Samuel (Smiler) Fejo
Samuel 'Smiler' Fejo was born in or near Darwin, on Larrakia Country, in about 1901. His parents were King Charles and Bessie. Records from after his death state that his mother Bessie might have been of Indian descent. King Charles was a Larrakia man. The Larrakia people are the traditional owners of the Darwin region.
The youngest of 3 boys, his older brothers were Juma and Roger. Samuel and Juma served in the Army together during the war; Juma is called 'Jimma Fejo' in his war service records.
Samuel's nickname was 'Smiler' due to his large cheek dimples.
In the 1930s, Samuel was working as a police tracker.
Samuel's tracking became famous after he helped to re-capture a man called Nemarluk who had escaped from Fannie Bay Gaol. Nemarluk is remembered as an Indigenous resistance fighter from Port Keats (now Wadeye). He had been held on remand for the 1931 murder of 3 Japanese trepang fishers from the lugger Ouida at Injin Beach. With a group of police constables and trackers, Samuel tracked Nemarluk over 1,000 km of rugged country.
By 1939, Samuel had married Alice Ruth, an Arrarrkbi woman born in the Port Essington district. Together they raised 3 children.
Samuel voluntarily enlisted in the Militia Forces on 4 September 1939 at the abandoned Vestey's meatworks. He gave Smiler as his first name, carpenter as his occupation and 1903 as his year of birth, making him about 36 at the time. He was living with his wife Alice at Bagot Road, a town camp founded in 1938. He was unable to sign his name on the enlistment form. His enlistment was approved the same day.
A year later, Samuel was called up for full-time duty. He enlisted with the Citizens Military Forces at the Darwin Oil Tanks on 23 July 1940. He cited his occupation as a saddler. He was attached to “Z” Garrison Company on 21 August.
Samuel's brother Juma enlisted in the same month.
In 1942 Private Samuel Fejo's portrait was drawn by Official War Artist Arthur Murch. Murch's painting of Fejo has become an important record of First Australians who served in World War II.
Horror of Darwin air raids
Samuel was on duty as a gunner at the wharf when the bombing of Darwin started. This was the first Japanese air raid on northern Australia in 1942. As the bombs fell, Juma found Samuel at the wharf, and they endured the attack together.
In a 2022 interview, Juma's niece Christine Fejo-King shared recollections of the horrible experience:
Together they began to swim through the muck and fire to rescue whoever they could. When they could find no-one else alive, they started to pull dead bodies out of the water and line them up on a small stretch of sandy beach.
[quoted in 'Trauma of WWII Darwin bombing brings reconciliation by Top End Aboriginal community', City of Darwin]
In the years that followed, both men shared that they continued to have nightmares of blood, gore, oil and fire.
Both brothers were members of Fortress Command, also known as the Darwin 'Black Watch', after a Scottish regiment dating back to 1739.
This group was made up of predominantly Aboriginal men and some of Chinese descent. Members had survival and bush skills as well as excellent tracking capabilities. They conducted search and rescue missions throughout northern Australia.
The Adelaide News had reported the formation of the group in 1939:
Australia now has its own "Black Watch" a rifle platoon of [Aboriginal men] at Darwin. Forty strong, they are attached to the Darwin Mobile Force as a militia unit, and are among the keenest soldiers in Australia. Formed only four months ago, they have already reached a high degree of military efficiency, though none of them has had previous experience. So keen are they that they report for drill and training five nights a week. Their instructors, men of the mobile forces, are pleased with their intelligence and ready aptitude for military work.
The men of Fortress Command were called upon many times throughout the war to locate United States airmen who had been shot down over remote parts of the Northern Territory.
After Samuel's death, The Daily News in Perth reported:
In 1943 an American Kittyhawk pilot was shot down near Darwin by Japanese Zeros. Summoned by the U.S. Army Air Force, Smiler Fejo located the pilot perched in a mangrove in a swamp. The American pilot, who had been there two days, told Smiler it was too muddy to walk and the rising tide forced him high into the tree twice a day.
Christine Fejo-King shared an anecdote of one rescued airman who returned to Darwin hoping to find his rescuers:
He couldn’t remember my Grandfather Juma’s name, because it’s so unusual, but he could remember Samuel’s name. He put a notice in the old newspaper, saying that he was looking for Samuel Fejo, and that he would wait at the Hotel Darwin ...
My mother Lorna Fejo was chosen to go and meet with the American airman. She was understandably apprehensive but was happy she went when he explained that he was searching for Samuel and Juma to thank them for saving his life. She sadly had to tell him that both men had passed away since the end of the war. She would often recall that it was the first time she had seen a white man shed tears over the death of an Aboriginal person.
[quoted in The Bombing of Darwin Commemorative Service, City of Darwin]
Many soldiers serving in tropical locations were admitted to hospitals during World War II. Samuel's war service records show 5 admissions for pleurisy, acute bronchitis and malaria. One time he was evacuated for life-threatening appendicitis.
