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Howard Frederick Dillon (1939–2009)

by Malcolm Brown

When Howard Dillon served as chaplain to the Australian Task Force in South Vietnam, he saw some dreadfully injured men brought into the First Military Hospital at Vung Tau, including one who had had his leg blown off. The man held Dillon's hand and asked pleadingly: ''Padre, was it worth all this?''

Dillon, who served 12 months in Vietnam as part of his seven years of military service, had to find an answer. But as with most answers to questions during that war, it was difficult.

For the other six years of his full-time military service, Dillon headed the Army Character Training Program, which had originated from lessons learnt in the Korean War, when it was found that in the extremes of combat stress, some men lacked a spiritual reserve.

Dillon headed the course first at Puckapunyal in Victoria, then Sydney. He exhorted the Christian way of life to 15,000 national servicemen and thousands of regular army personnel, and reshaped the character training program, breaking new ground for the role of the chaplaincy.

Howard Frederick Dillon was born on August 28, 1939, son of Canon Rudolph Dillon, who at the time was rector of St Luke's, Clovelly, and his wife, Gladys. Canon Dillon gave him the Christian name after the then Archbishop of Sydney, the Most Reverend Sydney Howard Mowell. Howard was the third of three brothers and had a younger sister.

When Howard was a mere toddler in 1942 his father enlisted in the 2nd AIF to serve as chaplain in the New Guinea islands. The family moved to Manly and attended St Matthew's. His brother Peter recalls that at the end of Morning Prayer, when the choir walked down the main aisle, followed by the rector, the Reverend A. R. Ebbs, the young Dillon would ''detach himself from us, put his hand into the hand of Mr Ebbs and together, with great aplomb, they would move to the west doors''.

When Canon Dillon returned from the war, the family moved to parishes at Katoomba and Campsie. Howard went to St Andrew's Cathedral School where he became a chorister. He later went to Canterbury Boys High, where he was a contemporary of John Howard, the future prime minister. Dillon, handicapped by short sight, was not a natural sportsman but did become a registered football referee. For the Leaving Certificate he undertook five languages: English, French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He entered the University of Sydney, graduated, then went to Moore Theological College.

As a catechist at St Alban's, Belmore, Dillon met Aileen Phillips, fell in love and when he got his appointment to St Stephen's, Willoughby, married. At St Stephen's, Dillon was to be very busy supporting the rector, Archdeacon Alan Begbie, who was also chaplain-general to the Australian Army. Dillon saw the need and volunteered his services. During his year's service in South Vietnam, Dillon travelled the length and breadth of that country, ministering to small groups of soldiers, the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, who were serving as advisers to Vietnamese units. One of those he gave support to during a critical period was Victoria Cross winner, Warrant Officer Keith Payne.

In 1973, after his military service, Dillon was appointed rector of St Jude's, Bowral. He transferred into the Active Army Reserve. Dillon was deeply affected by the suffering he saw in Vietnam. He believed the highest calling in his ministry was to show compassion and empathy with the distressed and suffering.

When he accepted a parish appointment in Melbourne, he became a leader of the Mission to St James and St John, caring for the underprivileged. He also became chaplain to the Melbourne University Regiment and senior army chaplain for Victoria, where he was promoted to the equivalent rank of lieutenant-colonel. Elected as a member of the General Synod, Dillon served as a member of the synod's Defence Force Board, giving advice to the then chaplain-general and bishop of the armed forces, Ken Short, and Short's successor, Adrian Charles.

Returning to Sydney as a canon, Dillon became chief executive of Anglicare but the cumulative stress of his year in Vietnam took its toll. He contracted cancer and it has been pointed out that the frequency with which chaplain veterans of the Vietnam War contracted cancer or similar diseases is far greater than that of the ordinary population. Howard Dillon is survived by Aileen, children Andrew, Alison and Jonathan, and four grandchildren.

Original publication

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Dillon, Howard Frederick (1939–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 August, 1939
Clovelly, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


29 July, 2009 (aged 69)
New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

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.

Military Service