‘The others are all gone now, I’m the last one’
SEVENTY-FIVE years ago today John MacDonald sucked back two large bottles of beer with mates.
It was a stinking hot day in Balikpapan, Borneo and the men of 7th Brigade were gathered by their commanding officer and told the unthinkable - Japan had surrendered and World War II was finally over after six long, bloody years.
Australia was safe but had paid a horrifying price - 27,000 people were dead, including 17,000 across the Pacific campaign.
"I think that was the best beer I ever had in my life," Mr MacDonald said this week.
"We were issued with two bottles of beer. We hadn't had any at all for some time so we drank all the beer and carried on. We were very happy.
"I don't mind a beer. I was taught to drink in the army and I'm good at it.
"There was a platoon of us and we were very excited to hear it was all over. We reckoned it was fair dinkum and it served the Japanese right. They killed a fair few of us."
Mr MacDonald plans to have two beers today too in memory of the many friends he lost during the conflict and in the decades since. The 96-year-old is the sole survivor of his brigade.
However, he knows the grog won't taste as sweet as it did in 1945.
"My oath I will be sitting back and having a beer.
"It's hard to believe it's been 75 years. It should have been the war to end war forever.
"These politicians think war is good but it is not good, not at all. War doesn't help anyone.
"The others are all dead now, everyone I served with. There aren't many of us left at all anymore."
Mr MacDonald was born in the Darling Downs town of Allora in 1923 and grew up hearing the tales of World War I from the older generation.
At age 17, with the war underway, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy but never heard from his application letter and instead signed up for the army.
Months later, on his 18th birthday, the navy finally responded but despite being offered a transfer, he stayed with the army and trained in Brisbane.
"I signed up for the usual patriotic feelings I suppose. It was a time of war and things were not going well so I thought I'd put my twopence worth in," he said.
"It was certainly interesting. They taught me to be a soldier. We did a fair bit of bayonet practice and charging up and down.
"We marched everywhere. The army is a great place if you like marching."
Throughout the war Mr MacDonald served in Dutch New Guinea and Borneo during some of the most intense fighting of the entire Pacific campaign.
But his favourite memories of the war were meeting a fellow soldier who went on to become his wife, Edna.
Mr MacDonald remembers their first meeting like it was yesterday.
"We went to a dance one night at the railway institute and coming home we jumped on the rattler to my mate's place where I tore my jumper getting over the fence.
"My mate introduced me to her and she volunteered to mend my jumper.
"Edna was a driver in the army and we ended up writing to each other for 12 months and on our next leave we got to know each other much better."
The pair were married on St Patrick's Day 1945 while on leave but both resumed their duties.
By October 1945, the 7th Brigade was still in Borneo waiting to be demobilised when Specialist MacDonald, 23 at the time, went for a swim in the ocean to cool off after a day on duty and found himself once again in harm's way.
"I was in the sea as the tide came in and I saw this big thing coming towards me - it was a Japanese mine.
"All along the foreshore we had tank traps, they were like telephone wires but I knew if it hit one of things we were all lost so I swam up to it and grabbed it to hold it back.
"A corporal who was with me sounded the alarm while I hung on to the damn thing until some people came over in a boat and took me and the mine further out to see.
"I let go and swam back into shore while they took the mine away."
Called before a general, Mr MacDonald and his fellow soldier were asked what they wanted as a reward for their courageous act. The pair had one simple request - to go home.
They made it back in time to hear Rainbird win the Melbourne Cup on November 7.
After the war, John and Edna had three children and opened bakeries in Allora and Gladstone. He also worked for the Port Curtis Dairy Association, managing a store.
In the late 1950s the family returned to Brisbane where Mr MacDonald worked for hardware firm James Campbell for more than 17 years.
After moving to the Gold Coast and running another hardware shop, the old Digger retired in 1992.
Now widowed, he's kept active, going for walks, reading the Gold Coast Bulletin daily and watching his beloved Essendon Bombers.
Mr MacDonald is Australia's longest-serving Justice of the Peace and a long-time Freemason.
Still keeping up with the news, he is stunned by the spread of COVID-19.
"I read everything I can and this virus is just terrible, though I think it is a bit self-inflicted.
"People do not do what they are told and it is a dangerous thing.
"After the first war they had a terrible flu then too. (It) knocked a lot of people out and people didn't wear masks like they were told."
Originally published as 'The others are all gone now, I'm the last one'