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Aboriginal war heroes campaign

Peter Charlton is The Brisbane Courier Mail’s national affairs editor. He is a former Army Reserve Lieutenant-Colonel who commanded a battalion in an integrated regular-reserve brigade in Brisbane. He is also a published military historian, with works on World War I and II, to his credit, he wrote in the Courier Mail about some of our Unsung Heroes reports the April 2007 edition of the South Sydney Herald.

He wrote: “Indigenous Australians were not officially welcome in the World War forces – so they said they were Indian or Maori.

From the magnificent Australian War Memorial in Canberra to the local statue of the Digger, resting on reversed arms, memorials to Australian service in wartime are common. But only two mark, specifically, the efforts of indigenous Australians. One is in Canberra, the other at Broadbeach on the Gold Coast. The latter is a simple inscription on a rock: “This rock is placed here to honour Yugambeh men and women who served in defence of this country. Yugambeh is the linguistic name of the Aboriginal people whose tribal region extends inland from the Logan and Nerang Rivers... We honour those who served in the armed forces and those who made the supreme sacrifice. The symbolism of this rock serves to highlight the role played by indigenous Australians in defence of this country.”

Indigenous Australians were not, officially at least, welcome in the armed forces in either World War. Yet many joined and served with distinction beside their white comrades. Some Aboriginal men said they experienced little or no discrimination in the services, even though they might have had to tell the enlisting officer they were Maori or Indian.

At least 25 Queenslanders of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander extraction were killed in the First AIF. Some estimates put the number who served at more than 1000. In WWII, many Indigenous Australians joined up after the entry of Japan into the war. More than 800 Torres Strait Islanders and mainlanders were members of the Torres Strait Force, formed to defend the Strait as a major shipping route. These men were paid only one-third the wages of white soldiers. Thanks largely to research by Canberra academic Dr Robert Hall, the survivors were compensated in the early 1980s.

Many thousands of Australian Aboriginals have enlisted and served in Australia’s defence forces since 1901, and several have won decorations, but the first to be promoted to a commissioned rank was Reg Saunders of Victoria. Reginald Walter Saunders was born a member of the Gunditjmara people, just outside Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve in the western district of Victoria on 7 August 1920. His father, Chris Saunders, and uncle, William Reginald Rawlings, had served with the first AIF. Reg was named after his uncle, who served in the 29th Battalion and was awarded a Military Medal for “displaying rare bravery in the performance of his duty. His irresistible dash and courage set a wonderful example to the remainder of the team”.

Reg grew to admire the military feats of both his father and uncle. He served 12 months behind the lines on Crete. He also served on the Kokoda Track and lost a brother there. He was promoted to Lieutenant and served as a Company Commander at Kapyong. There are many more Reg Saunders who deserve recognition.

This year on Anzac Day there will be a march to commemorate the Aboriginal Diggers why made the sacrifice in various Australian theatres of war. The march will leave The Block at 12noon to go to St. Saviours Anglican Church in Young Street, Redfern. Then, at 3PM, at the Damien Minton Gallery in Great Buckingham Street, Redfern, there will bean exhibition called “The coloured Digger”. Anthony Simmons is one of the artists exhibiting and is one of the few Aboriginal sculptors around.

Pastor Ray Minniecon, from Cross Roads Church in Redfern, told the Herald that he is hoping that some of Anthony’s work will be included in the Anzac War Memorial in Hyde Park in an Aboriginal section. The campaign for Indigenous people to be included in the War Memorial is going to be a long campaign but maybe Aboriginal people are used to long campaigns!

Photo: Mark Spinks, Brena McDonnell, Ray Minniecon, Linda Bon, Chris Carben Photo: Ali Blogg

Source: South Sydney Herald April 2007 –