Canowindra RSL sub-Branch recognises role of Indigenous soldiers

Private William Irwin. Photo: Northern Daily Leader

Private William Irwin. Photo: Northern Daily Leader

Indigenous Australians have served in virtually every conflict and peacekeeping mission in which Australia has participated since the start of last century - from the Boer War to East Timor.

In the first half of the 20th century non-Europeans officially were barred from serving in Australia's armed forces but during World War I approximately 500 Indigenous Australians served.

The precise number of Indigenous Australians who volunteered is not known because, ironically, ethnicity was not actually recorded on personnel files.

In the Army, a man became a soldier irrespective of the colour of his skin.

Some might find it strange that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders wanted to serve a country that did not recognise them as citizens until 1967.

Reasons for enlistment were many: some hoped that war service might help the Indigenous campaign for citizenship and equality; some believed the war was just; others sought adventure, good pay, or joined up because mates did come down to relying on your mates so racism, for once, took a back seat.

White and black soldiers forged friendships in the trenches of Gallipoli and the Western Front or on horseback with the Light Horse in the Middle East.

In common with other soldiers, Indigenous servicemen generally were anonymous men who earned neither bravery awards nor mentions in the official history.

However, some were decorated for outstanding actions.

Corporal Albert Knight, 43rd Battalion, and Private William Irwin, 33rd Battalion, were each awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal - second only to the Victoria Cross for men in their ranks - and others the Military Medal.

Private William Rawlings, 29th Battalion, was awarded his Military Medal for 'rare bravery in the performance of his duty' in July 1917.

He was killed in action the following year.

Despite the disappointment of Indigenous veterans after World War I, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders made a greater contribution to Australia's defence in World War II.

Some Indigenous Australians argued against war service but hundreds joined up anyway.

Indigenous servicemen and women in the regular AIF, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) received equal pay (almost unheard-of in civilian jobs), could expect promotion on merit, and forged friendships with white men.

On the other hand, even in uniform some were refused service in pubs or endured racial taunts from other soldiers - usually men they did not serve closely with.

War service was thus a mixed experience.

In all, an estimated 3,000 Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders served in the armed forces in World War II - many in specially raised Indigenous units.

A Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion was formed in 1941, primarily to protect Torres Strait.

A remarkable man was Warrant Officer Leonard Waters, a Queenslander, who was the first Indigenous Australian to earn his 'wings' as a pilot.

During 1944-45, Waters served in 78 Squadron RAAF, flying Kittyhawk fighters in Dutch New Guinea, Morotai and Borneo, bombing and strafing Japanese positions.

Appropriately, his Kittyhawk was named 'Black Magic'.

Despite having been prepared to fight and die for their country, war service again failed to translate into full citizenship and recognition for Indigenous Australians.

Indigenous veterans could still be denied a drink in pubs, which was potentially an issue if they attended unit reunions, and they felt marginalised by conservative ex-service organisations that frequently railed against Indigenous rights.

On the other hand, they could march proudly with their mates on Anzac Day.

For many years, the service of Indigenous Australians was not adequately recognised but strong efforts have been made to change this at individual, armed forces and government levels.

In recent years, Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers have published books and articles on Aboriginal servicemen and women, and websites have appeared.

In contrast to the early part of last century, Australia actively recruits indigenous communities for reserve and regular soldiers in the Australian Defence Force