Lest we forget our “Heroes Too”
A fascinating new exhibition now on at the Queensland Military Memorial Museum in Brisbane celebrates the significant contribution the state’s Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women made to Australia’s Defence Force, from the Boer War to World War II.
“Heroes Too” – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian Defence Forces – examines the lives of a range of Indigenous participants who carried out a wide variety of duties and found themselves in extraordinary circumstances, from front-line combat roles, to fighter pilots, to those who were mistaken for spies due to the colour of their skin.
It also examines the hardships that many faced when they returned from active service, inspiring some to rise to great heights – read Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) – while killing off the dreams of others who returned to the systematic racism that often fuelled 20th Century Australia.
We are introduced to Victor Blanco, who signed up with the militia in 1939 before being posted to the 2/31 Battalion which was formed in England before being sent to Egypt to assist in defence of a possible German attack along the Libyan Front.
Later, the Battalion saw heavy action in the campaign to invade Syria and Lebanon. By early 1942, they were back in Australia, training before being deployed to reinforce battered Australian forces along the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea.
We meet Torres Strait Islander Kapiu Masai Gagai, who first served in the 7th Military District’s Special Reconnaissance Unit as a boatswain on the ‘Aroetta’, patrolling the waters off Arnhem Land for possible Japanese raids.
After this unit was disbanded he served for a time with the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion stationed on Thursday Island, and in 1943 he was seconded to the 11th Infantry Brigade, led by Donald Thomson, where he took part in a hazardous expedition into Dutch New Guinea against Japanese outposts.
Gagai, Thomson and another man were seriously wounded when they were attacked by New Guinean warriors near the Eilanden River. The three later recovered from their wounds and Gagai returned to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion until his discharge in 1945. Gagai, like so many other members of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, was not given the same pay rates and conditions as his white counterparts.
And, of course, there is Oodgeroo Noonuccal who had always wanted to be a nurse but was rejected due to her Aboriginality. When her brothers Eddie and Eric Ruska were captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore, Kath enlisted with the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS).
In stark contrast she found that she was not discriminated against and had equal opportunities. Kath made many firm and lasting friends while working with the AWAS in Signals, learning telephony and stenography skills while stationed at Area Signals Headquarters, Chermside. She was forced to leave the Army in 1944 due to a persistent middle ear infection.
When she returned to civilian life, she was once again subject to discrimination, which led her to become the fervent advocate for Indigenous rights and carved her place in Australian history as a leader through her writing and advocacy.
From Nindigully, near St. George, Leonard Waters took advantage of the opportunities that wartime presented and in 1942 signed up with the Royal Australian Air Force as ground crew. He was eventually appointed as a pilot and then later as a fighter pilot – the “elite of the elite” in the RAAF.
He flew some 95 operational sorties for Number 78 Fighter Squadron in New Guinea and Borneo; occasionally as a commander. By the end of the war he had been promoted to Warrant Officer.
After the war and lacking financial support that would allow him to fulfil his dreams of setting up an aerial taxi service in western Queensland, he returned to his pre-war occupation of shearing sheep.
There are many other stories in “Heroes Too” – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Defence Force (April 17 – May 21) at the Queensland Military Memorial Museum in Church Street, Fortitude Valley.