William James (general)

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William James
Lt William Digger James AWM.JPG
Lieutenant William James in November 1952, during the Korean War
Born(1930-05-14)14 May 1930
Shepparton, Victoria
Died16 October 2015(2015-10-16) (aged 85)
Brisbane, Queensland
Service/branchAustralian Army
Years of service1948–1984
RankMajor General
Unit1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment
Royal Australian Armoured Corps
Commands held8th Field Ambulance
Battles/warsKorean War
Vietnam War
AwardsCompanion of the Order of Australia
Officer of the Order of Australia (Military)
Member of the Order of the British Empire
Military Cross
Officer of the Order of St John
Other workNational President of the RSL (1993–97)

Major General William Brian "Digger" James AC, AO (Mil), MBE, MC, FRACS (14 May 1930 – 16 October 2015) was an Australian soldier and military physician who served in the Australian Army during the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Early life[edit]

William James was born in May 1930 in Shepparton, the son of Thomas James, a local orchardist who had emigrated from Ireland. He was educated at Grahamvale State School and Shepparton High School. His lifelong nickname "Digger" pre-dated his military career, having been applied when someone placed a slouch hat on his head at the age of ten months.[1]

Military and medical career[edit]

Duntroon training[edit]

At the completion of his schooling, James attended the Royal Military College, Duntroon, from which he graduated in 1951.[2]

Korean War[edit]

Posted to the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), in 1952 James served as a platoon commander during the Korean War. On 7 November, during the Second Battle of Maryang San (Hill 355), he led a patrol of twelve men to capture an enemy outpost. The group inadvertently entered a Canadian minefield, resulting in the death of one soldier and four injuries, including the loss of James' left foot. Using a shoelace as a torniquet, James then organised the evacuation of his men from the battlefield, radioing for help and waiting three hours before being evacuated himself due to a shortage of stretchers.[1]

He underwent surgery at an American MASH unit in Korea, before being flown to Kure, Japan where he spent four months being treated at the British Commonwealth General Hospital. In late December, he was repatriated to Australia where he spent fourteen months in recovery at the Royal General Hospital, Heidelberg.[1]

On 3 March 1953, James was awarded the Military Cross for gallant and distinguished service in Korea due to his actions that day. The citation for his MC read:

The example set by Lieutenant 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.

Medical training[edit]

Upon his release from hospital, James transferred to the Royal Australian Armoured Corps. He was posted to a training regiment at the School of Armour, serving as the regiment's adjutant before taking up a position as cadre staff in the 12th/16th Hunter River Lancers, a reserve cavalry regiment, based at Muswellbrook.[1]

His experiences in military medical facilities sparked an interest in the field, and in 1957, James left the Army to study medicine at the Sydney Medical School, from which he graduated in 1963 with a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS).[1] After serving his hospital residency, James rejoined the Army as a medical officer for the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps (RAAMC).[3]

Vietnam War[edit]

Promoted to major, James was posted to command the 8th Field Ambulance in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War from January 1968 to January 1969. He also served as senior medical officer for the 1st Australian Task Force in Nui Dat over the same period. He used his personal experience as a wounded soldier in Korea to inspire and encourage other patients, particularly those injured by land mines.[2]

In April 1969 he became a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the military division for his Vietnam service.[4]

Post-war service[edit]

In 1971, James served with a British St John's Ambulance medical relief team during the aftermath of the Biafran Civil War in Nigeria, for which he became and Officer of the Order of Saint John.[3]

Returning to Australia, James was appointed Queensland state director of Army Medical Services from 1971 to 1975, then AMS director at Army Headquarters from 1975 to 1981. In 1981, he was promoted to major general, and served as director-general of Army Health Services until his retirement from the army in 1984.[3]

After retirement[edit]

From 1993 to 1997, James was National President of the Returned Services League (RSL). From 1993 to 2000, he sat on the council of the Australian War Memorial, serving as the council's president from 1999 to 2000.[1] He was also chairman of the Australian Light Horse Association, and his face was used as the model for one of the soldiers on the Light Horse memorial in Beersheba, Israel which he unveiled in 2008, and was funded by his childhood friend, Richard Pratt.[5]

An avowed monarchist, James was a member of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy (ACM), and a delegate to the Australian Constitutional Convention 1998.[6]

Personal life[edit]

James died on 16 October 2015.[3] He was married for more than 60 years to Barbara, with whom he had four children.[2]

Honours and awards[edit]

Order of Australia (Military) ribbon.png Order of the British Empire (Military) Ribbon.png Military cross BAR.svg Order of St John (UK) ribbon -vector.svg
Australian Active Service Medal 1945-75 ribbon.png Korea Medal.svg United Nations Service Medal Korea ribbon.svg Vietnam Medal ribbon.png
Defence Force Service Medal (Australia) ribbon.png National Medal (Australia) ribbon.jpg Australian Defence Medal (Australia) ribbon.png Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal ribbon, with 60- clasp.svg

OrderAustraliaRibbon.png Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) 1998 Australia Day Honours[7]
Order of Australia (Military) ribbon.png Officer of the Order of Australia (military) (AO [Mil]) 1985 Queen's Birthday Honours[8]
Order of the British Empire (Military) Ribbon.png Member of the Order of the British Empire (military) (MBE [Mil]) ANZAC Day 1969[4]
Military cross BAR.svg Military Cross (MC) 3 March 1953[9]
Order of St John (UK) ribbon -vector.svg Officer of the Order of Saint John 1971
Australian Active Service Medal 1945-75 ribbon.png Australian Active Service Medal 1945–1975 with clasps Korea and Vietnam[10]
Korea Medal.svg Korea Medal [10]
United Nations Service Medal Korea ribbon.svg United Nations Service Medal for Korea [10]
Vietnam Medal ribbon.png Vietnam Medal [10]
Defence Force Service Medal (Australia) ribbon.png Defence Force Service Medal [10]
National Medal (Australia) ribbon.jpg National Medal (Australia) 25 February 1980[11]
Australian Defence Medal (Australia) ribbon.png Australian Defence Medal [10]
Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal ribbon, with 60- clasp.svg Vietnam Campaign Medal Republic of Vietnam[10]
Infantry Combat Badge [10]
Royal Cypher of Queen Elizabeth II all in gold. This form of the cypher is used on applicable uniforms by designated personnel holding appointments to the Queen or her Vice Regal representatives, eg Aides de Camp to the Queen, Honorary Physicians to the Queen, etc~ Honorary Physician to the Queen (QHP) [2]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Lennon, Troy (20 October 2015). "Landmine injury inspired Major William 'Digger' James to become champion of war veterans". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d "Former chairman of the Australian War Memorial, Major-General 'Digger' James dies". The Canberra Times. 19 October 2015. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d "Vale Major General "Digger" James". Australian War Memorial. 18 October 2015. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  4. ^ a b "JAMES, William Brian MBE(M)". It's an Honour. Australian Government. Retrieved 23 October 2015.
  5. ^ Brown, Matt (29 April 2008). "Childhood friend inspires Pratt to fund digger memorial". AM. ABC Radio. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  6. ^ Colhoun, Terry. "Interview with William Brian "Digger" James, Major General in the Australian Armed Forces [sound recording]". National Library of Australia. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
  8. ^ AO (Mil) - "For service to the Australian Army, Medical Services and as Director-General of Army Health Services."
  9. ^ Military Cross - "For self sacrifice, extreme fortitude and devotion to duty when in great personal distress."
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Patron of Australian Light Horse Association
  11. ^ National Medal

External links[edit]