National Reconciliation Week - Highlighting Indigenous Service

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Indigenous men and women have served Australia with distinction in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations for more than a Century.

Research to determine the full extent of the contributions of Indigenous men and women is challenging. Differing attitudes and the fact that attestation papers did not require any reference to race have meant that it is difficult to gain an accurate picture of how many indigenous men and women have served in Australia’s armed forces since 1914. 

There is though, overwhelming evidence of the outstanding service the Indigenous community has given Australia in times of war, and in peacetime, from the battlefields of the First World War to the 51st Battalion of the Far North Queensland Regiment’s present day role in protecting northern Australia. 

Nine men standing in line looking forward holding guns in their right hand

A squad of Melville Island men who were enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy for special duties such as locating stranded airmen and Japanese mines during the Second World War (AWM 062344).

The 51st Battalion is a striking example of modern indigenous service with the unit made up of approximately thirty per cent Indigenous Australians. The battalion patrols 640,000 square kilometres of Northern Australia, providing security and intelligence. 

We are now seeing the role of Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia’s military history receive greater recognition. Last year the 51st Battalion’s Delta Company featured in the Mt Isa Anzac Day commemoration, that included a didgeridoo player accompanying the catafalque party and the presence of Kalkadoon elders. Most significantly, the Mt Isa parade was led by an 87 year old indigenous veteran of the Korean War.

A serviceman seated in uniform placing a hat on a young boy in civilian clothes

Private (Pte) Gerald Joseph Randall, 21, of Fivedock, NSW, places his hat on his friend Mark Rice, 11, of Fivedock, NSW, showing just how its worn, 1970 (AWM PEA/70/0063/EC).

On Anzac Day it is traditional that we cast our thoughts to the original Anzac landings at Gallipoli and the service and sacrifice of so many Australians in the century since. Although there were significant hurdles for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people wishing to enlist during the First World War, this did not defeat their efforts to join up, and today we acknowledge their valuable contribution.

Thirteen Australian diggers standing in two lines in uniform with the front line squatting and holding a sign reading 'Anzacs 1915-16/12/16' an Indigenous digger squats in the middle

Non commissioned officers and gunners who served at Gallipoli. Identified front and centre is Indigenous soldier, 2141 Private Alfred Jackson Coombs (AWM P01242.002).

Some saw it as an opportunity to gain improved treatment and equality after the war, while for some the opportunity to earn a regular salary and to travel overseas was as attractive as it was for non-indigenous Australians. Many enlisted purely out of love of country and a sense of loyalty and patriotism.

We know that at least 1,000 Indigenous Australians served during the First World War and that once they were in the Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F) they were treated as equals at their level of rank. There are many examples of the bravery of these ‘coloured diggers’, including men like Private John Fitzgerald a farmhand from near York Western Australia who joined up when he was 28 and served as a sapper on the Western Front, William Rawlings who was awarded the Military Medal for leading a bayonet charge at Morlancourt in July 1918 and Albert Knight who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry in the attack on the village of Bony in September 1918. Like other aspects of service in the Australian Imperial Force, once a man was in uniform his colour played no role in his receiving or being denied a decoration. 

An Indigenous Australian digger in uniform standing side on and holding a shovel rested on his shoulder

Informal portrait of Aboriginal serviceman, WX28716 Private Victor Nelson, 17 Platoon, D Company, 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion, holding a shovel over his shoulder on John’s Track, Borneo, 1945 (AWM 089736).

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people again rallied to serve during the Second World War. Enlistment became much easier after Japan’s entry into the war with high levels of recruitment into frontline and support units. There are many accounts of indigenous soldiers’ upholding the qualities associated with Anzac – endurance, mateship, bravery and stoicism. These qualities prompted some non-indigenous servicemen to pen songs and poems in honour of their indigenous mates. 

There are many examples of Indigenous service during the Second World War, Reg Saunders is among the most well-known. He was the first Aboriginal Australian to be commissioned as an officer in the Australian army. Reg enlisted on 24 April 1940 and was sent to the Middle East. Having survived several encounters with German aircraft in North Africa, Reg embarked for the ill-fated Greek campaign. After Greece his unit fought on Crete where Reg experienced close combat and remained hidden on the island for twelve months after the German victory.

An Indigenous Australian soldier standing side on looking to the right on a ship

Sergeant Reg Saunders pictured somewhere at sea (AWM 003967).

After escaping Crete in May 1942, Reg returned to Australia before rejoining his battalion in New Guinea. He fought through the Salamaua campaign, and in mid-1944 his commanding officer nominated Reg for officer training. Saunders was commissioned in November 1944. His military career did not end with the end of the Second World War and he went on to serve as a captain in the Korean War. His brother Harry was killed at Gona in November 1942.

Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people played a vital role when the war got closer to Australia, serving in northern Australia and the Torres Strait Islands, including in units specifically established to take advantage of their skills and deep local knowledge. 

An Indigenous Australian soldier standing side on looking to the right on a ship

Aboriginal soldier, Bombardier John Burns of Holland Park, Qld (left), speaks with Gunner Bruce Morris of Morwell, Vic, during Operation Toan Thang, Vietnam 1968 (AWM ERR/68/0474/VN).

Pictured below: Informal portrait of Aboriginal serviceman, VX35999 Private Samuel Alexandra Peacock (Sam) Lovett, 6th Reinforcements, 2/5th Battalion, and his niece, 95994 Aircraftwoman (ACW) Alice Lovett, an Aboriginal servicewoman and member of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF)

Indigenous women enlisted in the women’s services or worked in war industries. In northern Australia, Aboriginal and Islander women worked hard to support isolated RAAF outposts and even helped to salvage crashed aircraft.

A notable Indigenous women who was part of Australia’s war effort was Oodgeroo Noonuccal (formerly known as Kath Walker) who joined the Australian Women’s Army Service in 1942 and served as a signaller, after her two brothers were captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore.

Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander personnel served in later wars, conflicts and other deployments (including Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Borneo, Somalia, East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq, and on peacekeeping operations) but exact numbers are difficult to ascertain. Perhaps as many as 300 indigenous service personnel served in Vietnam. Roy ‘Zeke’ Mundine a Retired Warrant Office Class One and veteran of two tours of Vietnam with the 5th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, received an OAM for his 36 years of distinguished service to Australia.

Indigenous veterans in later conflicts include many women such as Lance Corporal Natalie Whyte an Iraq Veteran and member of the Australian Army Ordinance Corp. Lance Corporal Whyte has expressed her pride in having been part of a defence force in which the the enduring Anzac traditions of equality and mateship live on and are shared by every serviceman and women no matter their background. 

A man surrounded by children in Somalia whilst on a foot patrol in the street of Baidoa

Private Graeme M. Brown, an Aboriginal member of the Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR), Unified Task Force in Somalia (UNITAF) surrounded by children, on foot patrol in a street of Baidoa, in 1993 (AWM P01735.401).

National Reconciliation Week is an important reminder of how we have come together as Australians and fought side by side to defend our country and shared values over more than a century.