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Mackey, John Bernard (Jack) (1922–1945)

by J. A. Ryan

I have been thinking about him quite a lot lately. Before Christmas I was in Coolangatta standing one morning in that little park on the promontory where the road curls round to Kirra and on to the Gold Coast. There is a small war memorial there, a neat sandstone obelisk in the centre of the grassy headland, lest we forget those who died in war. As I watched young holidaymakers in their board shorts and bikinis passed by on their way to the beach. Not one glance was cast in the direction of the memorial. Why should they? The morning was an affirmation of life, not death. The clear sky, the shining landscape, the sound of the surf and the blue-green ocean stretched out to the very edge of the world. Life was for living. But he was young, too, their age, and he was dead. He had never been to Coolangatta.

After a little while across the grass came two Japanese tourists, neatly dressed, carrying a camera. They stopped by the obelisk with its crossed rifles and began to read the inscription: In Honour Of Those Who Served. What did they make of it? I don't know, but as is their wont the man took out his camera and took a photo of his wife standing by the memorial. There are more and more Japanese coming here to enjoy the Australian scenery and climate. Jack was killed rushing up a scrubby hillside in Tarakan with a machine gun to shoot the Japanese and stop them from coming here. He had also been to the Middle East and fought the Germans in the Western Desert. I crossed back across the road and threaded my way between a Mercedes and a Mitsubishi car parked in front of a new holiday apartment. These were the names of the weapon makers which killed Jack and his mates. What did it all mean on this sunny morning in Australia?

It was at Christmas time when his memory came back to me again. In Sydney each year a large Christmas tree is erected in Martin Place between the Cenotaph and George Street. PEACE ON EARTH was the message of its brightly shining star and with its lights and decorations it is a happy place for families to come and bring the children. This was the scene last year when I was passing on the Sunday afternoon. People were wandering about looking at the tree, children were playinq chasinq round and under the iron chain bounding the Cenotaph and to the side, on a red seat facing the inscription TO OUR GLORIOUS DEAD, an Italian family was having a little party as they do at home in Italy. They, too, were the enemy in the desert of North Africa where Jack had gone and seen so many of his mates killed in the carnage of El Alamein. It was here, past this very spot he had marched with the Ninth Division when they were brought back from the Middle East to help save Australia. He was gone again at Christmas time. Jack was the eldest in his family with three younger sisters but he had never had a Christmas at home with them after he joined up.

As I stood watching a pair of young lovers, honeymooners I suspected, wandered into the space between the Memorial and the Christmas tree and were disentangling themselves to take photos of each other—he backing back towards the granite slab on which stood a bronze cast of a soldier overlooking the scene with his rifle and bandolier of ammunition. Jack had never had a honeymoon. Kitty O'Keefe and he may have talked about it when he had come back to Leichhardt on leave but they had not seen each other very much. He had joined up when he was eighteen, embarked for Syria and Egypt with the 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion in 1941—back to Australia in 1943—off again later in the year to New Guinea—back again next year after more operations at Lae and Finchaffen. A year later, on April 3 1945 he was off again to Borneo and the landing at Tarakan. This time he didn't come back. He died on May 12, four days before his twenty-third birthday and just three months before the war was all over. He had not wanted to go this time. Many of his friends were gone and he had done his share. And what was the purpose of it? The Americans had moved the war on far to the north and the Japanese in Borneo were cut off, entrenched in holes in the hills. HAPPY CHRISTMAS was the message on the Christmas tree in Martin Place. It is a lonely Christmas in Labaun where Jack was in the War Cemetery.

Again, towards the end of summer. my memory of him came back strongly. In Hyde Park at lunch time young city workers gather in the park to meet their friends and have their lunch. Around the War Memorial at the southern end, on the grass and the seats, they make the kind of sunlit picture painted by the impressionist artists. Hovering over this scene, however, is the rather foreboding presence of the soldiers with their helmets and rifles sculptured onto the four corners of the stone edifice. There they stand, encased in bronze, symbolizing the spirit of sacrifice. Yet this is the very last evocation I would make of the spirit of Jack Mackey. His life when I knew him as a young bloke growing up was anything but serious and solemn. Exuberant, disrespectful, reckless, laughing in great gusts—be in anything—that was Mackey. School couldn't hold him and he was desperately constrained working for his father in the bakery.