Difficult post-war years
On 1 January 1945, Samuel was transferred to Darwin Fixed Defences as a gunner, the same day that HQ Darwin Fortress ceased to exist.
Samuel was discharged from the Army on 6 December 1945. He signed his name on the discharge record, which he had learned during the war. His discharge papers cite his year of birth as 1901.
There's evidence Samuel didn't see his wife until after the war. His war service record includes telegrams to Alice in Balaklava, South Australia, in 1943. The timing corresponds to Samuel's appendicitis. Before the first air raids on Darwin, Alice was working at the Retta Dixon Home. The home's superintendent, Amelia Shankelton, evacuated staff and 72 children to Balaklava in 1942, returning to Darwin in May 1946.
For most of his life, Samuel didn't have the same basic rights as non-Indigenous Australians. In the Northern Territory, the lives of First Nations people were controlled by the Director of Native Affairs under the Aboriginals Ordinance 1939 (NT). Samuel applied to be exempt from the Act, which was granted in April 1946.
The exemption certificate promised Samuel access to the benefits of Australian citizenship previously denied, such as education, health services, housing and employment. But in exchange, he was required to relinquish his language, identity and ties to kin.
Juma Fejo, who received his exemption certificate in December 1945, passed away in 1949.
Samuel's war medals were withheld until 1953. The War Medal, Defence Medal and Australian Service Medal (ASM) were posted to him on 22 April.
After the war, Samuel had health issues with diabetes, which eventually caused his death. He was granted a war pension for his illness. He passed away on 11 January 1955 and was buried in Darwin on 12 January.
At the time of Samuel's death, Alice and the children were living at the Retta Dixon Home, where she still worked. Alice was granted a war widow's pension. She applied for an exemption certificate, which was granted in 1957. By 1977, Alice was living on Croker Island. She passed away at Darwin Hospital on 15 March 1980.
The Fejo brothers each served 7 years in the Australian Army, and their stories have inspired subsequent generations in northern Australia.
- 1933 'ESCAPE FROM CUSTODY', Northern Standard (Darwin, NT : 1921 - 1955), 26 September, p 5, viewed 24 Jun 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48062666
- 1933 'ESCAPE FROM GAOL', The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), 25 September, p 14, viewed 24 Jun 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article11695373
- 1941 'AUSTRALIA AT WAR—No. 2 FRONT DOOR TO FAR EAST', The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), 22 September, p 3, viewed 24 Jun 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article8206165
- 1945 'THE NORTHERN TERRITORY OF AUSTRALIA.', Commonwealth of Australia Gazette (National : 1901 - 1973), 20 December, p 2721, viewed 25 Jun 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article232766336
- 1946 'NORTHERN TERRITORY OF AUSTRALIA.', Commonwealth of Australia Gazette (National : 1901 - 1973), 26 April, p 1085, viewed 25 Jun 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article232781301
- 1955 'PILOTS LOSE A FRIEND', The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 - 1955), 13 January, p 13. (FINAL), viewed 24 Jun 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article266306228
- Bill W., undated, 'Project - Nemarluk', NT Police Museum and Historical Society Inc., viewed 24 Jun 2022, https://sites.google.com/site/ntpmhsociety/home/our-contact-details/archived-pages/2012-grant-project/job-list/project---nemarluk
- City of Darwin, 2022, 'Trauma of WWII Darwin bombing brings reconciliation by Top End Aboriginal community', Bombing of Darwin, City of Darwin, dated 17 Feb, viewed 24 Jun 2022, https://www.darwin.nt.gov.au/council/news-media/trauma-of-wwii-darwin-bombing-brings-reconciliation-by-top-end-aboriginal
- City of Darwin, 2022, 'The Bombing of Darwin Commemorative Service', Bombing of Darwin, City of Darwin, viewed 24 Jun 2022, https://www.darwin.nt.gov.au/community/things-to-do/community-celebrations/bombing-of-darwin
- Day, Bill, 2014, Fejo Family Tree, viewed 25 Jun 2022, http://www.drbilldayanthropologist.com/resources/FEJO%20FAMILY%20TREE.pdf
- National Archives of Australia: B884; D14; 6183219; 1939 - 1948; FEJO JIMMA : Service Number - D14 : Date of birth - Unknown : Place of birth - DARWIN NT : Place of enlistment - DARWIN NT : Next of Kin - FEJO KITTY.
- National Archives of Australia: B884; D11; 5611623; 1939 - 1948; FEJO SAMUEL : Service Number - D11 : Date of birth - Unknown : Place of birth - DARWIN NT : Place of enlistment - DARWIN NT : Next of Kin - FEJO ALICE.
- National Archives of Australia: A432; 1955/3798; 645581; 1955 - 1956; S. Fejo (deceased) - status of adopted Aboriginal children - Repatriation Act 1920-1955.
- National Archives of Australia, Darwin Office: Series F1 Item 1955/1149; Applications for Exemption.
- National Archives of Australia: A452; 1956/162; 75872; Aborigines' Inland Mission, Retta Dixon Home - Northern Territory; 1942 - 1957.