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Hobson, Phillip Oliver (1922–2006)

by John Farquharson

As a war photographer Phillip Hobson may not be as familiar as the likes of Damian Parer, George Silk, Neil Davis and Frank Hurley, but he deserves to stand with them for his graphic images of Australians in action in the Korean War.

The Australian War Memorial certainly places a high value on his work. It holds an extensive collection of his Korean War photographs, two of which have been permanently etched into a wall in the new Korean War Memorial in Canberra. Many of his photographs have also been used in books on the Korean campaign, including the official history.

Hobson, who has died of heart failure in Tathra, on the NSW South Coast, aged 84, has been described by Korean War veterans as, ‘indefatigable and courageous under fire’ in capturing ‘a treasure of action photos depicting every facet of the [Korean] war and the most intimate details of our Diggers’ life in combat’.

Born in the Sydney suburb of Summer Hill on 25 September 1922, he worked briefly as a Commonwealth Bank teller before enlisting in the army in February 1942. He served in Papua New Guinea with the 55th and 53rd Infantry Battalions, seeing action in the savage battles of Sanananda and Gona. After further action in Bougainville, he served with the force that re-occupied Rabaul in September 1945. On being posted to Moratai, he joined the 67th Infantry Battalion which, as 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, formed part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces (BCOF) in Japan in 1946.

After some study the seasoned infantryman became the Battalion’s official photographer. In this role he covered all the major activities of the Battalion. He even managed to get a picture of Japan’s reclusive Emperor Hirohito. In October 1949, Hobson transferred to Army Public Relations at BCOF headquarters in Kure. This meant an increased demand on his photographic services, as he was covering all BCOF activities as well as supplying Australian newspapers.

In September 1950, Hobson was sent as official photographer with the first Australian ground forces (3rd Battalion RAR), committed to the Korean War, which had broken out in June that year. Over the next five years he visited Korea for three or four-month periods, commuting between Japan and whatever part of Korea Australians were in action. In all, he made 17 visits to the front, covering the service of 1st, 2nd and 3rd RAR. To facilitate processing and distribution of his pictures to Australian and overseas newspapers, Hobson set up a photographic laboratory in Tokyo with Japanese staff. So as to more readily communicate with his Japanese staff, he learnt to speak Japanese.

August 1955 saw Hobson back in Australia being briefed at Army Public Relations headquarters in Melbourne for a tour of duty covering 2nd Battalion RAR then engaged with Commonwealth forces in suppressing the communist insurgency in Malaya. To speed up the handling of pictures, Hobson again set up a photographic laboratory in Singapore before resigning from the army in 1958, with the rank of WO2, to work as a freelance photographer with a news film distributor.

After returning to Australia with his wife and son in 1959, he was hired as a film cameraman by Tony Eggleton, then in charge of the ABC’s television news bureau in Melbourne. When Eggleton left the ABC in 1960 to establish the Navy’s new PR unit, he persuaded Hobson to join him in Canberra in setting up the Navy’s first civilian film unit. Eggleton, who considers Hobson ‘a pioneer in television news coverage and the development of naval public relations’, says he was ‘a much respected cameraman and photographer’ and covered naval operations in many situations, particularly the annual SEATO ( South-East Asian Treaty Organisation) exercises. While with the Navy, he also covered royal visits, floods and bushfires. Later, when the three services combined under the Defence Department he made documentaries for the department’s newly formed film unit, which won several awards in overseas film festivals.

Upon retiring in 1981, Hobson lived in Berridale where he took up cross-country skiing and competed in 14 Kosciusko Alpine Club Martini races – said to be the largest such event in the southern hemisphere. He also spent time down-hill skiing and bush walking in the high country.

His first wife, Rae, died in 1968. He remarried in 1999 and in more recent years spent a good deal of his time at Tathra, where his second wife, Nancye, bought a home.

For an infantryman turned photographer, Phillip Hobson quickly became skilled in still photography and in the use of the cine-camera, with the most impressive images of his large output being those from the Korean War. They form a valuable visual record of a conflict, often dubbed Australia’s ‘forgotten war’.

He is survived by his second wife, Nancye, his son, Will, from his first marriage, two stepdaughters and their families.

Phillip Oliver Hobson, born 25 September 1922; died 11 October 2006.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 2 December 2006
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 2006
  • Age (Melbourne), 15 November 2006

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Hobson, Phillip Oliver (1922–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hobson-phillip-oliver-497/text498, accessed 10 May 2021.

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