Equality gained and lost: Recovering the stories of Indigenous Second World War veterans

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, the Indigenous Australian community was keen, like their WWI ancestors before them, to play their part in the defence of Australia. For some, like Australia’s first Indigenous commissioned officer Reg Saunders, it was the continuation of a long Indigenous legacy of defending their homeland.

“….it was a sense of duty to the country. Australia is my country and I’d merely followed in the footsteps of hundreds of other Aboriginals in World War One”.[1]

Recovering the impact of this experience has proven to be a complicated matter. Despite the enthusiasm to play their part, a clause within Australian defence policy stated that enlistees needed to be of substantial European origin, meaning that many Indigenous Australians were barred from enlisting in the services. Recruitment was opened up in 1942, following the bombing of Darwin but by this stage, a number of Indigenous enlistees had managed to get through the process by faking their ancestry. Out of the 850,000 Australians who served in the Second World War, it is estimated that 3,000 of them were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, however the exact number is impossible to know. For all its racial based policy, the AIF neglected to record an enlistees’ ancestry and therefore Indigenous identity fades into the official records, amongst a sea of names, ranks and serial numbers.

An attempt to rectify this during the late 80’s and early 90’s by Robert Hall, Alick Jackomos and Derek Fowell made significant headway in recovering an indigenous experience but their research also coincided with the period when the war generation began to pass away, taking their stories with them. While the Indigenous experiences of those that have been recovered largely sound like the experiences of thousands of other Australians who served in the war, it is upon returning home that their stories begin to show their differences.

Both Indigenous and non-indigenous veterans frequently reported that racism disappeared during the course of the war. The conflict saw large parts of the non-indigenous male Australian population relocated to northern Australia, increasing their contact with the local Indigenous population. Soldiers in the AIF almost exclusively rejected racism with their Indigenous colleagues and this comes out frequently in personal accounts. Not only were Australian soldiers treating their Indigenous mates as equals but they were also literally willing to fight to defend their mate’s equality. In 1941 the secretary of the Barman and Barmaids Union wrote of a clash of interests they had: if their bars served alcohol to Aboriginal serviceman, then they were breaking the law, but if they didn’t serve them, their white cobbers would start a brawl.

Despite a return to inequality following the war, Indigenous contributions to the war effort brought mainstream Australia into contact with its Indigenous population on a new level. Many Indigenous Australians were able to gain skills and experiences that they would never have achieved in civilian life. In addition to this, the impact of Indigenous war service provided a launching pad for Indigenous rights movements, with Indigenous ex-servicemen’s claim to war service, such as that of Stuart Murray and Oodgeroo Noonuccal, projecting a push towards equal rights in society.

After fighting for Australia, Indigenous Australians were still denied Australian citizenship. The implementation of any kind of rights, such as the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, was still decades away. Voting rights in the federal election were extended to Indigenous servicemen in 1949, under the Labor government but this was extended based on military service and not from a sense of equal rights, as it was still denied to the vast majority of the Aboriginal community. Indigenous veterans wanting to catch up with old war mates, were reported in many cases to have been banned from having a beer with their wartime colleagues at Australian hotels, due to laws in many states prohibiting the sale of liquor to Indigenous people. Many veterans were also denied access to the Soldier Settlement Scheme, even if their application was for land which they could claim ancestry.

The war saw co-operation between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australia and many tax-payers and voters were now more aware of the potential and condition of the Indigenous people but despite this, inequality was still present. While serving to fight for freedom and justice against fascism, the same justice and freedoms were not extended to the Indigenous veterans in Australian post war society. The claim that racism virtually disappeared in the services, is an aspect of the war that deserves far more attention than it has. It is tragic that for many Indigenous Australians, the equality they found amongst their wartime comrades was not incorporated into Australian society.

[1] Australian War Memorial, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, Oral Recording No S520, Reginald Saunders, 2/7 Bn, AIF (interview by Peter Read) 13 January 1989 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/S00520/


Australian War Memorial, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, Oral Recording No S520, Reginald Saunders, 2/7 Bn, AIF (interview by Peter Read) 13 January 1989 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/S00520/

Burin, Margaret, ‘Aboriginal digger’s son prepared to take justice fight to Canberra’, interview with John Lovett, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, August 29, 2012 http://www.abc.net.au/local/videos/2012/08/28/3577955.htm?site=southwestvic

Hall, Robert, ‘The Black Diggers: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War’ (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989)

Hall, Robert , ‘Fighters from the Fringe: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Recall the Second World War’ (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1995)

Huggonson, David, ‘Dark Diggers of the AIF’, The Australian Quarterly, No: 61 (3) 1989, 352-357

Jackomos, Alick; Fowell, Derek. ‘Forgotten Heroes: Aborigines at war from the Somme to Vietnam’ (Melbourne: Victoria Press, 1993)

Gordon, Harry, ‘The Embarrassing Australian: The story of an Aboriginal warrior’, (Melbourne: Lansdowne Press Pty Ltd, 1965)

Further Reading 

Australian War Memorial, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, Oral Recording No S01652, Leonard Waters, No 78 Squadron RAAF (Interview by Wing Commander Ken Llewelyn) 12 June 1993 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/S01652/

Australian War Memorial, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, Oral Recording S00519, Robert Alfred John Bloomfield, 2/4th Field Regiment (interviewed by Dr Peter Read). 13 December 1988 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/S00519/ 

Curthoys, Ann ‘National narratives, war commemoration and racial exclusion in a settler society: The Australian case’, The Politics of war memory and commemoration, ed. T.G. Ashplant, Graham Dawson, Michael Roper (London: Routledge, 2000) 128-144

Franks, Rebecca, ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island war heroes ‘vanished’ from the Anzac legend’, The Daily Telegraph, April 21, 2014 http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/city-east/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-island-war-heroes-vanished-from-the-anzac-legend/story-fngr8h22-1226889223896

 News, ‘Removal of Drink Ban Urged’, May 28, 1951, p. 2 http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article129913226


2 comments on “Equality gained and lost: Recovering the stories of Indigenous Second World War veterans

  1. tristgau says:

    What a fascinating topic. I suppose the first thing that comes to mind is the references to feelings of equality amongst soldiers during wartime. Do you think that this is a representation of changing sentiments as a whole, or that this occurred simply due to the close nature of relationships during conflict? Considering the perceived national identity of Australia, I imagine that the role of Aboriginal servicemen and women over the past century has largely been neglected. Research such as yours serves to provide a stepping stone towards the recognition that they deserve. You have presented your research in a way that highlights the complex nature of relationships in warfare, and the way in which these relationships translate to change in peacetime. I think this is important because it contextualizes the way in which change occurs in a society. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this research topic. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Thanks Trist.
      I think it was more the close nature of military service that contributed to a sentiment of equality. As one of the sources said ‘a bullet doesn’t care what colour you are’. The Australian community as a whole at the time didn’t seem to share the same points of view and it is a shame that we remember hardship and mateship and sacrifice in the Anzac legend but have forgotten this. In fairness though, the telling of equality within the social construct of the armed forces during the war, seems to have only surfaced very recently. Most of the interviews with Indigenous veterans that I used were recorded in the early 90’s, meaning that many of them are having to draw on events nearly 50 years after they happened. One veteran in particular, Leonard Water, Australia’s first Indigenous RAAF fighter pilot, had no idea that his experience was even relevant, nor that he was the first Indigenous person to pilot for the RAAF, until Robert Hall contacted him in the late 80’s for an interview.

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