Maj Gen William Brian / 'Digger' James -AC, AO (Mil), MBE, MC, OStJ. (OC 8 Fd Amb, DGAHS and Past President RSL National Australia)
One only needs to mention the name 'Digger James' among the RAAMC family to know that this refers to a great man among men as well as the Other Ranks Club at Rhyndarra, Yeronga, named in Major General William James' honour. There is so much more to this fine gentleman and his family however and a little of his story is included here…
Major General William Brian James grew up at Shepparton, Vic. His Irish father established the first fruit orchard and later was a founding member of the Shepparton Preserving Co. (SPC). He got his nickname Digger following the loss of his older brother in WWII. Some time later, he entered the Royal Military College at Duntroon where he was particularly interested in football. He graduated in 1951, and during his first posting as a Lieutenant Platoon Commander, in 1952 he was sent to Korea.
As a Platoon Leader in the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment on 7/8 Nov 1952, he was in command of two NCOs and ten ORs. He and his men were tasked to occupy Calgary Feature with the object of killing or capturing any enemy encountered.
Within a short distance of the enemy, there was a heavy explosion in the midst of the patrol, resulting in the wounding of five of the patrol. Lt James and his two NCOs were seriously wounded.
Despite having his left foot completely blown off and his right leg badly broken and mangled, he refused to relinquish command of his patrol. He set about organising for the evacuation of the other wounded, all of whom were less seriously injured than he was.
The patrol had only one stretcher and the whole process was a lengthy one. Digger James remained there for over thirty minutes in great pain until all his wounded men were evacuated first. Finally, he allowed himself to be evacuated to the rear.
During the whole time, he managed to cheer and encourage all the members of the patrol who remained with him.
The example set by Lt 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.
For his efforts in that action, Lt James was awarded the Military Cross.
He recovered from his wounds and adapted to an artificial leg,. He was then posted as Adjutant at the Armoured School at Puckapunyal but eventually decided he had no future as a regular army officer and resigned his commission.
Digger James then undertook Medicine at University of Sydney in 1957 and graduated in 1963 as resident physician, Ryde District Soldiers Memorial Hospital.
He later rejoinined the Army as a medical officer and Captain ancd was subsequently posted to Vietnam in 1968 with the First Australian Task Force at Nui Dat; returning to Canberra as a Lieutenant Colonel.
He then undertook postgraduate studies in England in 1969 qualified in tropical medicine and industrial and public health.
With the assistance of the old boys' network, he obtained the Prime Minister's approval to go to Biafra to re-establish a health service in Ozoro, in 1971.
He returned to Brisbane where he was promoted to Colonel and became Deputy Director, Army Medical Services, Northern Command.
He was involved in relief work in Brisbane as well as Darwin during Cyclone Tracy. He then became Queensland Assistant District Surgeon for St. John's Ambulance and in 1975 was promoted to Brigadier and posted to Melbourne as Director of Army Medical Services.
Digger James was pretty much fully resposible for the modernisation of the Medical Corps when Government funding for the ADF after Vietnam had been reduced drastically.
At that time he declined to resign from the Army to take up an offer of directorship of Pratt Industries and instead he provided Professor Fred Hollows with a mobile field hospital as a base for his work on Aboriginal eye problems and other causes in Northern Territory for the Aboriginal population.
He then went on to become Director General of Army Medical Services in 1982 as a Major General as well as Honorary Physician to the Queen, in 1986 he retired from the Army and decided to settle in Brisbane with his wife Barbara and family.
Major General James adapted well to civilian life and became Queensland Director of Pratt Industries.
He was invited to assist the Minister of Veteran Affairs by becoming Chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Vietnam Counselling Service to address problems of Vietnam servicemen.
in 1991 he became Qld Vice-President of the Returned Services League (RSL) then in 1993 became the National President where he was active in regaining the support of Paul Keating and further RSL issues including the repatriation of the Unknown Australian Soldier and his entombment, his involvement on the Council of the Australian War Memorial.
He was also very much involved as a Monarchist delegate at the Australian Constitutional Convention.
So often when folk talk about old bosses and prominent figures from their past, there is usually at least one person who may make a disparaging remark, or offer some form of criticism about people. HOWEVER…When it comes to the subject of ‘Digger James’, it is a whole different story…Even when it comes to people from different Corps and even different services; they ALL - without exception – had nothing but complete respect and reverence for Digger James.
Those, like me (Chris Heinjus) who have had the privilege to meet him on one or more occasions can all recall those occasions. They spoke of his professionalism, his kind and gentle nature and especially his fantastic sense of humour and fun. Digger James demonstrated his willingness to be ‘one of the troops’ – to be accessible and a part of the crowd-a fellow Digger in more than name alone.
There are several funny stories relating to you and many a laugh has been shared whilst reading these. Here are just a few examples…
1) Ex RAAMC Pte Chris Heinjus: As a new Private, fresh out of 1RTB, Kapooka, newly inducted into the RAAMC for IET as a Medical Orderly at the School of Army Health at Healesville, Vic, I was tasked, together with Ian ‘Spider’ Webb to polish the floor of the ball room at the School at Norris Barracks ready for a big wigs’ conference.
