

After the war White resumed regular reporting in Melbourne. An important contribution was his work in the mid-1950s with the Melbourne Herald on the ‘Jill’ case, exposing poor conditions within Victoria’s mental health system. Despite the long-term effects of his wartime injuries he continued to travel. In late 1957 and early 1958 he accompanied an Australian National Research Expedition voyage and reported on their work in Antarctic waters. A year later (December 1958-June 1959) he was seconded to the Federal Department of External Affairs to tour and write on Australia’s Colombo Plan activities in Asia. Following his formal retirement in 1963 he produced a stream of books: novels; commissions for organisations, such as the National Bank of Australasia; works reflecting his continued interest in Papua New Guinea; and children’s books—with strong Australian associations—which were well received at the time. He also wrote radio, television, and play scripts.

White’s great achievements were his wartime journalism and his two war books. They are critical where necessary, devoid of excess patriotism, and marked by an appreciation of how the natural environment (such as the New Guinea jungle) could hinder any army. He believed the Australian soldier needed ‘no fictions nor propaganda to justify him as a fighting man’ (1987, 208). A long-time pipe smoker, he later suffered from chronic obstructive airways disease and lung cancer. On 16 May 1991 he died in Fairfield Hospital and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, and their two daughters, one of whom, Sally, would follow him into journalism. In 2013 he was inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Anderson, Fay, and Richard Trembath. Witnesses to War: The History of Australian Conflict Reporting. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2011
  • National Library of Australia. MS Acc06.177 and MS Acc07.141, Papers of Osmar White, c. 1930-2005
  • White, Osmar. Conquerors Road. Edited by Sally A. White and Neil McDonald. Sydney: HarperPerennial, 1996
  • White, Osmar. Green Armour. First published 1945. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Books, 1987
  • White, Osmar. Interview by Peter Jepperson, 14 October 1990. Transcript. Keith Murdoch Sound Archive of Australia in the War of 1939-45. Australian War Memorial
  • White, Sally. Interview by the author, 13 December 2016

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Richard Trembath, 'White, Osmar Egmont (1909–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-osmar-egmont-27040/text34513, published online 2018, accessed online 27 April 2019.

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