Written by Norman Cramp, Director of the Darwin Military Museum.
James Michael McDONALD was born at Gladesville, NSW, on 7th June 1889. He was the son of James and Kate McDonald; however, he was orphaned by the age of eleven and nothing is known of his upbringing between the time he was orphaned and his arrival in the NT. It is known that he became a qualified Carpenter during that period and sought work in the Northern Territory, being employed for a time by the Public Works Department of the Commonwealth government.
McDonald was working in the Pine Creek area prior to enlisting and is mentioned in the Northern Territory Times and Gazette (NTT&G) as the Honorary Secretary of the Pine Creek Workers’ Amusement Club, (a union organised association) that organised a ‘Monster Patriotic Sports Day’ in Pine Creek on Boxing Day 1914. Later McDonald and Neil Boyle, who was later to be killed in action in France, participated in Darwin’s New Year Sport Meeting.
McDonald, Boyle and several others were farewelled at the Darwin Town Hall and left on the S.S. Taiyuan on 4th March 1915 to enlist. They travelled to Townsville, Queensland, to enlist, as the Commonwealth government did not allow NT men to enlist at that time and had not established a recruitment centre in the NT.
McDonald enlisted on 11th March 1915, and was attached to the 9th Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Force (AIF). He was twenty-five years and nine months of age, single and working as a Carpenter in the Pine Creek area when he enlisted and nominated his Uncle, John Kiernan of Kew, Victoria, as his next of kin. He stood five feet nine and a half inches tall, weighed ten stone and ten pounds and was of ‘dark’ complexion with brown eyes and dark hair.
Jim served at Gallipoli, managing to survive the ordeal without wounds or injury, although he was taken sick during the campaign. He later served on the Western Front in France where he was gassed on three separate occasions and wounded once. He was Mentioned in Dispatches (MID) in October 1917 and awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) on 24th December 1919 for continuous good and brave service in France.
By 1928, McDonald was back in Darwin and returned to his position as the President of the RSL in 1929. He held the position for one year. Unfortunately, McDonald's war wounds affected his health significantly, and forced him to return to Sydney late in 1932. He returned to Darwin sometime later. At that time he was working on the construction of the Katherine Railway Bridge, where he worked until the outbreak of the Second World War (WW2).
In 1939, at the age of fifty, McDonald once again joined the Australian Army and was immediately posted to the 7th Military District Darwin, as a member of the Australian Army Service Corp (A.A.S.C.). He was made Corporal immediately and Sergeant a few months later. He served all of WW2 in the Darwin area and was discharged on 2nd July 1945, with the rank of Sergeant.
He left Darwin at war’s end and was living in Redfern, Sydney, in December 1945 when he wrote to the Officer in Charge (OIC), AIF Base Records requesting his Great War Returned Soldiers Badge (aka: Returned From Active Service Badge) be replaced, as it had ‘been lost or stolen on/about 19th February 1942’ in Darwin. That was the first day of the Japanese air raids on Darwin and Jim was in town for the event! The badge was replaced after Jim had covered the cost of one shilling.
The date of his return to Darwin is unknown, but it is known that he became the Caretaker of the Darwin RSL Club in Smith Street in 1946. Later his health started to fail and he was diagnosed as suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis and admitted to hospital in Adelaide. Returning to the Territory he went to live in Pine Creek and died there on 21st November 1951. He was later buried in Katherine.
McDonald's grave in the Katherine Pioneer Cemetery is marked with a headstone on which is inscribed: ‘Brother James Michael McDonald K.O.M., founder of Lodge Paraparap 207 R.A.0.B. G.A.B. Lest we forget.’
At the time of his award of the DCM, McDonald was granted a one-off payment of £20 and was later supported by a war service pension with an additional six pence per day for being a DCM recipient.
McDonald died penniless in a small tin lined hut in Pine Creek. He is commemorated on the Pine Creek War Memorial which was dedicated at a ceremony in that town on 21st April 1989, but the whereabouts of his service medals is unknown.
Darwin Military Museum
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Darwin Military Museum