Australian War Memorial director Dr Brendan Nelson has remembered former chairman of the Memorial, Major-General William Brian ‘Digger’ James AC AO(Mil) MBE MC, as “one of the most decent and honourable Australians of the 20th century”.
One of Australia’s best-known and respected veterans, Major-General James died on Friday night aged 85.
On behalf of the chairman, council and all members of the Australian War Memorial staff, Dr Brendan Nelson said Major-General James was a tireless advocate for veterans’ issues and a patron to countless other medical and military causes.
“Major-General ‘Digger’ James was highly regarded and respected throughout the nation as an outstanding leader, advocate for veterans, and one of the most decent and honourable Australians of the 20th century,” Dr Nelson said.
Major-General James was born in May 1930 in Shepparton, Victoria, where his father established the first fruit orchard and later become a founding member of the Shepparton Preserving Co. (SPC).
A football-lover, he graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1951, and served as a junior officer with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), in Korea.
He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions while leading a patrol on the night of November 7, 1952. One soldier was killed after stepping on a mine and four others, including Lieutenant James, were wounded. Although severely wounded, with the loss of his left foot and damage to his right leg, he remained conscious and in command of the patrol, organising the evacuation of casualties back to the battalion, insisting that he was moved last, more than three hours later.
The citation for his award of a Military Cross read:
“The example set by Lieutenant James and his leadership, devotion to duty, self-sacrifice and extreme fortitude when in great personal distress was an inspiration to members of his battalion.”
He was evacuated home to Australia and spent 14 months in rehabilitation in hospital.
He transferred to the Royal Australian Armoured Corps (RAAC) and served as adjutant at the Armoured School and the 12th/16th Hunter River Lancers at Muswellbrook before deciding he had no future as a regular amy officer and resigning in 1957.
He took up medical studies at Sydney University and after graduating in December 1963 and serving his hospital residency, he rejoined the Army as a medical officer in the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps (RAAMC).
He commanded the 8th Field Ambulance in South Vietnam and was Senior Medical Officer of the 1st Australian Task Force at Nui Dat for 12 months from January 1968 to January 1969, and was inspirational for the encouragement and personal example he provided to soldiers wounded by anti-personnel mines.
For his outstanding service in Vietnam he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1969.
In 1971 he served with a British St John Ambulance medical relief team at the conclusion of the Biafran Civil War in Nigeria, for which he was awarded the Order of St John.
He was subsequently appointed Director Army Medical Services in Queensland between 1971 and 1975, Director of Army Medical Services, Army Headquarters from 1975 to 1981.
He was also named honorary physician to the Queen.
Promoted to Major General, he served as Director General of Army Health Services between 1981 and 1985, in which year he retired.
As well as serving as the National President of the Returned Services League from 1993 to 1997, Major-General James served on the Council of the Australian War Memorial from 1993; he was appointed chairman in 1999 and served in that capacity until 2000.
Australian Light Horse Association president Phil Chalker praised his involvement in a number of projects, including the Waler Memorial in Tamworth and the Park of the Australian Soldier in Beersheba, Israel.
“He will be greatly missed by not only those who knew him but those his life impacted on,” he said in a statement.
Major-General James is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Barbara, four children and nine grandchildren.