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Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Armed Forces

The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History

Robert A. Hall

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Armed Forces 

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have participated in each war Australia has fought since the end of the nineteenth century. Aboriginal trackers were employed by the Australian contingent in the Boer War, and approximately 400 to 500 Aborigines served as enlisted soldiers in the First World War. About one-third of those who served became casualties; at least one, Douglas Grant, became a POW and several, including Albert Knight and William Rawlings, won medals for their outstanding courage during battle. On their return to Australia, however, Aboriginal soldiers found that their performance of the duties of citizenship did not win them citizens' rights. Throughout Australia, but particularly in the ‘frontier States’ of Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders remained marginalised, without the vote in State or federal elections, and under the control of the so-called ‘Protection Acts’—highly repressive and paternalistic acts imposing strict White control over almost every aspect of Aboriginal and Islander life.

Despite the failure of White Australia to respond to the sacrifice made by Aboriginal and Islander people during the First World War, it was in the Second World War, and particularly during the war in the Pacific, that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders made their greatest contribution to national defence in terms of raw numbers and in the range of duties they performed. In 1939 the federal government replaced its ‘Protection’ policy with a policy of assimilation, which was aimed at assimilating detribalised Aborigines and Islanders into the broad stream of White Australian society. However, by early 1940 each of the services had passed regulations barring persons not ‘substantially of European origin or descent’ from enlistment. The RAAF alone reserved for itself the right to depart from its regulations in time of war. Many senior officers felt that White Australians would not serve satisfactorily with Black Australians and that the operational performance of the services would suffer as a result. But faced with the heavy manpower demands imposed on it by the Empire Air Training Scheme, the RAAF could not afford to reject otherwise suitable recruits on racial grounds and so began to admit non-Europeans, including Aborigines and Islanders, more freely than the other services. Despite the bans imposed on their enlistment, some Aboriginal and Islander recruits managed to join up very early in the war while recruiting officers were confused about enlistment policy. This contingent included men like Reg Saunders, who was to become the only Aborigine to serve as a commissioned officer in the Australian forces during the war, and Charles Mene, whose many years of exemplary service included winning the Military Medal in the Korean War. The service of these men and others who enlisted at this time proved that the concerns of senior officers were baseless.

Aboriginal political organisations such as the Aborigines' Progressive Association and the Aborigines' Advancement League saw the war as an opportunity to press for an extension of full citizens' rights to Aborigines. Although the powerful National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples had to struggle to achieve the desegregation of the military in the United States, in Australia, where the small number of Aborigines and Islanders available for military service all but eliminated the possibility of forming segregated units, Aboriginal political organisations urged just that. This was to ensure that the war effort of Aboriginal and Islander Australians would be highly visible and therefore form a more potent argument for improving the lot of Black Australians. Apart from some isolated attempts, the armed forces had no interest in enlisting Aborigines and Islanders or in forming segregated units until mid-1941 when the Japanese threat emerged. This caused the demand for military manpower to increase enormously; the services abandoned their earlier exclusive attitudes to the enlistment of Aborigines and Islanders (but kept the discriminatory regulations in place) and began to admit them in larger numbers. Most of the Aborigines who enlisted served in integrated units. The cohesive forces that weld small groups together in military organisations resulted in them finding levels of acceptance they had seldom experienced in their pre-war lives. Military service in integrated units provided opportunities for personal advancement, and many Aborigines and Islanders rose to the rank of NCO where they had command over White Australians in battle—an unheard-of status for Aborigines in pre-war Australia. Others used the war as a means of broadening their personal horizons through travel and the acquisition of skills. One man, Warrant Officer Leonard Waters, fulfilled his boyhood dreams of becoming a fighter pilot, an impossibility for an Aborigine before the war.

