BY TERRY EDWINSMITH
Don served in Papua New Guinea during the war at Kokoda after signing up in 1940 in Australia as V54635.
He headed to Port Moresby with his militia garrison on 4 January 1942 as an 18-year old on the Aquitania. He was posted to Seven Mile aerodrome (near Port Moresby), surviving air raids and the strafing of the field by the Japanese.
Later that year, in June 1942, his 39th battalion moved along the Kokoda Track, to be joined by the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB).
Due to the deteriorating military conditions, this garrison was sent as a blocking force to hamper and resist the Japanese advance.
Don was in ‘A’ Company which reached the forward position at Deniki and he took part in the brief recapture of Kokoda after the Japanese landed at Gona and began their advance over the Owen Stanley Range.
A Japanese counter attack saw the decimation of Don’s section, forcing the few remaining soldiers to retreat.
Don was awarded the Military Medal for his action in this conflict. His citation reads: ‘Courage of the highest order and devotion at Kokoda, 9th August 1942’.
The 39th Battalion withdrew to Port Moresby for rest and recreation. After being reinforced, it was flown to Popondetta in December 1942 and then moved to the Gona area where Don was part of the final successful attack on Gona village. He then moved on to the final attack on Haddy’s village before relocating to the Sanananda area.
Don was evacuated in early 1943 after contracting malaria and scrub typhus. The actions of the 39th Battalion, formed from civilians and militia men (CMF) in Victoria to act as garrison or a support battalion, has become the stuff of legend.
Their brief existence of 18 months or so greatly helped stem the flow of the Japanese advance. Don was an active participant in this legend.
Following the war, Don married, was discharged from the army in 1946, and briefly enjoyed civilian life before re-enlisting in the Australian Army in October 1950 to serve as a national service battalion instructor at Puckapunyal in Victoria with the rank of Warrant Officer 2.
He moved to the School of Infantry at Seymour and accompanied the school when it moved to Ingleburn in 1960. A posting to 1RAR as Regimental Sergeant Major followed, and then he toured Bien Hoa in South Vietnam.
Following these deployments, a posting to Melbourne’s 23rd Cadet Battalion ensued before Don was posted to 1PIR in Port Moresby from July 1968 to August 1970 following the untimely death of incumbent RSM, WO1 Fredrick Wilson in March 1968.
RSM McKay was the last Australian regimental sergeant major at Taurama Barracks, working closely with PNG RSM Osi, himself a WW2 veteran.
At this time Don McKay joined the Taurama Barracks Sergeants’ Mess, leaving his family in Australia. During this period, at the age of 45 years, he came in contact with Australian national service sergeants and subalterns working in what was the Territory of PNG.
Don’s friendly, quiet approach to his job has been the subject of Norm Hunter’s paper on effective leadership, 40 years on: Some reflections on leadership and power.
I still think about McKay’s leadership style, as it was so effective, yet not easy to analyse. He was a quiet person. He quickly knew the names of every person in the Sergeants’ Mess. He often engaged us on a first name basis in conversation where he treated us as equals. At the same time his word was law.
I think that one of his ‘secrets’ was that he attended to the little things, especially the personal relationships and in doing so he built up a huge reserve of respect and good will. A further ‘secret’ was that he asserted his authority as RSM strategically. He conveyed strong expectations that what he wanted would occur. No-one wanted to disappoint him. It had much to do with the personal respect in which he was held.
Hunter concluded by saying that, in his time at Taurama Barracks, he never heard a criticism of McKay by anyone. A sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree.
This quiet assertiveness was evident in Don’s dealings with all he commanded. One night he was the subject of a joke when the ‘phantom’ struck his sleeping quarters. The culprits, when caught, took their extra weekend duties with good humour, still enjoying his respect and friendship.
Battalion harmony was a key ingredient of his command. Don enjoyed the company of younger serving soldiers.
From Port Moresby, Don moved to Australia House in London for a three-year posting then to Southern Command, Victoria Barracks Melbourne, until his retirement in 1974.
Apart from two years civilian service, Don had spent upwards of 32 years in the Army. To add to his Military Medal, in 1998 he received a Distinguished Service Medal for his Vietnam service.
At JD’s funeral, Bob Richardson - Victorian Branch Secretary of the RAR Association and National Vice President of 1st Battalion Association - said this: “Our Macca, Don, JD, was highly respected by all with whom he served, he was a mentor and friend, he was the soldiers’ soldier.”
The passing of such a giant of a man who performed great deeds quietly and effectively, inspiring others in their daily routine, an active defender of PNG and Australia in its darkest hour in WW2 and a mentor to PNG and Australian soldiers alike, should never be forgotten.
Not at Taurama Barracks where he served.
History had erased his name from the honour boards even before his death. The burning down of the Taurama Barracks administration building removed all memories of his service.
Other administrators both before and after Don’s service at 1PIR are recognised, but the last two European RSMs are missing from the roll.
I believe both RSM McKay and his predecessor RSM Wilson should be recognised.
Recognition of Don’s military service to government, Queen, country and to fellow man - service without greed and malice towards others - are worthy of display in PNG. “Lest we forget!”