Please note: This post contains names, images and voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have served in every conflict and commitment involving Australian defence contingents since Federation, including both world wars and the intervals of peace since the Second World War.
Sapper Louis Lopata playing the piano accordion and an Aboriginal worker playing mouth organ for an impromptu sing-along. Reproduced courtesy of the State Library of Victoria, H99.201/3120.
For many Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander people, service in the defence forces has been an experience for which they were well suited. They have combined modern military and uniquely indigenous skills in the service of their country. Many have been able to draw on knowledge and understandings of their ‘Country’ to fulfill their role in defending and protecting Australia as members of the defence forces. For others, the long history of colonial conflict was influential, with some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people identify with a ‘warrior’ heritage, adding to their desire to service and protect Country.
Lieutenant Reg Saunders (left) and Lieutenant Tom Derrick VC, DCM, congratulate each other following their graduation from the Officer Cadet Training Unit at Seymour. AWM 083166
Between the First and Second World Wars there was increasing recognition of the role that Aboriginal an Torres Strait Islander people could play in the defence of Australia. Their intimate knowledge of the land, the coastline and the waters of northern Australia was strategically advantageous to national security. During the Second World War, when Australia cam under direct threat from Japan, recognition of these cultural skills and knowledge resulted in the formation of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and the Norther Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit. From 1942 until the war ended, the Army became the dominate social force in the Territory and was instrumental in shaping the race relations, breaking away from the entrenched view that Aboriginal people were only useful for menial jobs and could be employed under low wages and conditions.
Bombardier John Burns (left) and Gunner Bruce Morris, 102 Battery, in support of the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment, are shown during Operation Toan Thang. AWM ERR/68/0474/VN
Australians who have served are commemorated at war memorials across the country. They are acknowledged in numerous history texts, literary novels, works of art, films, poems and exhibitions. Yet, the commemoration of the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been a complex, and at times politically sensitive, issue. Some servicemen and women felt their service was not adequately recognised and commemorated, particularly as many were not offered the same compensation as their non-Indigenous counterparts, such as soldier settlement blocks or spousal pensions. Others felt that the common conceptions of the Anzac story, for example, did not reflect their contribution. Nothing we do now can change the past. But the Indigenous Veterans’ Ceremony aims to recognise the invaluable contribution of our Indigenous service people to Australia’s Defence Force, both past and present.