Fighters from the Fringe

The highly respected and admired Oodgeroo Noonuccal, also known as Kath Walker, articulated the feelings of Aboriginal people for the rest of Australia in a way that they had not heard before as a poet, activist and public speaker during the 1960s.

She attended Federal Council for the Advantment of Aborigines (FCAA) conferences from 1960, and became the first Queensland state secretary in 1962. At the 1962 FCAA annual conference in Adelaide she read her 'Aboriginal Charter of Rights' poem, which began:

“We need want hope, not racialism; Brotherhood, not ostracism; Black advance, not white ascendance: Make us equals, not dependants. We need help, not exploitation; We want freedom, not frustration; Not control, but self-reliance; Independence, not compliance; Not rebuff, but education; Self-respect, not resignation.

Oodgeroo's first collection of poems, We are Going, was published by the Jacaranda Press in 1964 – the first book to be published by an Aboriginal woman. It was reprinted six times over the next twelve months and gave Oodgeroo a national profile which she used to great advantage during the 1967 referendum campaign. Her reputation as a published poet, determined activist and convincing public speaker means Oodgeroo was regularly sought out to address meetings and give interviews to the press, radio and television.

But before all of that, and perhaps a lesser known part of Oodgeroo's life, is her time spent in the Australian Women's Army Service in the middle of World War II. Like so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the time, she served her country to protect it, despite a lack of recognition in the Australian Constitution and being treated as a second-class citizen because of her Aboriginality. 

Excerpt from Fighters from the Fringe

In May 1942, with Rabaul and Singapore having fallen to the Japanese and Darwin subjected to heavy bombing raids, such was the demand for signallers – the radio operators, telegraphists and clerks who formed the backbone of the Army's communications – that 1000 women were called up for service in that role. Eventually the AWAS provided 3600 signallers. One of the young women who joined AWAS in those tense days in 1942 to work for the Army as a signaler was Oodgeroo Noonuccal, then known as Kathleen Ruska.

Oodgeroo was born on 3 November 1920. Her parents, two brothers and three sisters lived on North Stradbroke Island relatively free from the paternalistic controls the dominated the lives of other Aborigines in the inter-war years. Oodgeroo went to Dunwich State Primary School but did not go on to high school. In 1933 she left Stradbroke Island to work as a domestic servant on the mainland under deplorable conditions. With the war raging, by 1942 the threat of Japanese attack on north Australia seemed very real. Both her brothers had joined the Army, been given perfunctory training and sent to Singapore just in time to become prisoners of war there. Oodgeroo decided, like many other young women who had brothers or fathers in the Army, Navy or Air Force, that she would join in to help the war effort against the Japanese. She was soon trained and employed as an Army signaler working in large headquarters in Brisbane.

I joined the Australian Women's Army Service just after Singapore fell. My two brothers had been taken prisoners of war in Singapore. They had arrived the night before Singapore fell and of course they didn't even fire a shot. They went straight into prisoner of war camps and they were there for four years. We heard nothing. My mother had a nervous breakdown, shingles and all sorts of things broke out, because we had no contact with them whatsoever. I didn't like fascism and I felt guilty about not joining up because of my two brothers bring prisoners of war and us not knowing whether they were alive or dead. I can't remember the exact date but it was just after the fall of Singapore that I joined. It was early in 1942 I think it was, I didn't stay in the Army very long. I married Bruce Walker while I was in the Army then my husband got me out on compassionate grounds because he couldn't join the Army because he was in what used to be called 'essential services'. That was a reserved occupation and men employed in reserved occupations had to stay home.

He was a welder see, and they knocked him back at joining up because he was a welder and they said, 'No, we need you to build the ships'. And he was at Evans Deakin at the Kangaroo Point shipyard, building ships, the 'liberty ships' as they called them. They were all welded together.

I joined up firstly, because I don't like fascism and secondly, because my two brothers had been taken prisoners of war and I felt guilty about that. Here I was, sitting at home very secure and not pulling my weight. So I ended up in the Australian Women's Army Service.

I was a switchboard operator. And then, of course, the Australian Women's Army Service, they had got the personnel in to relieve the men for the forward lines, so we were 'based walahs' if you like. We were keeping the lines of communication open, just like that. I was at Chermside, where the Chermside Shopping Centre now is. That was where they had the camp."

Last reviewed: 11 Sep 2015