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Rex Blow (1917–2000)

by Lynette Ramsay Silver

This article was published online in 2023

Rex Blow (1917–2000), army officer, colonial administrator, and plantation manager, was born on 13 November 1917 at Grafton, New South Wales, fifth of nine children of New South Wales-born parents Alexander Mitchell Blow, storekeeper, and his wife Ethel Maude, née Hall. Educated at the local primary and high schools (1930–34), Rex began competitive swimming by the age of nine and became the junior high and then senior school champion, winning the open mile, 880-yard, 440-yard and 100-yard breaststroke events. He also performed creditably on the academic front, notably in chemistry, physics, and technical drawing. In August 1934 his father sold his business and the family moved to Brisbane, where Rex obtained employment as a clerk with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. He continued competitive swimming and soon made a name for himself at the Valley Swimming Club, which predicted ‘a brilliant future’ for their rising star (Telegraph 1934, 18). In 1938 he was a champion surf-racer and a State swimming champion, breaking the Queensland 800-metre record. At the national titles, he came third in the 800 metres. He stood five feet eleven inches (180 cm) tall and had brown hair, green eyes, and a fair complexion.

Having narrowly missed selection to represent Australia at the Pacific Surf Games in Hawaii in June 1939, and with the Olympic Games scheduled for Tokyo in 1940, Blow looked set for further sporting success when World War II intervened. On 3 November 1939 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and was posted to the 2/5th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery. Commissioned in July 1940 as a lieutenant, he was transferred to the 2/10th Field Regiment, with which he sailed to Singapore in February 1941. While stationed at Malacca, Malaya (Malaysia), he met Diana Mary Wiseman, daughter of a prominent British expatriate, whom he married on 16 August 1941 at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore. On 8 December Japan invaded Malaya. He saw action there and in Singapore, before becoming a prisoner of war (POW) when the Allied forces surrendered on 15 February 1942.

After spending several months with a POW working party erecting a memorial to Japanese war dead at Bukit Timah, in March 1943 Blow was placed on a draft of about 500 Australians sent to Sandakan, British North Borneo (Sabah). In June he and seven others escaped in boats from a temporary camp at the entrance to Sandakan harbour. They reached nearby Tawi Tawi Island, where they joined United States forces in the Philippines, and engaged in guerrilla warfare against the occupying Japanese. Appointed commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 125th Infantry Regiment, and then chief of staff in the 108th Infantry Division (Philippine Commonwealth Army), he led many successful actions and, in 1944, was promoted to captain, then temporary major. On 3 April he led an attack that was halted by heavy machine-gun fire from strongly entrenched enemy forces. Exposing himself to fire, he climbed a coconut tree to direct mortar barrages that forced the enemy to retreat. For his courage and inspirational leadership, he was awarded both the Silver Star by the United States Army and the British (Imperial) Distinguished Service Order.

On 29 April 1945, following the reoccupation of the Philippines by US forces, Blow returned to Australia where, on 7 June, he was seconded to Special Operations Australia, a covert organisation operating behind enemy lines. His first assignment was to attempt to contact surviving POWs at the Sandakan camp, thought to have been abandoned by the Japanese in April. The recovery on 14 June of an escaped POW revealed that up to 300 prisoners might still be there. Six days later he flew to Morotai. In the hope of effecting rescue, he and Signaller Baragwanath Schinckel penetrated the area, about twenty-five miles (40 km) west of the camp.

A villager informed Blow that the Sandakan camp had been completely burnt and that he had seen prisoners marching west in the direction of Ranau. Following the trail for a short distance, he came across several corpses of POWs. Convinced there were no surviving prisoners in the area, he stopped his search and returned to Morotai. None of those left at the Sandakan camp survived the war. In mid-July he re-entered British North Borneo to collect intelligence until the war ended in August. He then participated in mopping-up operations with local guerrillas. An attachment from late November to the British Borneo Civil Affairs Unit finished when his AIF appointment was terminated on 2 March 1947, and he was transferred to the Reserve of Officers. He was mentioned in dispatches for his service in Borneo.

Subsequently entering the British colonial service (later the overseas civil service), Blow was appointed a district officer in British North Borneo, working at Lahad Datu, Beaufort, Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu), and in the early 1950s at Kota Belud. By 1964 he was operating a cocoa fermentary at Sabah Plantation, Bougainville, which he possessed for the rest of his life. He lived there into the 1970s, making numerous trips to Australia for business and holidays over the years. Diana died at the plantation in 1977 and three years later Blow was living at Bright, Victoria, with his second wife Jean Muriel. On 8 May 1984 he married Sonja Gertrud Walsh (née Marot) at the Court House, Swan Hill, Victoria. They had a son and daughter. Late in life he became a primary producer. Survived by Sonja and his three children, he died at Templestowe, Melbourne, on 29 December 2000. His ashes were scattered at Springvale Botanical cemetery.

Research edited by Matthew Cunneen

Select Bibliography

  • Blow, Rex. Interview by Tim Bowden and Hank Nelson, 10 September 1983. Australian War Memorial
  • Blow, Rex. Memoir. Unpublished manuscript, c. 1980. Private collection
  • Blow, Rex. ‘With the Filipino Guerillas.’ Stand-To 8, no. 3 (September-October 1963): 1–6
  • Braithwaite, Richard Wallace. Fighting Monsters: An Intimate History of the Sandakan Tragedy. North Melbourne, Vic.: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016
  • Goodwin, Bob. Mates and Memories, Recollections of the 2/10th Field Regiment. Moorooka, Qld: Boolarong Press, 1995
  • Horsley, Rex. ‘Rex Blow Returns.’ Brisbane Telegraph, 17 November 1948, 19
  • National Archives of Australia. A3269, A5/A
  • National Archives of Australia. A3269, H1
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX4648
  • Ross, Sheila. And Tomorrow Freedom. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989
  • Silver, Lynette Ramsay. Blood Brothers: Sabah and Australia 1942–1945. Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia: Opus publications, 2010
  • Silver, Lynette Ramsay. Sandakan: A Conspiracy of Silence. Rev. 4th ed. Binda, NSW: Sally Milner Publishing, 2011
  • Smith, Kevin. Escapes and Incursions. Armidale, NSW: Kevin Smith, 2006
  • The Straits Times, 6 March 1948, 6
  • The Telegraph (Brisbane), 30 November 1934, 18
  • Truscott, James. ‘What Did You Do during the (Covert) War?’ Commando News 8 (August 2016): 1–44

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Lynette Ramsay Silver, 'Blow, Rex (1917–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blow-rex-32764/text40741, published online 2023, accessed online 14 April 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Rex Blow, 1945

Rex Blow, 1945

Australian War Memorial, 072918

Life Summary [details]

Birth

13 November, 1917
Grafton, New South Wales, Australia

Death

29 December, 2000 (aged 83)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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