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Anzac Day: finding and telling the stories of all who served

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There are two portraits. On the left is a black and white photograph of an Aboriginal man in full length pilot suit standing in front of a tree and building. On the right is a smiling Aboriginal woman in military uniform and hat. Behind her are curtains.
Warrant Officer Leonard Waters in his winter flying uniform, c. 1943 & Lance Corporal Kathleen Walker, c 1942 Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial
23 Apr 2019

Anzac Day reminds us that no Australian serviceman or servicewoman should be lost and forgotten.

Unfortunately the estimated number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who served in the armed forces is not matched by the number of those recorded as serving.

Their names and stories should also be told; stories like that of Leonard Waters, the first Indigenous fighter pilot in the Australian Air force. Born in 1924 on the Euraba Aboriginal Mission, he was fascinated with aviation from a young age.

In 1942, he volunteered for service in the RAAF and initially trained as a mechanic. He soon applied for pilot training and was accepted in 1943. He flew more than 90 missions over the next year. On one flight his plane was struck by a Japanese 37-millimetre cannon shell which failed to explode. He flew for another 2 hours before landing safely.

We need to hear more stories like that of Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), who joined the Australian Women’s Army Service and trained as a signaller. She remained in the service until early January 1944. In the 1950s, Walker developed an interest in poetry and over the next few years, became a successful writer, publishing 3 collections of poems. Her first book, We are Going (1964) was the first book to be published by an Aboriginal woman. At the same time, she became a passionate advocate for Aboriginal rights till she passed in 1993.

The recent dedication of the For Our Country memorial at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra highlights this important search.

Chief of Defence Force, General Angus Campbell spoke at the dedication where hundreds attended.

‘They were our unknown sailors, soldiers, aviators. That is no more. Today we know the names and deeds of many Indigenous men and women who have served our nation,’ General Campbell said.

‘There are many more stories, thousands more and we’re still discovering them…..It is a history that should be recognised and celebrated.’

Ngunnawal/Gomeroi man Michael Bell is the Indigenous Liaison Officer for the AWM. He is trying to identify and research the contribution and service of any person of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who has served, or is currently serving, or has any military experience and/or contributed to the war effort.

He seeks further details of the military history of all of these people and their families.

He invites their living relatives to come forward with details so their names and sacrifice can be recorded and their stories told. He can be contacted at Michael.Bell@awm.gov.au.

Indigenous.gov.au will continue to publish stories about the service and sacrifice of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and servicewomen who have protected Australia and its peoples.

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