Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Jackson (1913–1945)

by David Huggonson

This article was published:

John Jackson (1913?-1945), soldier, was born possibly on 29 April 1913 at Copmanhurst, near Grafton, New South Wales, son of Kate Jackson, an Aboriginal woman from the Moree district. After leaving school at an early age, Jack worked on dairy farms around Grafton and served in the Militia with the 41st Battalion. He gave his religion as Catholic and his date of birth as 28 April 1916 when he joined the Australian Imperial Force on 3 March 1941; in the following month he was sent to train at Tamworth. It had been A.I.F. policy that the enlistment of Aborigines was 'neither necessary nor desirable', but the pay and conditions in the army attracted Aboriginal men from country areas. As in World War I, once the demand for manpower increased, the authorities began accepting dark-complexioned recruits of mixed Aboriginal and European parentage.

On their final leave before embarkation, Jackson and fellow soldiers from the Grafton district, E. J. 'Punchy' O'Donohue and John Barnier, were 'given a send-off by their local community in the tiny, unlined weather-board Hall at Alumny Creek'; Jackson had a good voice and sang 'One Day When We Were Young'. He was promoted acting sergeant in August 1941 and sailed for Singapore next month. His posting to the 8th Divisional Provost Company on 30 November entailed a reduction in rank to acting corporal. The provost company's major function was to maintain discipline and their workload increased as the Japanese advanced towards Singapore.

Jackson was in hospital suffering from malaria when Singapore fell on 15 February. Six days later he was discharged and returned to his unit, though his condition necessitated a further period in hospital in May-June. The Japanese were puzzled to find a handful of dark-skinned soldiers among the interned Australians. Aware of the existence of the White Australia policy, they thought that Aboriginal soldiers might be used as informers, but the patriotism and solidarity of these men was no different from that of their comrades of European descent.

In July 1942 Jackson was sent to British North Borneo as a member of a labour force assembled to build an airfield at Sandakan. The prisoners of war were overworked, starved, beaten and denied medical care. Surprisingly, an occasional camp concert was permitted: at one of them, Jacko sang 'Beautiful Dreamer'. By October 1943 some 2500 Australian and British prisoners were held at Sandakan. Due to executions and maltreatment—particularly the forced marches in 1945 through 160 miles (257 km) of mountainous country to Ranau—only six survived. Jackson died on 29 April 1945 at Sandakan. His name is inscribed on the Labuan Memorial, Sabah, Malaysia, commemorating personnel, most of them prisoners of war in Borneo, who have no known grave.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Wall, Sandakan (Syd, 1992)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Jan-Feb 1994
  • Koori Mail, 15 June 1994.

Citation details

David Huggonson, 'Jackson, John (1913–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Copmanhurst, New South Wales, Australia


29 April, 1945 (aged ~ 32)
Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia

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