John McKee was born on 3 July 1876 in Thames and on leaving school, completed his apprenticeship as a carpenter before working in Te Aroha.
John McKee completed three years Volunteer service with the Piako Rifles (two years as an officer) before sailing to South Africa to take part in the 2nd Anglo Boer War. John enlisted on 11 April 1902, aged 24 and served as a Sergeant with the 10th Contingent, NZ Mounted Rifles and by all accounts was an expert rifle shot. When the New Zealanders came home, John, now a Warrant Officer was attached to the Royal Engineers in South Africa during reconstruction of the Cape Colony where his carpentry skills proved invaluable.
Back home in New Zealand, John enlisted with the Permanent Force and was employed as a carpenter instructor and Sub-Area Sergeant Major for the New Zealand Defence Department at Maungaturoto (Northland) when World War One broke out. Now married to Angelina, John McKee felt a strong sense of duty and enlisted on 9 December 1915 aged 38 as Company Sergeant Major of the Tunnelling Company, New Zealand Engineers. They embarked on 18 December 1915 aboard Waitemata and headed for England, arriving in Plymouth on 18 February 1916 before embarking for France on 9 March 1916.
Based north of the town of Arras, John McKee suffered through illness with bouts of flu and bronchitis, being hospitalised at the No. 3 General Hospital and 8th Michelin Convalescent Hospital. When back with the tunnelers, he was promoted to Second Lieutenant and then Lieutenant on 11 February 1917. The New Zealand tunnellers and German miners were often involved in attacks and counter attacks on 2 May 1917, John McKee was wounded. After a short period of convalescence, he re-joined the unit and carried on the work underground. From May 1917 to July 1918, the tunnellers made various digging works beneath the trenches on the front line. The tunnellers stayed in Arras until 15 July 1918 and were then transferred to the Marieux sector, near Doullens, bordering the Pas-de-Calais and the Somme area. The unit became involved in bridging, including the Havrincourt Bridge over the Canal du Nord.
On 2 December 1918, 4/1232 Lieutenant John McKee returned to New Zealand aboard the Maunganui and was discharged on 6 February 1919. In July 1919, John McKee’s name was published in the London Gazette as having been awarded a MiD (Mentioned in Despatches) by General Sir Douglas Haig for “distinguished and gallant service and devotion to duty during operations over the period 16th September 1918 to the end of hostilities”.
John McKee returned to Auckland, eventually moving to Whangarei, John McKee passed away on 15 August 1952, aged 76.