Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans and their stories

 

First Nations peoples have occupied and cared for Australia for over 65,000 years. They also have a proud history of military service in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) that continues today. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have served in each of the major wars and conflicts in which Australia has been involved since World War I and have taken part in peacekeeping operations.

Past injustices

The Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA) recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. We're proud of the contribution they have made and continue to make to the Australian Defence Force (ADF).

World War I

The Australian War Memorial cites a figure of between 1000 and 1200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in World War I from 1914 to 1918. They volunteered despite regulations that discouraged their enlistment.

First Australians in World War I served on equal terms for the rank they held, but none held a commissioned rank.

After the war, our veterans and their families faced discrimination in civil liberties, education and employment.

World War II

It's estimated as many as 6000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in World War II from 1939 to 1945.

It's difficult to understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples served Australia in support of the British Empire during both world wars. At the time, they were:

  • not recognised as the traditional owners of this land
  • not permitted to vote
  • not eligible for veterans' benefits.

These are some of the many injustices suffered by Indigenous veterans, their families and communities.

Storytelling

We can learn a great deal about the experiences of our Indigenous veterans through their service stories.

Reginald Saunders

Reginald Walter Saunders was a Gunditjmara man of southern Victoria. His father and uncle had served in World War I, which motivated Reg to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force in 1940. During World War II, Reg served with the infantry in North Africa, the Mediterranean and New Guinea. His experience was a blend of frontline fighting, survival in hostile territory and leading soldiers into battle. Reg served again in the Korean War. He also made his mark as a campaigner for Indigenous equality in post-war Australia.

Watch our short narrative of Reg's life [6 minutes 45 seconds].

Reginald Walter Saunders was from the Gunditjmara people of southern Victoria. His father and uncle had served in the First World War, which motivated Reg to enlist in the Second Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in 1940. This tells the story of Reg's service in North Africa, the Mediterranean and New Guinea during the Second World War. His experience was a blend of frontline fighting, survival in hostile territory and leading soldiers into battle. It also tells how Reg served again in the Korean War and made his mark as a campaigner for Indigenous equality in post-war Australia.

Leonard Waters

Leonard Waters was a Kamilaroi (Gamilaraay) man from outback Queensland. During World War II, he became Australia's first Indigenous fighter pilot.

Listen to his wife Gladys Waters speak about Len's time in service [1 minute 30 seconds].

Gladys Waters talks about her husband Len, Australia's first Aboriginal Fighter Pilot.

Kapiu Masi Gagai

Many Indigenous defence personnel have served with distinction, such as Torres Strait Islander, Kapiu Masi Gagai. He was renowned as a skilled boatman and fearless soldier in World War II.

Kapiu was recruited from Mabuiag, in the western island group of Torres Strait. In late 1943, Kapiu was seconded to the 11th Infantry Brigade. He took part in a hazardous expedition in Netherlands New Guinea led by temporary Wing Commander Donald Thomson. While there, Kapiu was twice placed in charge of an outpost at Caledon Bay and promoted to acting sergeant.

Kapiu became an expert Vickers gunner. He was praised by Thomson for his sense of responsibility, devotion to duty, leadership, loyalty, selflessness and setting an example to others.

Defence of the Top End

Michael Bell, a Ngunnawal Gomeroi man, talks about the important contribution of our First Nation's peoples to the war effort in World War II. Listen to this audio [1 minute 30 seconds].

Teaching resources

These 2 school workbooks - one for primary and one for secondary - acknowledge the service and sacrifice of Indigenous men and women. They'll help you to investigate wartime experiences, providing the social and political contexts of their service in the light of past discrimination. Each book contains sources and activity worksheets.


Last updated: 8 April 2021

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2021), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans and their stories, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 15 April 2021, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/education-and-research/schools/indigenous-military-service
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