Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our defence forces

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have served Australia in war and peacekeeping service from the Boer War to the present time.

Their readiness to enlist beside other Australians to fight abroad for their country and the British Empire is all the more noteworthy when viewed against their lack of citizenship rights and policies that discouraged their enlistment. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders did not gain the privileges of full citizenship until 1967.

The RSL, in the 1930s, made unsuccessful representations for all Aboriginals who had served in the armed forces to be given automatic citizenship and equal rights and continued to press for these rights until they were granted in 1967.

For many of the Aboriginal servicemen the greater opportunities and respect experienced in the defence forces made returning from service a particularly challenging process.

They were at Gallipoli and more than 400 are known to have enlisted in the First World War. But the real number is higher than this figure as some claimed to be Pacific Islanders, Indians or Maori when they enlisted to ensure that their earnings were not controlled or reduced by the state.

Restrictions were eased in October 1917. In the Second World War, restrictions were again applied that led to some being enlisted and others being turned away. The RAAF was the most open, allowing Aboriginal men like Sergeant Leonard Waters to be a pilot in No. 78 Squadron. A Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion was formed.

A well-known Aboriginal soldier was Captain Reg Saunders. His father had fought in France in the First World War and his uncle Reg Rawings MM, after whom he was named, was killed in Flanders.

Captain Saunders fought in the Second World War and also commanded an infantry rifle company in heavy fighting in the Battle of Kapyong in Korea. In 1971 he was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire. His younger brother was killed in action in the Second World War.

In 2009 up to 7,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans and world war widows were part of the Australian community.

Trevor Kenny, of the Bunbury RSL, acknowledged quite a number of Indigenous soldiers who were with him in 4RAR Battalion. He refers to them as ‘great blokes, soldiers, sportsmen and boxers’.

He said: ‘We trusted each other with our lives—people such as Corporal Upton; Private Chadburn Collard; George Bostack, known as the life of the party; and legend Massa Clarke, veteran from World War II until after Vietnam, because nobody knew his age. Also the Bunbury army reserves, Lieutenant-Corporal Des Ugle and Billy Turner, along with Trevor Kenny. Today we have Indigenous members serving our country in land, sea and air.

The highest numbers in Australia are found in the Northern Regional Force Surveillance Units.

The services are helping Indigenous people to join the services by running triservice Indigenous pre-recruit courses, as shown in recent Army newspapers. I want to acknowledge their service.