Learning about Indigenous military service in Australia

 

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 the service of 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

It's estimated that between 1,000 and 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in World War I from 1914 to 1918. They volunteered despite regulations that discouraged their enlistment. They served on equal terms for the rank they held, but none held a commissioned rank.

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

Learn more about First Australians in World War I.

World War II

It's estimated as many as 6,000 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.

Learn more about First Australians in World War II.

Storytelling

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

Bill Coolburra

Bill Coolburra from Palm Island, Queensland, joined the Australian Army in 1964. As a sapper with the Australian Engineers, he served in Borneo, Vietnam, Malaya and Singapore. Bill was well respected in his local community, spending many years after service supporting and mentoring Indigenous youth.

Roy 'Zeke' Mundine

Roy Mundine, a Bunjalung man, grew up in Australia at a time when Indigenous people had very few rights and almost no status in society. He served in Malaya in 1959 and then did 2 tours of Vietnam. He later became the Australian Army's first Indigenous Elder.

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. Then he served again in the Korean War. He also 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. Learn more about Len's life, and listen to his wife Gladys Waters speak about Len's time in service.

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.

Others who served

Teaching resources

Stories of Indigenous Service

An engaging book on the lives of First Nations veterans from World War I and World War II. Discover stories of bravery, heroism, determination and service.

Generations of Service: The Lovett Family

This digital book shares the stories of service of some Lovett family members. Designed for students in primary school, it is also for anyone interested in learning about the important role of First Nations people in Australia's military history. This book explores some experiences of those who served, what happened when they returned home and commemoration.

Indigenous Service workbooks

Five ready-to-use workbooks introduce students to the military service of First Nations people. You could ask students to complete parts of each workbook in class or as home learning.

Indigenous Service

These 2 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.

Get in touch

If you need help with our resources or you'd like a hard copy of our books, please contact us.


Last updated: 5 January 2023

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2023), Learning about Indigenous military service in Australia, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 30 January 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/education/theme/indigenous-service
Was this page helpful?