Caleb Shang

Born in Brisbane, Caleb Shang lived most of his life in Cairns. He enlisted in the AIF during WWI, demonstrating continuous gallantry throughout his service on the Western Front. During WWII, Shang was active in Cairns’ Volunteer Defence Corps and in recruitment drives. During peace time, he worked as a herbalist, a tally clerk, a taxi driver and a bookmaker.

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Private Caleb James (Charlie) Shang was born in Brisbane on 4 August 1884, the eldest of thirteen children, to Cantonese cabinet maker Lee Wah Shang and Mary Jane (nee Noon) from Gayndah in Queensland. The family ventured into corn farming in southern Queensland and prospecting near Rockhampton, prior to moving to Cairns in 1906. Living in Babinda, near Cairns, Shang enlisted in the AIF as a clerk on 5 June 1916, and embarked for England from Brisbane on 19 September 1916, aged 32.

Shang served with the 47th Battalion from 7 March 1917 until its dissolution in May 1918. Shang spent two weeks detachment to the 48th Battalion in June 1918, and then served with the 45th Battalion until 16 August 1918, when shell-fire wounds left him unfit for duty.

In June 1917, Shang received his first Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous gallantry running water, food and ammunitions to the front line for four days through enemy barrages and fire-swept areas on the Messines Ridge (Belgium) in May 1917. During this time he was noted for attacking and accounting for enemy snipers in broad daylight, and constantly volunteering to scout into enemy territory, gaining valuable information, and demonstrating remarkable improvisation in maintaining lamp signals.

In May 1918, Lieutenant-Colonel AP Imlay complained that his recommendations for Shang to receive the Victoria Cross were being ignored. Imlay described Shang as 'quite fearless' and having 'a habit of performing gallant deeds as a matter of course'. He is recorded as displaying 'utter contempt for danger' and showing 'amazing powers of endurance and great boldness'.

Shang received the bar for his DCM in September 1918 for actions near Dernancourt on the Somme battlefield (France) during March-April 1918. At the onset of the battle, Shang volunteered to hold an advanced operation post, remaining there as an effective sniper until the post was destroyed. Shang then ran ammunitions through intense enemy barrages. At the end of the battle Shang enabled his company's withdrawal by holding the enemy advance at bay with a Lewis-gun.

At the battle of Villers Bretonneaux in May 1918, Shang was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery and initiative during daylight reconnaissance under heavy machine gun and sniper fire. Later that year, Shang was severely wounded in his right leg and hospitalised in England until being sent home.

Upon leaving England, Shang received a personal letter of gratitude from King George V. Shang returned to Cairns in March 1919, to a mayoral welcome before 3000 guests and received funds raised by public subscription. He was discharged from the AIF on 9 April 1919, remaining the highest decorated Chinese-Australia soldier in Australian military history, and one of the Australia’s highest decorated soldiers’.

After WWI, Shang worked as a herbalist, a tally clerk, a taxi driver and an illegal bookmaker. On several occasions during the 1920s, Shang and his brothers were investigated for bribing Customs officers to land opium on secluded beaches, but no charges were laid. On numerous occasions from the late-1920s and throughout the 1930s, Shang was raided, charged and convicted for operating gaming houses, and breaching gambling laws.

Shang was a modest man. He only marched in one Anzac Day parade in 1943, where he wore all his meddles in response to the racial slurs he had begun receiving during WWII. However, Shang remained a committed member of the RSSAILA (later RSL), and the Returned Soldiers' League Volunteer Defence Corps, and actively participated in recruitment drives during WWII. He suffered poor health from the mid-1930s until his death of a chronic chest complaint on 6 April 1953. He was survived by his wife, Anna Louise (nee) Kassene, son Hilton, and two daughters, Delta and Nancy.

  • Australian War Memorial. 2013. Australian Imperial Forces - Nominal Roll. .
  • Australian War Memorial. 2013. First World War Embarkation Rolls - Caleb James Shang. .
  • Cairns Post. 1919. 'Shang Testimonial'. 14 March, p. 8.
  • Cairns Post. 1940. 'Volunteer Defence Corps'. 20 July, p. 1.
  • Cairns Post. 1941. 'Recruiting Rally'. 26 May, p. 4.
  • Cairns Post. 1945. 'Obituary. Mrs. M. J. Shang'. 25 June, p. 3.
  • Cairns Post. 1953. 'Death of World War I Hero'. 7 April, p. 3.
  • Imlay, AP. 2013 (1918). 'Australian Imperial Force War Diary of 47th Battalion A.I.F. for May 1918'. Australian War Memorial. .
  • John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg: 30256. .
  • Kennedy, A. 'Queensland's 'Assassin of Gallipoli' and other Chinese Australian heroes of World War One', in K Wong Hoy, K Rains (eds.), Rediscovered Past: China in northern Australia. Chinese Heritage in Northern Australia Inc., North Melbourne, 2009.
  • Millar, D. 2009. 'The Chinese in Australia 1818-1918'. Agora, vol 44, no. 3, pp. 24-28. .
  • Taplin, H. 1988. 'Shang, Caleb James (1884-1953)'. Australian Dictionary of Biography. .
  • Worthington, K. 2013. A look at the multicultural ANZACS. .