We were in the midst of further honing our skills with bees wax and industrial electrical floor polishers, when in came three prominent figures of the Army, Navy and Air Force… possibly after a few late night ports and cigars in the Officers Mess.
The three senior officers were led by a Rear Admiral who was pretending to be a Bofors Gun, firing away madly at the RAAF, Air Vice Marshall who was busily ‘strafing’ back; arms akimbo, as make believe wings on a jet fighter… Then followed Brigadier Digger James, with eyes rolling and muttering comments to the effect of informing these two that they were ‘wankers who knew nothing about real wars as only the Army did the real dirty fighting work’… All in good humour of course!
Then to us two young Privates’ horror we looked on as one of Brigadier James’ feet caught a rolled rug and sent him lurching…Consequently one leg came free and shot ahead of the other two officers. “Haha!” Digger James laughed as he hopped forward and popped his AWOL leg back in situ… “Even my leg wanted to kick your arses!” (or words to that effect!)
Well, Ian and I didn’t quite know how to respond. I guess all the three officers saw was too red-faced young Medic trainees with our jaws on the floor! Needless to say, next thing Digger James returned with two bottles of port. Passing one to each of us, he said “Not a word, OK fellas?”
“Yessir...Nosir! Thankyousir!” we echoed, bothe braced solidly to attention, looking at each other slightly bewildered and grinning at the same time…With that, ended my first ever of several very pleasant encounters with Digger James…
2) Ex RAAMC Corporal Stephen Hammond said; “My first Army posting was 4 Camp Hospital, Lavarack Barracks Townsville 1977. I was a Medical Orderly but moved across to Q Store/Pharmacy. I also qualified as a projectionist and worked in the Lavarack Barracks Cinema. I was pretty chuffed to meet Digger James and act as his projectionist (overheads, slide camera and 35mm film). I was so stressed that I'd bugger something up. All went well...” Steve was really thrilled to receive a personal letter from Digger James to thank him. He has treasured that letter since 1980.
3) Peter Agius who served in the RAAMC for 30-plus years, said: “A long story made longer about Digger James and myself and Baz Connolly ... When I got posted to RAP 2 CER (92-94) Digger James was our contract MO... Anyways this one particular young officer LT burst into the RAP and promptly informed Bazz and I how [expletive deleted] important and busy he was and that he needed to see the doctor/MO ASAP...
He used such profound words as: you there SGT and CPL! I need to see him ASAP and I will not be vetted... Duly informed the said most very important LT in the Australian Army that we shall speak with the MO... Blah blah blah, Bazz and I probably spent 5 minutes character assassinating this nutbag's already shabby character and allowed him in to see the MO... At no time did Bazz or I tell him who the doctor was...
When he came out of the doctor's office holding his now newly torn arsehole, [Peter’s words - I hope you don’t take offence!] we took great pleasure in seeing how his meeting went with the good Major General, did he insist on you calling him Digger? (not)... Apparently he wasn't the most important LT in the Aust Army after all...
We laughed so hard that some wee came out... We would always pass on the General's regards to him...”
4) The story regarding the opening of the Digger James Club when the old Sergeant’s Mess was changed at 1 Mil was hilarious…
“Folk who were there on that occasion laugh until they are red in the face and recall a certain as yet UNNAMED individual who had kept the beers pouring for Digger and then managed somehow to remove one of his legs so he could not leave until they WANTED him to! It was truly evident that Digger James is one of the most revered and admired gentleman who has served in the Australian Army.”
Sadly, Digger was gravely ill at the time of the 2015 Reunion. His son, Bill was going to be there to represent the family, but Digger's health slipped so low that Bill decided to be there with his Dad (and rightly so) Digger and his wife Barbara kindly passed on a message. I believe that this could well have been his last message to anyone apart from those who were with him at the time of his passing.
MESSAGE FOR THE “BIG BASH REUNION”
2ND-5TH OCTOBER 2015
You will know how much I would like to be with you at this great “reunion bash” and I am sure you will all have the best time ever.
Everywhere these reunions are so important to maintain the camaraderie, just to keep us all in touch over the years. This has to be a particular time in the history of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps, to be cherished and recorded when in this day so many traditions and values are considered “old fashioned” and completely abandoned. Such a loss in so many ways and for so many young people.
A big thank you must go to Chris Heinjus and Darrall Harvey and their team for this magnificent function. An extraordinary effort from them all: the success of putting the whole weekend together and contacting so many people.
A big thank you to all who are here to make it the success it will be.
Good luck one and all and once again have a magnificent weekend. Barbara and I would love to be with you.
2nd October 2015
Digger's Memorial Service at the Church opposite the Town Hall in Brisbane was huge. It was attended by hundreds and televised live nationally. I was extremely privileged to be asked to attend and sat among many dignitaries and mates. The service was one that I am certain Digger would have been thrilled to see, even though he was a modest man and not one for the limelight. I am sure that if he was able to give a speech that day he would have talked about his family and US - his military family - and not him.