How visual memories are! On Sunday afternoon he sometimes had to do a shift in the bakehouse. We would wait till his father left then call in. There he would be with his too large white shirt and apron and a white baker' s cap on the back of his red head mixing the dough on the long deal table. Before long there would be a shower of flour over someone, a roll of dough transformed into a football would go flying round the bakehouse, and some specially shaped loaves would be kneaded and sent sliding into the oven. They weren’t destined for the delivery cart. How well I remember the laughter and the fresh bread in the warm bakehouse on a winter's afternoon before the pall of next day's school settled over us.

Mackey came to the country town of Portland when his father bought the bakery on the corner of Wallerawang Road. He had come from Leichhardt and knew more than we did about certain things, but about other things, like the bush, he didn't know all that much. The limits of life in a country town got to Mackey. Friday night shopping in the T shaped town where everyone knew every shop and almost every shopper. The pubs weren't open, but the back door was and you could buy a flagon of draught at the door. Mackey had some money and got a flagon, and at age fourteen, we made our initiation down in the park passing the brown bottle round among the four of us, ceremoniously wiping the top as it went on to the next. Intoxication, self-induced or imagined, took us over. What to do now? Let’s go out to Piper's Flat dam! It was late, it was dark, and it was two miles out of town. Away we went yelling and yahooing along the road, over the bridge, across the railway line, past the mine gantry, and down to the deep end of the dam. Mackey was a very good swimmer, before he had been on the flagon anyway. Stripping off he dived from the cement parapet into the dark water, and disappeared. Plunk ... then silence. "Mackey ... Mackey ... Where are you?” Sobering rapidly. "Mackey ..." From somewhere in the middle of the dam, out of the darkness, then came this wild laugh ... Home late. damp, and the devil in retreat, to face some powerful questioning: "have you been out with Jack Mackey?"

Sir Colin Hines of the R.S.L. wants to have people banned from drinking in the southern end of Hyde Park during the Festival of Sydney because it offends against the sacred character of the Memorial. I don't think they would offend Jack, or ‘B1uey’ as his mates in his unit knew him.

Mackey didn't like walking, always complaining about his feet. One day in the park we found a bottle of Purple Para in a brown paper bag, the nirvana of one of the lost souls left behind by the Depression. Someone suggested taking it out to the dairy at Williewa Creek. Mackey got a couple of loaves of bread and away we went out along the bush track with Mackey whingeing away about his feet. Our destination was a pig sty where an old sow and her litter of young porkers were in residence. It had been raining and the sty was wet and sloppy. Into the trough went the pieces of bread and then the bottle of sherry. The predicted effects soon followed—snorting and grunting the young pigs began wallowing about in the mud, colliding, and falling over on the sloppy floor. Becoming more and more helpless they finished upended on their back kicking their feet in the air and letting forth such squealing to rival the banshees. It was time, we decided, to get out, but Mackey was almost too helpless to run. It wasn't his feet now; his legs had turned to water-from laughing. It was his laughing I remembered when I was in Hyde Park wondering if its echoes had ever been heard inside the dome of that sepulchral Memorial. Why are the lives of the dead young Australians so separated from the lives of the young living Australians?

Mackey had some bike riding tricks he had brought with him from the city. He would run pushing his bike along-in front of him one hand on the saddle, then stopping suddenly, leap astride the seat and pedal off no-hands. "You'll do yourself in Mackey!'' How could we know how prophetic these words were in 1937?

Another more direct and powerful reminder of him came to me a few months ago when I was walking through the newly opened Queen Victoria Building in Sydney. Following the ornately restored staircases I came to the top gallery, and along the line of shops and displays on the wall was a polished wood board with a list of names in gold printing. Inside the glass case surmounting the names, was a picture of Queen Victoria performing a ceremony in Hyde Park London, and on either side was a furled flag: the Australian flag on the left, and the Union Jack on the right. It was a list of Australia’s Victoria Cross winners. There, in the column on the right, was his name ... Cpl John Bernard Mackey. It was such a strange sensation coming upon his name like this. I know it is the Queen Victoria Building; I know it was Queen Victoria who instituted this coveted award for bravery; and I understand the honour being given to those who have won this supreme military medal. But there was something strange, some odd twist of history, seeing Mackey here in a glass case with the Queen of England and the Union Jack. What would his old grandfather Paddy Mackey from County Limerick have said. He said enough to Jack's father Stan when he joined up to go to the first World War—"going off to fight for the British and turning your back on Ireland." Paddy Mackey had married Maria Flynn from county Cork before emmigrating to Australia in the years after the Famine and they brought with them not only their attachment to Ireland, but the deep resentments of all their countrymen for their oppressors, the British. It was the British landlords who had evicted them from their land, and during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign had left two million of them to die in the Great Hunger. This was the conviction the Irish brought with them to Australia, and this was why there was such a row when Stan, an Irish Mackey, joined the first A.I.F. When he came back from the war Stan married Bridget Smythe who also came from Irish parents on both sides, with roots back in county Meath. Jack then, as the eldest son, growing up Australian in the decade after the war, imbibed an Irish view of the world through both sources of the family folk memory.

