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Brigadier John McCabe – our longest-serving RSDS representative


John McCabe sorts through mail for soldiers (left) and giving a wounded Digger a drink on the Kokoda Track.

As Anzac Day 2024 approaches, Salvos Online brings you the story of Brigadier John McCabe OBE, one of The Salvation Army’s longest-serving Red Shield Defence Services (RSDS) representatives. John was promoted to glory in 2009 at the age of 96.

 

 

John McCabe joined The Salvation Army at the age of 20 and, within a few years, was serving as a ‘Sallyman’ supporting the Australian Defence Forces in the Middle East, Ceylon, Korea, Papua New Guinea and Australia.


He ‘enlisted’ on 28 October 1940, aged 26. In 1941 in the Middle East, he was attached to various units within HQ 6 Australian Division. He returned to Australia in August 1942, but the following month was bound for New Guinea, where he quickly made his presence known with troops on the Kokoda Track.


Brigadier John McCabe worked with Australian troops for more than 25 years.

In New Guinea, he was the only RSDS representative to cross the Kokoda Track and the Sanananda Track during World War Two. Recalling the events years later, he said: “At one stage, we existed for months on a daily ration of a 12-ounce can of bully beef and some dry biscuits. But we got through.”


John, who lost his father to World War One, also served in Korea for 12 months from 1951.


In his roles, in World War Two and Korea, John said he was often called upon to offer advice and counsel to Diggers. In his words, “… a good counsellor needs to have big ears – needs to be a good listener. We relied upon God to help us in these matters, and I believe he did … the advice given and referrals made were not done lightly, but under advice from him.”


John remembered he was sounded out about serving in Korea and was given a chance to decline, but “I was asked to go, and I went; I said yes. The fact was, it was a [kind] of service that I’d been in, and that I’d liked; so much so that, even after Korea, and when I finished my career, I finished back with the services. All told, I had close on 25 years working with troops … I suppose it was something that I felt I could do.”


Although he could only occasionally give a short message, John’s men had the best kind of preacher with them. True to his own philosophy, John lived out his beliefs, and his actions spoke more loudly about the One he represented than any sermon could have.


When asked if he regretted anything about his service, John admitted, “The ones who suffer are the ones that stayed behind. The biggest price for my service was paid by my wife (Elsie). While I was in Korea, we had two children at that stage, and she had all the responsibility while worrying about what was happening.

 

“A soldier is not actually in the frontline all the time,” he continued. “There are times when … the biggest danger that he’s got to fight against is himself and the environment in which he finds himself; particularly in a foreign country.

 

“So, I think that the people who stay behind possibly suffer more; possibly, enough credit has not been given. As far as my wife’s concerned, she paid more, in terms of emotional, spiritual drain and physical drain, than I ever did.”

 

John later became a Salvation Army officer, serving in corps throughout NSW and Queensland, before retiring in 1979. In retirement, he continued to serve others, including working as a volunteer driver at The Salvation Army’s Riverview Gardens facility in Brisbane.


In early 2007, the 3 RAR Association presented John with a plaque honouring the work of The Salvation Army RSDS and for his work as a ‘Sallyman’ during World War Two and the Korean conflict.


In April 2007, the plaque was placed permanently in Concord Hospital’s Kokoda Memorial Garden in Sydney.


Brigadier John McCabe OBE was promoted to glory in July 2009, aged 96. He and his wife Elsie (who was promoted to glory in 2005) had five children.


In his book Salvos With The Forces, author Walter Hull concludes that Brigadier John McCabe OBE “represents all that is finest in a Red Shield representative.”


John McCabe serves a drink to a Digger during his wartime service.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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