This is the true story of Len Opie — a soldier cast in the image of Anzac, and revered in the post-World War II military as a peerless fighter, he stands alone in the Australian army pantheon. But he was also a paradox. Opie was a cold-eyed killer but drank nothing stronger than weak tea, never smoked and seldom swore. He killed people with his bare hands, a sharpened shovel and piano wire, but in civilian life he liked nothing better than a well put together model railway. Killing humans didn’t bother him, but beware anyone who mistreated a prisoner or hurt an animal in his presence. He had loner tendencies and never married, but loved the company of women. He was a larrikin, yet went by the book — unless he decided the book was wrong. He set his own bar high and expected others to do the same. Those who crossed him risked the Opie evil eye, the pointed bone of his hex. Kill or be killed was Opie’s mantra; he did a lot of killing and died of natural causes as an old man.
This, the first Opie biography, is based on his diary, a diary in which he revealed the army’s many faults. His story is populated with as many fiascos and fools as it is bronzed heroes of Anzac. As such, Opie demolishes myths and demonises false worship. In this we see his unstinting devotion to the truth.
Born in Snowtown, South Australia, in 1923, Opie was an unremarkable student who revelled in the cadets and went train-watching when he should have been doing his homework. Through three wars, the quiet kid with the train set grew into one of the most decorated soldiers in the nation’s history. He enlisted as soon as he was of age, and fought the Japanese in New Guinea and Borneo. But he wanted more, so he then signed up for Korea. Here he emerged from the ranks to almost singlehandedly seize a fortified hill, excel in the epic Battle of Kapyong, and, as a company sergeant major, play a key role at the Battle of Maryang San – which some call the Australian infantry’s finest hour. He became the king of no man’s land and master of the solo patrol. Opie was the digger at peak evolution — a brigadier said he was Australia’s finest soldier in Korea.
As a member of the highly decorated Australian Army Training Team Vietnam, Opie was seconded by the CIA as it lurched towards Watergate. He shared barracks with Bay of Pigs veterans as together they trained South Vietnamese locals in the messy art of war. Opie’s strict methods were not always popular with the South Vietnamese officers, especially the one who tried to kill him. After training a Montagnard force formed especially to fight on the Ho Chi Minh trail, Opie was transferred to the CIA’s black ops program — Phoenix. As the program’s head of training, Opie was at the heart of the American counterinsurgency war in Vietnam. Some believe his CIA association continued after the Vietnam War.
Today, Opie is highly regarded by the generals he trained, and respected by the martinets he tackled. When he was finally discharged, to Opie’s great disappointment, he had 19 medals, a stack of friends in high places and a pining for the army that lasted the rest of his life. He was forever pleading to be let loose on the Russians or Iraqis or the Taliban.
When he died, in September 2008, the front-line diggers named an Afghanistan observation post after their mighty warrior. They called it the Major Opie OP.
They called him a Man of Sparta.
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