I know this because it was the same for me. From the four Irish families who had left the counties of Tipperary, Cork and Kerry to come to Australia about the same time as the Mackeys I inherited from my parents, Mary Kelly and Michael Ryan, a very particular view of the British Empire and Queen Victoria. So affected had she been by the suffering of the starving Irish people, so my father said, that she made a contribution of 5 to the Famine Relief Fund. My mother told us of her cousin Ellie O’Connor living in Ballymacilligot in County Kerry and how the British soldiers had gone through her home with their guns looking for her brother. (I have been back there to the little home and seen where the bayonets were poked into the haystack.) As kids growing up here in Australia we might have understood, or cared, little of all but for the nuns who built it into our education at St Joseph's Convent School. The nuns were the seed carriers of Irish culture. Along with the dispossessed Irish immigrants there also came to Australia a whole legion of priests, brothers and nuns to care for their transplanted flock, and to stock the Catholic schools set up to neutralize the British Protestant culture into which fate had cast them. It was the sisters of St. Joseph at the Convent School, Portland, who set Ireland's past so firmly into our Australian education to form our view of the world. We learnt about Australia—about Captain Cook, and Kennedy and Jacky Jacky, the pioneers and the gold rushes—but we also learnt about Brian Boru, the ancient king of Erin, St. Patrick who brought the faith to Ireland, and we were told of the Irish patriots, and the terrible Oliver Cromwell and William of Orange. We sang Australian songs—The Golden Wattle and The Old Bush Track—but we also sang Dear Little Shamrock and Killarney's Lakes And Dells. On Empire Day, Queen Victoria's Birthday, we took our half-holiday but we called it Cracker Night, a good time for bonfires and bungers. I don' t remember that we ever had a flag at school or sang those great anthems of Empire-Land of Hope and Glory, Rule Britannia, or gave Three Cheers for the Red White and Blue. But we did sing patriotic songs—Faith of Our Fathers, The Harp that Once Thro Tara's Halls and The Wearing of the Green. St. Patrick's Day was our big day with weeks of preparation of Irish songs, dances, and tableaux for the concert, and the wearing of shamrock badges and green ribbons. A succession of Irish priests, Fathers Casey, Sheehan, Connoughton, and Cusack tied this Irish culture into Catholic theology and kept us secure from Protestant dangers, especially the heresy of Henry VIII represented by the Church of England at the other side of the town. And we grew up knowing who we were and where we belonged. At the Public School down in the town they sang God Save The King and saluted the flag; at the Convent School up on the hill we sang God save Ireland and made the sign of the cross. Although all this didn't worry us as kids, the loyalties were set, and our friends we usually found among our own.

When the Mackeys, an Irish Catholic family came to Portland, they naturally joined their own and "Mackey", as we were to call him, found new mates with us. His first school had been with the St. Joseph nuns at St. Columba' s in Leichhardt, and then he went on to the Christian Brothers at Lewisham. Immersed in the same tradition as us he, nevertheless, found it very hard to handle school back with the nuns, and as soon as the law allowed him, he left. The town of Portland, centred around the limestone quarries, the cement works, and the coal mines had had a very hard time in the depression and was very slow to recover. Jobs for young blokes were hard to come by and Mackey went back into the bakehouse apprenticed to his father. He was never going to be a baker. He hated it.

When war was declared against Hitler's Germany Mackey was seventeen. Saddened by his mother's death, frustrated and restless in the bakery, he was sent off to Lithgow soon after he turned eighteen, put his age up, and joined the A.I.F. on the 5 June, 1940. The Ninth Division was being formed and Private J.B. Mackey was drafted into the 2/3 Pioneer Battalion. I never saw him again. I heard of his death when I came home on leave at the end of the War. The posthumous award of his V.C. was announced on 9 November 1945. The Citation reads:

“Corporal Mackey was in charge of a section of D Coy. 2/3 Australian Pioneer Battalion in the attack on the feature known as Helen to the east of Tarakan when it came under attack from three machine gun positions near the top of a very steep razor-back ridge…”

The Citation goes on to tell how he rushed these three gun posts one after the other, putting the first two out of action, then on to the third near the top of the ridge before being shot and killed.

