Obituaries Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: use double quotes to search for a phrase
  • Tip: lists of awards, schools, organisations etc

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Henry Preston (Harry) Black (1919–2010)

by John Farquharson

For a boy forced to leave school at 15 to support his family through the Great Depression, Harry Black, who has died in Bermagui, aged 91, proved that doors were not closed to anyone who could prove his worth despite a lack of formal education. An early interest in bush walking, along with his wartime experiences led to a life of high adventure.

This happened through RAAF pilot training, work as a YMCA welfare officer in the New Guinea campaigns of World War II, leadership of the 1956 and 1960 Australian parties to Antarctica and public relations work with the National Capital Development Commission and the CSIRO.

All of this does not take into account formation and establishment of bushwalking groups, cross-country skiing, teaching Indian soldiers to ski cross-country, or leading ski tours and treks into Kashmir and Nepal. He was also commentator on the first and 16 subsequent Antarctic sight-seeing flights from Australia.

He met and talked with Australia's three greatest polar heroes - Sir Douglas Mawson, Sir Hubert Wilkins and Captain John King Davis, who commanded the Nimrod, the ship that twice took Mawson to the Antarctic.

Henry Black, or Harry, as he was always known, was born on April 20, 1919, in Dulwich Hill, the eldest of six boys born to Newry Preston Black and his wife Cora (nee Bullivant). He left Canterbury High School aged 15 to help support the family during the Depression, and worked for the Hospitals Contribution Fund. After joining the YMCA, he founded and was the first president of the YMCA Ramblers Bushwalking Club, which is still going today.

In late 1939 he enlisted in the army (55th Militia Battalion), but in 1940 he decided he would be more useful in the RAAF. Accepted by the RAAF, he was told he would have to wait for a year before he would be wanted. Called up in 1941, he learnt to fly with the second intake into Benalla, Victoria. But when in Canada to complete his advanced training as a fighter pilot, it was found he had a congenital problem that made him airsick in cockpit aircraft spins. He was sent back to Australia where he wanted to join the army, but the RAAF refused to release him.

Due to the intervention of the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, the RAAF let him go to take up an offer from the YMCA to become a welfare officer in Papua New Guinea where he arrived in 1942. He went to Sanananda, where one of the bloodiest battles of the New Guinea campaign was fought. Harry took up a position just back from the frontline. From a makeshift hut he handed out to Australian soldiers, back from the frontline a cake of soap, a cuppa and pen and paper to write home to loved ones.

Sanananda fell in late January 1943 and in April 1943, Harry was on the Bulldog track the supply route from Bulldog to Wau. This was through some of the harshest country in the land. It was a week of hard travel, with appalling hills. Ridge after ridge. Harry did this three times before being appointed to Number 1 Australian Parachute Battalion, commanded by (Sir) John Overall, who later headed the National Capital Development Commission in Canberra. In late 1944 he joined the 6th Division's 19th Brigade (2/11th Battalion), which captured Wewak.

Returning to Australia in August 1945, he joined the staff of the YMCA and in 1948 he was appointed general secretary of the YMCA in Canberra. There he established Camp Sturt on the Murrumbidgee River, and started the YMCA Ski Club in 1951. Later he organised the Canberra Speleology Club, the Canberra Bushwalking Club and the ACT Basket Ball Association. For his YMCA work he was awarded the 1953 Coronation Medal.

After applying to the Antarctic Division of External Affairs, he was selected as Officer-in-Charge of the expedition to Macquarie Island in 1956 for the International Geophysical Year from July 1, 1957 to July 1958. He led a 14-men team there for 18 months, during which they established ozone depletion of the upper atmosphere. In 1959 Harry went to Wilkes Base as Officer-in-Charge. While there he invented a novel blizzard mask, using, thick Perspex, which was far superior to the American and Australian models then in use. It made outside work less stressful.

He also devised a navigation system so you could go straight in Antarctica, where there is nothing to give a reference point — it is just ice and snow. He got a shaving mirror, fixed it in front of the driver, outside the vehicle. He then got another mirror, which was hinged up above that and then a welding rod vertically in the back of the vehicle with a line down the centre of the shaving mirror, all in a very precise longitudinal axis of the vehicle. It worked perfectly. The Americans had spent thousands of dollars trying to develop such a system without success. He wrote reports on it and the blizzard mask for the Scott Polar Institute at Cambridge University and was awarded the Polar Medal. Later he was presented with the Russian Polar Medal at a ceremony at the Prime Minister's lodge.

At the suggestion of Dr Philip Law, head of the Antarctic Division, Black took on the glaciology work at Wilkes. On his return to Australia, this led him to lecturing at Melbourne University for eight months. From station S2, 80km east of Wilkes base, he led a five-man team that penetrated 640km (400 miles) due south. This laid the groundwork for the Thompson expedition two years later to carry out the longest Australian traverse in history 2880km (1800 miles), using Black's navigational system.

Back in Canberra without a job, he went to see Sir John Overall at NCDC, where he worked as public relations officer for four years. In 1965 he became the first press officer for the CSIRO, then adviser on community relations to the executive, finally retiring after more than two years with the Centre for International Research Co-operation, which coordinates CSIRO aid to developing nations.

In 1975 he was leading a cross-country ski tour in Kashmir when the commanding officer of the Indian Army's High Altitude Warfare School asked him to train his soldiers "to walk straight up the slopes on skis". He was told that he and his friends had made history by introducing Nordic techniques to the Himalayas. Later Dick Smith asked Harry to be the commentator on the first sight-seeing flight to the Antarctic. In all he completed 16 such flights. At Mt Twynam, near Kosciusko he and Dr Joe Jennings, of Canberra, completed experiments, which showed a glacier had once been there.

Harry retired to the South Coast to 5.2 hectares of bushland at Fairhaven, near Bermagui. There he created and orchard in a frost-free micro-climate. The CSIRO established that he had a "warm corner" on his property that enabled him to grow tropical and subtropical fruits. He reviewed books for the Canberra Times for 20 years and became a well-known South Coast identity.

His wife, Eva (nee Webster) who he married in 1941 predeceased him in 1985. He later married Catherine Munro, but they separated in 1994 and he divorced her in 1996. His three sons, Lance, Ian and Robert and a daughter, Carole, and Brother Geoffrey and their families survive him.

Henry Preston ("Harry") Black, born April 20, 1919; died June 27, 2010.

Original publication

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Black, Henry Preston (Harry) (1919–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024