As well as abandoning their opposition to the enlistment of non-Europeans, the armed forces also overturned their resistance to the formation of segregated Aboriginal and Islander units. The Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, manned mainly by Islanders but also including some Cape York Aborigines, began recruiting in June 1941 and reached its peak strength of 745 Islanders and Aborigines in August 1943. Officers and senior NCOs were White Australians; segregation of the unit was accompanied by discrimination. The Black soldiers of the Light Infantry Battalion were illegally underpaid throughout the war, and the underpayment was not made good by the Commonwealth government until 1986. Elsewhere in northern Australia, small irregular units of Aborigines were formed to provide surveillance of isolated parts of the coast. In east Arnhem Land, an area unmapped and devoid of White population yet a potential site for a Japanese landing, the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit was formed. Commanded by Squadron Leader Donald Thomson, an anthropologist before the war, it consisted of 50 tribal Aboriginal warriors, six Solomon Islanders, a Torres Strait Islander and several White NCOs. The Aborigines patrolled east Arnhem Land searching for signs of Japanese landings. They were to use their traditional weapons to wage a guerrilla war against the Japanese while reporting the enemy's movements to Darwin. Similar irregular forces were raised at Bathurst and Melville Islands, on the Cox Peninsula across the harbour from Darwin, and at Groote Eylandt. In each case the armed forces sought to make use of the Aborigines' outstanding local knowledge and bushcraft skills for the defence of Australia. Not one of these irregular forces was formally enlisted or paid for their service. The Commonwealth government finally acknowledged the service of these groups in 1992, when they were paid and awarded their war service medals.

As Japanese forces advanced towards Australia, the northern coast was fortified for defence. Some White Australians believed that Aborigines, particularly those who had worked in the pre-war pearling industry which was dominated by the Japanese, would assist the enemy, but this proved false. In fact, Aborigines overwhelmingly gave their support to the defence effort. Across northern Australia they laboured to build airstrips at isolated outposts for the RAAF, they worked to keep the supplies moving north to Darwin for the Army, they rescued downed airmen, salvaged crashed aircraft, located unexploded bombs and performed a host of other tasks. Along the Stuart Highway from Alice Springs to Darwin, labourers and their families were moved into Army-run labour settlements. These settlements set new standards for the accommodation, food rations and welfare of Aboriginal labour in northern Australia and had a considerable but indirect influence on the future of Aboriginal labour relations in this region.

It is impossible to make an accurate tally of the number of Aborigines and Islanders who served in the Second World War because the armed forces generally did not record the race of their recruits. An estimated 3000 Aborigines and Islanders served as formally enlisted soldiers, sailors or airmen. A further 150 served as irregular soldiers in northern Australia and about 3000 worked for at least part of the war as labourers directly employed by the armed forces. This level of effort was a remarkable achievement. Taken alone, the war effort of Torres Strait Islanders, which is much more accurately documented, is even more impressive. Virtually every able-bodied Islander male of military age—about one in every four or five Islanders—served in one or other of the services. This compares very favourably with the figure for Australians as a whole, which was one in every seven or eight.

At the war's end, when the demand for military manpower had again subsided, the armed forces reintroduced their bans on the service of non-Europeans and, for a time, no Aborigines or Islanders were permitted to join the peacetime armed forces, although those who had joined during the war were allowed to remain in service. Aborigines and Islanders who had served in the Second World War were given the vote in Commonwealth elections, and therefore in State elections, through an amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Act, but the general extension of full citizens' rights to all Aborigines—which Aboriginal servicemen and political organisations had been advocating—was not to eventuate until the 1960s.

Some Aboriginal and Islander servicemen remained in the forces following the end of the Second World War and became members of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan, and later served in the Korean War. Other Aborigines with a high public profile, like Reg Saunders, were able to re-enlist for the Korean War. Reg Saunders served with the rank of Captain during the Korean War and commanded a rifle company in 3RAR at the battle of Kapyong.

As late as 1954, and despite the Commonwealth government's assimilation policy, recruiting advertisements continued to warn that persons must be of primarily European descent before they could be eligible for military service. Aborigines were also excluded from the 1951 to 1959 National Service scheme (see Conscription) which conscripted Australians for home defence only. The National Service scheme adopted between 1965 and 1972 conscripted Australians for overseas service but Aborigines were again excluded despite demands from the public for their inclusion. This raised the question of what constituted Aboriginality, and at least one person of ‘part-Aboriginal’ descent added to the anti-conscription debate by arguing that he should be exempt from conscription on the grounds that he was an Aborigine, although he lived a detribalised lifestyle. Numerous Aborigines served in the Vietnam War as volunteers.

In the post-Vietnam era the armed forces continue to be troubled by the problem of ensuring the security of remote parts of northern Australia. The Army has created a series of regionally based Army Reserve surveillance units, namely the North West Mobile Force (NORFORCE), 51 Far North Queensland Regiment and the Pilbara Regiment. The first two draw heavily on the local Aboriginal and Islander population for their recruits, and Aborigines and Islanders are heavily overrepresented in their ranks. By 1992 Aborigines and Islanders were represented within the armed forces as a whole in general accordance with their representation within the community. However, they remain underrepresented in the officer corps, not least through inability to meet stringent educational requirements.

Robert A. Hall