John Alexander French was born on July 15, 1914 in Crow’s Nest, north of Toowoomba. His father, Albert French, was a barber originally from Tenterfield and his mother, Lucy, settled in Crow’s Nest with her family after moving from Charleville.
John attended the Crow’s Nest State Primary School from 1920 to 1928. In May of 1928, he sat for and successfully passed a demanding State scholarship examination. As a boy, John excelled at sports, and in rugby league he was known as “The Flying Winger”.
John was renowned for his sense of fair play and protected those who were weaker. One childhood friend, Alf Blinco, remembers a time when he was accused of stealing and unjustly punished, John found the real culprits and brought them to justice thus exonerating his friend.
John enrolled as a State scholarship holder at the Toowoomba State High School and Technical College for his secondary schooling. He was popular and well regarded by his peers and the teachers. After completing his studies in 1929, John returned to Crow’s Nest and commenced an apprenticeship with his father.
When World War II became a certainty, John was the first in Crow’s Nest to enlist. He was posted to the 2/9th battalion and left home on October 23, 1939. This was the first battalion raised in Queensland in World War II.
On May 5 1940, after a period of intense training, the battalion embarked on the ‘Mauritania’ which carried them to the UK for further training. On January 1 1941 the battalion sailed to Alexandria and successfully captured the Italian fort of Giarabub. The battalion went on to battle at Tobruk before engaging in further training in Syria.
The battalion was eventually permitted to return to Australia for seven days leave followed by a new round of re-training using new methods. The men realised that a new enemy was to be faced to protect their families and their way of life, they must engage the Japanese.
At 4pm on September 4 1942, ‘B’ Company of the 2/9th battalion of which Corporal French was a member, encountered heavy Japanese fire at Milne Bay. After ordering his section to take cover, John bravely wiped out two Japanese gun posts.
As he advanced on the third however, he was hit with a barrage of bullets and fatally wounded but not before killing all of the three Japanese gun crews and successfully concluding the attack. John French was awarded the British Commonwealth’s highest award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross.
His was the first awarded in Australia and the only one on the Downs.
Toowoomba State High School. Corporal J.A. French, V.C. Research Committee – “Corporal John Alexander French, V.C.” 1983.
French, M & Waterson, D – “Darling Downs : a pictorial history 1850-1950” p. 219. 1982.