Leonard (Len) Waters
Leonard 'Len' Waters was Australia's first Indigenous fighter pilot. A Kamilaroi (Gamilaraay) man, Waters was one of 11 children, the fourth child of Don and Grace Waters. He was raised in the outback Queensland town of Nindigully.
Grace taught her son, Len, to read English and speak his traditional language at an early age. He was a bright student, fascinated by flight from childhood. Biographer Peter Rees, in The Missing Man, said as a child, Waters spent hours reading flying magazines. He enjoyed making model planes and observing how things flew. Waters' family recalled his interest in Australian aviation pioneers:
Waters left school at the end of Year 8. He was 14. His teacher, Jim Wolfe, tutored Waters after school, recognising him as bright and capable. Wolfe also offered to help the Waters' family apply for a scholarship for Len to continue his studies in Brisbane. But, the Great Depression was in full swing and money was tight. Waters left school to work with his father and to help support the family.
Waters worked with his father, fence-building and ring-barking trees (a common practice used to clear land in the 1930s). It was hard work and poorly paid so, in 1940, Waters took up shearing instead. Shearing was just as physically demanding but better-paid. Waters became a skilled shearer, working 7 days a week with his father in outback Queensland shearing sheds.
A fighter pilot in training
By 1942, Japan had entered the war, threatening Australia. The Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) desperately needed more recruits so they relaxed their restrictive enlistment standards, which had limited entry to white Australians and Europeans.
In August 1942, Waters and his brother, Jim, volunteered for service at No 3 Recruiting Centre in Brisbane. Jim joined the AIF and Len joined the RAAF. It would be more than 2 years before they saw each other again.
Waters first applied for a role as a flight mechanic. After successfully completing his training in Sydney and Melbourne, he was posted to No 2 Operational Training Unit at Mildura in Victoria. Waters worked on a range of aircraft, including Kittyhawks, Boomerangs and Spitfires.
Waters began training as a pilot in 1943. Between 1943 and 1944, he completed intensive training in navigation and other flying skills, first at Narrandera in the Riverina area of New South Wales and then at No 5 Service Flying Training School RAAF, Uranquinty, near Wagga Wagga.
I was terribly keen to prove myself in the elite, which it is. There is no doubt about that. The flying part of the Air Force was the elite. Well, I was the coloured boy in it and I might add that there was 169 of us I think there was, started, on the course, and there were 44 or 46 finished up as pilots that graduated and got our wings … there were only 3 blokes in front of me on my average. So, from my humble beginning I was pretty proud of what I am … accomplished like.
Len Waters in Robert Hall's Fighters from the Fringe
Waters studied hard, eager to prove himself despite his limited formal education. In July 1944, he received his RAAF pilot's wings and was promoted to sergeant.
Waters was posted to No 78 Squadron in November 1944. He was stationed at Noemfoor and Morotai in the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) and later at Borneo. He met up with Jim again, as the Allies prepared to take on the Japanese on Borneo.
Waters flew 95 missions in his Kittyhawk, Black Magic. According to Rees, Waters flew with an understanding that crash landing and capture could mean a beating, at best, or death by bayonet or beheading at worst. Waters also experienced a brush with death when a Japanese cannon shell hit his plane's cockpit near the fuel tank. The shell did not explode and Waters landed safely 2 hours later.
In interviews before his death, Waters said he never experienced discrimination on the basis of the colour of his skin. In his words:
Everyone browned up pretty well out in the tropics.
Len Waters in Robert Hall's Fighters from the Fringe
During his 9 months of service, Waters logged 103 flying hours. He celebrated his 21st birthday with his squadron mates in Morotai in June 1945. His last logged flight was 6 August 1945, the same day the American bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
After the war
Waters was discharged from the RAAF with the rank of a Warrant Officer in January 1946. He married 17-year-old, Gladys, a month later and the couple had 6 children.
After the war, Waters dreamed of starting a regional airline, connecting people in the bush with services and facilities of the city. But, his plan received no bank or government support. Waters was forced to shelve the idea. He took on casual labouring jobs, then returned to shearing.
Waters experienced personal and health challenges for several decades. He suffered head injuries in a serious car accident in 1972. This made working difficult, and Waters struggled.
Waters died on 24 August 1993 at Cunnamulla, Queensland. He died after a fall according to an obituary in The Canberra Times. According to Rees in The Missing Man, Waters had fallen down an embankment, lying on the side of a road all night before being found dead the next morning.
The streets of Queensland's St George were lined with mourners for Len Waters' funeral. Among the mourners were former comrades from No 78 Squadron. Waters was honoured with a flyover by 9 RAAF Hornets, flying in formation.
Commemorating Leonard Waters
In 1995, Len Waters was featured on a set of stamps produced by Australia Post, as part of a series that promoted less-known service personnel from World War II.
The people of Moree, in New South Wales, dedicated a park in Waters' name in 1996. The Leonard Victor Waters Memorial Park is at nearby Boggabilla.
There are also streets named after Leonard Waters in:
- Ngunnawal, Canberra
- Wacol, Brisbane
- AWM (Australian War Memorial) (undated), Leonard Waters, Australian War Memorial, accessed 4 February 2020, https://www.awm.gov.au/learn/memorial-boxes/3/online-resources/waters
- Cth. Main Committee, Statements by Members, Greenway Electorate: Mr Len Waters, House of Reps Hansard, 23 February 2009, ID: chamber/hansardr/2009-02-23/0185, accessed 4 February 2020, https://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansardr%2F2009-02-23%2F0185%22
- Furphy, Samuel (undated), Waters, Leonard Victor (Len) (1924–1993), Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed 4 February 2020 http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/waters-leonard-victor-len-24662
- Hall, Robert (1995). Fighters from the Fringe: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders recall the Second World War, Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.
- Hall, Robert (1992). Black Magic: Leonard Waters, Second World War fighter pilot, Aboriginal History 16(1-2): 73-80.
- National Archives of Australia: Air Services Branch; Department of Air, Central Office; A9301 RAAF Personnel files of Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and other ranks, 1921-1948; 78144, WATERS LEONARD VICTOR : Service Number - 78144 : Date of birth - 20 Jun 1924 : Place of birth - BOOMI NSW : Place of enlistment - BRISBANE : Next of Kin - WATERS DONALD, 1939 - 1948.
- Orchard, Kim (nee Waters) (2008, 20 October) Leonard Waters Aboriginal Fighter Pilot, Blogspot.com, accessed 4 February 2020 http://leonardwatersaboriginalfighterpilot.blogspot.com/2008/10/leonard-waters-aboriginal-fighter-pilot.html
- Rees, Peter (2018). The Missing Man: From the Outback to Tarakan, the Powerful Story of Len Waters, Australia's First Aboriginal Fighter Pilot, ReadHowYouWant, Sydney.
- Wikipedia contributors. (2020, 21 May). Len Waters. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed 4 February 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Len_Waters&oldid=957931346