"By his exceptional bravery and complete disregard for his own life, Corporal Mackey killed seven Japanese and eliminated two machine gun posts thus enabling his platoon to gain its objective."

Now here I was looking at his name in gold print in in a glass case surrounded by the emblems of Empire and the trappings of Queen Victoria. As I looked, within the glass a freckled face formed, with a silly white cap perched on the back of its head, looking out with a grin from the top of the baker's car. "Is that you Mackey?"

What is the meaning of it all—the life and death of Jack Mackey? What was it, on that morning in Tarakan, that moved him to rush headlong to an almost certain death? Was fame the spur? When the Victoria Cross was instituted it was, in the Queen’s conception, a decoration "to be highly prized and eagerly sought after”. I don’t think it was for this that Mackey died. He didn't carry too much Glory in his kit bag. Was it for a grand cause—the King, the Empire, the Flag, Liberty and Democracy …? Who knows these things? No doubt in Gaza, the old Biblical city of Palestine, when he stood in the solemn Review Parade For Fallen Comrades left lying in the sand in Alamein his deeper emotions were moved to be part of the Allied cause fighting to turn back Rommel's army. But by then they were waiting to board the Queen Mary to go back to Australia. Against Churchill's wishes, the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, was bringing them home, for Australia was now the cause. It was the arrival home, the emotional welcome, and the march through Sydney streets that got to the deeper levels. Whatever Jack’s death was about, to me it was about Australia.

If there is an Australian character, mythical or real, formed by our history and environment, then Jack Mackey would come close to it. He was the Australian-Celtic mix. One of his friends from the army put it simply: “He was an easy-going bloke, liked a few beers, but didn’t like to be pushed around. He'd do anything for you. When he died we all thought we had lost a mate."

After the landing in Tarakan some of his mates were killed by machine gun fire from the dug-in Japanese in the hills. When his own platoon was fired on he must have been really mad …. and set off after them".

How do you translate Jack's death into a cause? If I was to try it would go something like this: He gave his life—

For Australia, his family and his friends—Patriotism if you like.
For a fair go—Democracy if you like.
For the freedom to have a few beers—Liberty if you like.

There are some among us who want to enlist the dead in the defence of the flag with the Union Jack in the corner. They died, they say, for the flag. What right have they? I don't think the imperial rectangle would have motivated Mackey. If symbols there must be, the Southern Cross would have done him.

The nuns at school taught us that an early death was the passport to the joys of eternal life. That is a consolation. There are joys, however, this side of the grave that Jack was never to know. When the cornucopia of this world’s "leisure, pleasure, and treasure" opened to all of us in the post-war years, a world beyond the wildest dreams of our exiled Irish forebears, Jack was to miss out. He too might have had a car to drive around that picturesque promontory at Coolangatta, perhaps on his honeymoon, and have a swim at Kirra beach. He, too, on a sunny morning in Sydney, might have wandered into Hyde Park to have a sandwich on a seat by the Memorial. He might have come back to the Anniversary of the Portland Convent School to have a drink with us, and stroll round past the old bakehouse on the corner. And he might, too, have gone for an overseas trip again, this time on an aeroplane to London and perhaps on to Ireland to find the family of Paddy Mackey in Limerick.

When the award of his Victoria Cross was announced the Prime Minister, Mr. Chifley, from whose electorate Jack had enlisted, sent a telegram to the family with the nation’s tribute: "The nation joins with you in your proud sorrow… " But that has not taken the ache out of heart of his  three sisters each year as the month of May comes round, and at Christmastime, when he is not with them.

Jack's V.C. is in the War Memorial in Canberra, the family's gift to the nation.

Jack made his on May 12, 1945.

As each Anzac/Armistice day goes by I get to wondering more and more.
Just what it was all for.
The War.

written in 1986, published with the permission of Michael Ryan and Colleen McDonald

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Citation details

J. A. Ryan, 'Mackey, John Bernard (Jack) (1922–1945)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mackey-john-bernard-jack-10993/text39281, accessed 17 May 2022.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012