Fast facts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service in the Australian Defence Force

Fast facts on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service in the Australian Defence Force

  • Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have served Australia in the military from before the Boer War to the present, but it may never be known how many officially served as ethnicity was never required to be documented.
  • When documenting Indigenous service, researchers tend to look only at those who served in wartime conflicts and miss those who served between the wars, in non-warlike operations, and who served in an auxiliary roll – missing many hundreds of men and women.
  • Indigenous Australians have had a long commitment with the defence of the nation. At least two Aboriginal men served in state units prior to Federation: Jerome Locke who served in the NSW Infantry and Thomas Bungalene who served in the colonial navy of Victoria.
  • It’s believed about a dozen Aboriginals served during the Boer War in South Africa. Four Queensland Native Mounted Police black trackers were sent by the Commissioner of Queensland Police to South Africa to work with the Bloemfontein police.
  • Although the Defence Act of 1903 restricted Indigenous Australians from serving in the Defence Force, they did enlist at the outbreak of World War I.
  • Some were rejected on the grounds of race but it didn’t deter others who did manage to enlist, even travelling to other states to do this after being denied the chance at recruiting centres closer to their communities.
  • By October 1917, when recruits were harder to find and one conscription referendum had been lost, restrictions were eased.
  • The AIF treated Aboriginal soldiers as equals and paid them the same as white soldiers. They were generally accepted while serving alongside their white mates without prejudice while in uniform. But upon returning to civilian life, they were treated with the same prejudice and discrimination as before.
  • Aboriginals were also employed by the Royal Australian Navy between the wars, for their knowledge of northern Australia’s coastal areas. At least six men from Melville Island were on board HMAS Geranium while the ship was conducting hydro-graphic surveys in1922-23.
  • At the start of World War II, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were allowed to enlist and many men and women did so.
  • In 1940, the Defence Committee decided the enlistment of Indigenous Australians was “neither necessary, nor desirable”, but when Japan entered the war, the increased need for manpower forced the loosening of restrictions.
  • A group of about 50 Aboriginals were recruited in 1942 for scouting and reconnaissance in Arnhem Land and were known as the Northern Territory Coastal Reconnaissance Unit, RAE. This tradition is carried on today by Indigenous peoples who make up the bulk of the Regional Force Surveillance Units in NORFORCE, the Pilbara Regiment and the 51st Far North Queensland Regiment.
  • Hundreds of Aborigines served in the 2nd AIF and the militia. Many were killed fighting and about a dozen died as prisoners of war.
  • In 1941, the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion was formed to defend the Torres Strait with other islander units created for water transport and coastal artillery. By 1944 almost every able-bodied Torres Strait Islander man had enlisted, though they never received the same rates of pay or conditions as white soldiers.
  • By proportion to population, no community in Australia contributed more to the war than the Islanders of the Torres Strait.
  • At the outbreak of war, Aboriginal people were recruited or conscripted into labour corps in Northern Australia. They worked on construction sites, army butcheries and army farms. They drove trucks, handled cargo, worked as aids in hospitals and provided general labour around camps.
  • For the first time Aboriginal people were given adequate housing and sanitation, fixed working hours, proper rations and access to medical treatment in army hospitals. The army was seen as a benevolent employer, compared to pre-war pastoralists, and this employment in the service of the Defence Force later helped to change attitudes to Aborigines as employees. Aboriginal contribution was vital to the war effort.
  • Aboriginal women were recruited from communities to work at naval hospitals as orderlies, personal servants to matrons, for washing, ironing, household and domestic duties.
  • The first Japanese prisoner of war captured by Australia, and on Australian soil in World War II (Sergeant Hajime Toyoshima a Zero pilot), was by two Aboriginal men, Opiatalawae (Mathias) and Tiponikrae (Barney) on Melville Island.
  • After World War II the army reimposed its restrictions on enlistment, but with a change in attitude. Restrictions based on race ended in 1949 and since then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have served in Korea, Malaya, Borneo, Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan – and nearly every other conflict and peace-keeping operation that Australia has sent personnel to.
  • The Australian Defence Force recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are a valued part of the Defence Force of Australia and recruit Indigenous Australians for their uniformed and civilian sections. The ADF was the first equal opportunity employer of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Information supplied by Gary Oakley, Indigenous Liaison Officer, Australian War Memorial.

For more information visit: eorajourney.com.au

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