War Service

Group portrait of the special platoon consisting of Aboriginal soldiers, all volunteers, at Number 9 camp at Wangaratta with Corporal Mullett (left), Major Joseph Albert Wright (centre) and Sergeant Morris (right). Major Wright, a World War 1 Light Horse veteran, was in charge of this Platoon, which was the only Aboriginal squad in the Australian military forces. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have served in the Australian Defence Forces since the 1860s - serving in the Boer War and both World War I and World War II through to service in Afghanistan.

They served on the ground, in the air, at sea - even on horseback. They served and defended Australia and Country with many being treated as equals for the first time - an equality that, unfortunately, did not continue when they returned home.

As Gary Oakley, Indigenous Liaison Officer, Australian War Memorial said:

…We’re not citizens, yet we’re willing to die for this place, we’re willing to die for non-Indigenous Australians, have a think about that one….

The Boer War

Before Federation, the colonies were responsible for sending troops to South Africa and many men volunteered and paid their own way. It is not well known that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders served in the Light Horse Units after joining up as regular soldiers.

The Queensland Police also sent four trackers to work with the South African police at Blounfontaine. According to the Boer War Association, it is thought that there were no more than twelve Indigenous soldiers, but as yet, no one knows for sure.

World War I: 1914–18

At the beginning of World War I, any attempts by Indigenous Australians to enlist were rejected, but by 1917 there was a new military order that stated:

Half-castes may be enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force provided that the examining Medical Officers are satisfied that one of the parents is of European origin.

Aboriginal soldiers were among those who fought at Gallipoli, with over 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Islanders serving in World War I in total. For the first time many of the soldiers were treated as equals, but unfortunately were subjected to the same discrimination and prejudice when they returned to civilian life.

World War II: 1939–45

Special platoon of Aboriginal soldiers World War Two
Special platoon of Aboriginal soldiers, all volunteers, at Number 9 Camp Wangaratta, Vic. 1940-42

Although subjected to inequality in their own country at the time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples served as part of Australia’s defence forces during World War II including:

  • Leonard Waters - Australia’s only Aboriginal World War II fighter pilot. He was a shearer from Nindigully, Queensland and by the end of the war, had flown 95 missions over Japanese-held islands of the Dutch East Indies and New Guinea.
  • Reg Saunders - the first Aboriginal commissioned officer who fought in the Middle East, North Africa, Greece, Crete and New Guinea, and again in the Korean War.
  • Kath Walker - better known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal of the Quandamooka people, the prominent political activist and Aboriginal rights campaigner, spent time in the Australian Women's Army Service in the middle of the Second World War in Darwin.

With the growing fears of a Japanese invasion of Australia, nearly one thousand Torres Strait Islanders joined Australia’s war effort between 1942 and 1945. This was a high number, considering the population counted only in the thousands. They later became the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and fought side-by-side with other Australians. However, they received only one-third of the pay of other Australian soldiers.

A strike resulted in their pay increasing to two-thirds, but they did not receive this ‘back pay’ until nearly half a century later in the 1980s.

In 1945, after World War II ended a War Service Land Settlement Agreement between the Commonwealth and states, enabled returned service personnel access to land under soldier settlement schemes. Following the agreement, the states and the Commonwealth enacted solider settlement legislation or amended existing legislation.

As in the schemes introduced after World War I, Aboriginal personnel were not specifically excluded but the assessment procedures were prejudiced against them and many were rejected from the scheme. This was particularly cruel as the scheme offered lands that once belonged to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Service from the 1950s and beyond

Indigenous Australians also served in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953 and the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1975 as well as in Borneo and Indonesia. One such man was Charles Mene, a Torres Strait Islander. After his service in World War II, Charles also served in Korea and was awarded the Military Medal for leadership and coolness in battle in Malaya.

In Vietnam, Corporal Norman Womal from Queensland served with the 5th Battalion in the Royal Australian Regiment and, while wounded and lying exposed, he continued to direct the fire of the machine-gunners. He died from those wounds and received a ‘Mention in Despatches’ for his bravery.

Service today

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to serve Australia wherever they are needed at home and abroad.

Defending our coastline is NORFORCE - the largest army surveillance unit in the world which has over sixty per cent of Indigenous personnel. This unit (one of three), patrols some 1.8 million square kilometres of land in the Northern Territory and Kimberley region of Western Australia.

Its history goes back to the ‘Nackeroos’ - a Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit and 2/1st Northern Australia Observer Unit – formed during World War II as a coastal patrol when there was fear of a Japanese invasion.

NORFORCE utilises the traditional knowledge and skills of Aboriginal personnel - generally locals who know their land, sea and the seasons intimately - to patrol for modern invaders such as drug traffickers.

In recent years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait people have proudly served peace-keeping and combat missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands.

Our mob served

'Serving our Country: a history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the defence of Australia' is an Australian Research Council-funded linkage grant based at The Australian National University, and led by Professor Mick Dodson – Director of the ANU’s National Centre for Indigenous Studies and chairperson of AIATSIS.

The Serving Our Country project will document the historical contributions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian defence and auxiliary services from the Boer War to 2000. Throughout 2014 and 2015 the project research team have conducted Community Yarn Ups throughout Australia to meet with Indigenous service members and their families, recording oral and video histories, researching archival papers and other sources to create a more inclusive understanding of Australia's Defence history.

Last reviewed: 11 Sep 2015