Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John Bernard (Jack) Mackey (1922–1945)

by Harry Taplin

This article was published:

John Bernard (Jack) Mackey (1922-1945), baker's mate and soldier, was born on 16 May 1922 at Leichhardt, Sydney, only son and eldest of four children of native-born parents Stanislaus Mackey, baker, and his wife Bridget Catherine, née Smyth. After attending St Columba's School, Leichhardt, and Christian Brothers' High School, Lewisham, Jack moved with his family to Portland in 1936. Aged 14, he finished his formal education at St Joseph's Convent School that year.

Because jobs were scarce, young Mackey was apprenticed in his father's bakery. Of average height, stockily built and weighing about 13 stone (83 kg), he had blue eyes, reddish hair, and a humorous and exuberant nature. He played Rugby League football for the local junior team (and later for his battalion) and proved an excellent swimmer, but he disliked working in the bakery and living in the country. His relationship with his father became strained, particularly after his mother died in 1939. Defying his father, Jack overstated his age and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 4 June 1940. Stanislaus reluctantly accepted the situation.

Posted to the 2nd/3rd Pioneer Battalion, Mackey served in Darwin in 1941 before being sent to the Middle East where he saw action in the battle of El Alamein, Egypt (October-November 1942). He returned to Australia in February 1943, then sailed for Papua in August. During operations around Finschhafen, New Guinea, he was promoted acting corporal in October (substantive June 1944). His company commander described him as an outstanding junior leader who exhibited moral and physical courage. Mackey was hospitalized with malaria in November 1943-January 1944, and again in May-June and August-September 1944. With his battalion, he embarked for the invasion of Tarakan Island, Borneo, in April 1945 and landed on 1 May.

On 12 May 1945 Mackey led his section in an attack on a place code-named 'Helen'. This well-defended position dominated the surrounding vicinity and had to be approached along a precipitous spur, thick with jungle and barely wide enough for two men. Accompanied by his second-in-command, Lance Corporal A. R. 'Yorky' Riedy (who was to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his part in the action), Mackey scrambled up the ridge, throwing a smoke-grenade to mask their approach. For reasons best known to themselves, the Japanese held their fire and dragged both Australians into the first position they reached—a light-machine-gun post. In the ensuing fight the two men accounted for four enemy soldiers, but Riedy was wounded. Mackey then killed the remaining Japanese in the post, and dealt with a heavy-machine-gun and its crew in an adjacent bunker. Taking Riedy's Owen gun, he moved towards another heavy-machine-gun nest, farther up the slope. He reached and silenced this post, but was mortally wounded.

Buried where he fell, Mackey was finally laid to rest in Labuan war cemetery. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. His sister Pat received the decoration from the governor-general, the Duke of Gloucester; it was later presented to the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Anderson and G. Jackett, Mud and Sand (Syd, 1994)
  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily (Canb, 1963)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Harry Taplin, 'Mackey, John Bernard (Jack) (1922–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Mackey, c.1945

John Mackey, c.1945

Australian War Memorial, 134468A

Life Summary [details]


16 May, 1922
Leichhardt, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


12 May, 1945 (aged 22)
Tarakan, East Kalimantan, Indonesia

Cause of Death

killed in action

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service