John “Jack” McMullen – Celebrate Living History

John “Jack” McMullen

By Caitlin Matticoli Edited by Jake Watson

John ‘Jack’ McMullen was a man of strength and toughness. He joined the Royal Australian Navy in his early 20s as an engineer. As my great-grandmother Margret used to say, “Jack was straight forward. What you saw was what you got”.


_Growing up in Abbotsford, Jack was born into a relatively well-off family. At a very young age, his parents decided, as Jack says, to “ship him off” to boarding school. Margret and Jack met before he enlisted in the Navy, at Myers in Melbourne. A love story that, when told by them, seems like a joke. Margret was working in the linen department and Jack saw her from across the shop. They dated for as long as they could until Jack was posted to multiple destinations in Australia and overseas, to either train or serve. Margret and Jack were not very romantic people, so they agreed that if they wrote letters, that would make things harder. So, they decided that they’d meet up once Jack was posted closer to home.

Jack’s military time was hard and complicated, and like most of that generation, he never spoke about it. Sailing around the Asian Pacific region, he realised that this wasn’t the life he signed up for, and decided that once he got back to Australia he would delist. Jack was very smart, excelling in his studies and training after boarding school. He also was top of his class during recruiting and training sessions for the Navy. His acceptance and forgiveness are why I know he was a smart man: instead of having hate for countries like Japan, especially from his military background, he chose to travel there after World War II.

Once Jack got home, he decided to propose to Margret, and they got married in a small wedding ceremony. About a year later, their first child, Barry, was born. Following on from Barry, Maureen, Joseph (‘Joe’), and Lance were all born within a 10 year period. Jack didn’t know how to have a family, especially such a big one as his.

A day my grandmother will never forget was the day Lance was diagnosed with Leukaemia Lymphoma, a white blood cell cancer that makes immunity from simple things very low, even deathly. Lance lived a life in and out of the Royal Children’s Hospital. Back in those days, there were no appeals, no donations, just a public hospital, over capacity. In Lance’s room, there were eight other children suffering from similar diseases. Jack and Margret struggled to care for their other children whilst one was so sick. The other children, especially the older ones like Barry and Maureen, had to step up and do chores around the house, and gained a lot more maturity. Unfortunately, at age seven, Lance passed away. Margret found it very difficult to move on. The struggle of losing the ‘baby’ was hard, as any parent would agree. Jack dealt with it quietly. He became more to himself, and less about the family.

Barry, the oldest, decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the Navy. After being to lots of different places around Australia on postings, Barry left the Navy for an office job. He was sick of living the life of adventure and needed a break.    It’s weird how fate changes major decisions like that; Barry was walking home one night from a dinner and a truck failed to stop at intersection where Barry was walking. He was instantly killed by the impact.

Losing half of their children changed Margret and Jack. They used to be fun parents that took their kids on holidays; they were now homebodies. Jack had an office job, hardly a career or what he wanted to do, but it paid the bills. Margret was unable to go back to work, so she became a stay-at-home mother.

Maureen and Joe grew up and moved out of home. It was just Margret and Jack. Margret was forward with her emotions; she could freely express how she felt, especially towards her lost children. Jack was different. The built-up stress and his age caused him to have huge heart problems. He died in his sleep.

John ‘Jack’ McMullen is my great-grandfather; a man that I have heard many stories about, but never had the chance to meet. Through my mum, and my pop, Joe, I’ve heard about his wit and his sense of humour, but also the sadness he had to face during his life. He never spoke to a single soul, not even my great-grandmother, about what he had to see whilst serving in the Navy, and he never spoke about watching his youngest son deteriorate right in front of his eyes, or when he had to confirm to the police that he was looking at Barry’s body.

Many people of that generation grew up believing that mental health was a myth, and although many people of that time suffered from post-traumatic stress, nobody was willing to admit it. As Margret, my great-grandmother, said, “Jack never wanted to be seen as weak”. Admitting you’re facing problems in your life is not admitting you are weak, but admitting that you’re normal; we all need some time to talk it through. There are many people that faced a very similar life to Jack and Margret. This piece is to show that life is always going to be hard, but it’s important to take some time out for your health; not just physical.