Indigenous service

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How were the Indigenous peoples of Australia drawn into World War II? Some material in official records suggest that some European Australians were nervous about the possible loyalty of Aborigines in the northern parts of the country. For example, on 1 April 1942, A Mr S McClintock from Perth wrote to the Prime Minister, the Honourable Mr John Curtin, with a suggestion:

As the Australian aborigines up North are wonderful bushmen- and unbeatable at finding water etc. – and as they will help anyone for a plug of tobacco and gaudy clothes, it seems to me that they should all be removed far inland from any likely enemy landing places – Darwin, Wyndham, Broome, Carnarvon etc. – as if taken by the Japanese they might prove very useful to them as guides, and in securing water etc.

[Item 82/712/1773 Series MP508, NAA]

The Prime Minister acknowledged his letter and forwarded it to the Minister for the Army, the Honourable Frank Forde. On 18 May 1942, Mr Forde replied to Mr McClintock saying:

Your interest in putting forward this suggestion is much appreciated and, while the idea is basically sound, it is not considered practicable with the means or time at our disposal.

[Item 82/712/1773 Series MP508, NAA]

But it was not only Mr McClintock who didn't want the Australian Aborigines anywhere near the enemy. Neither did the Australian Army nor the Royal Australian Navy, both of which excluded persons 'not substantially of European origin or descent' until the threat of Japanese invasion necessitated the recruitment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was more lenient, accepting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders early on because of a critical shortage of manpower due to the demands of the Empire Air Training Scheme.

Despite the early ban on their enlistment, a number of Aboriginal volunteers either claimed another nationality or just renounced their Aboriginality. Some recruiting officers either through indifference or confusion allowed Indigenous Australians to slip through. Outstanding soldiers such as Reg Saunders and Charles Mene slipped through and demonstrated that fears of disharmony between black and white personnel were unfounded. In some other instances, however, there were various repercussions when some of those who were keen to enlist were sent home.

In mid-1941, changes in attitude towards Indigenous Australians enabled numerous Aborigines to enlist in some of the smaller units of the services where they were able to integrate and sometimes to become NCOs, commanding white soldiers. In these smaller units the Indigenous Australians were able to leave the prejudices of their civilian world behind them and be accepted as Australian servicemen. The Torres Strait Light Infantry battalion was one example of the Indigenous contribution.

Much thought was given to the use of Indigenous manpower for the war effort. In Northern Australia, the Special Reconnaissance Unit raised in 1941 by anthropologist Flight Lieutenant Donald Thomson was formed almost exclusively of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Similar units were formed at Bathurst and Melville Island, at Groote Eylant and on the Cox Peninsula. The Aboriginals who served in those units were not formally enlisted and nor were they paid. In 1992 they were finally awarded medals and remuneration.

On 2 April 1942, Professor Adolphus Elkin, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney wrote to the Prime Minister about the military authorities' refusal to accept a number of mixed blood Aboriginal men for military service. He felt that the government should 'take every opportunity' to give the Aborigines a chance of helping their country 'either in the fighting services or in auxiliaries to these services or in factories.'

Another anthropologist, William Stanner, personal assistant to Frank Forde, Minister for the Army, had suggested a mobile unit based on the Boer commandos during the Boer War as well as on Australia's own Lighthorse tradition and he was tasked with raising and organising the mobile unit colloquially known as the 'Nackeroos' [North Australia Observer Unit].

It is estimated that approximately 3000 Indigenous Australians served in the regular armed forces and possibly up to 150 in irregular units. Even now it is impossible to estimate how many Indigenous men and women enlisted to serve in World War II. Australian Defence Force enlistment forms did not allow for Aboriginals to declare their heritage until 1980 and so we can only guess how many thousands volunteered for both home and overseas service. Some 3000 others were employed as labourers performing vital tasks for the military. They salvaged crashed aircraft, located unexploded bombs, built roads and airfields and assisted in the delivery of civilian and military supplies.

In Katherine in the Northern Territory, Aboriginal compounds were located near the Army units and most of the men worked as labourers. They were employed in ammunition stacking, timber cutting and cement works, maintaining gardens, slaughtering cattle, and assembling and clearing gearboxes. The Army eventually employed 20 percent of the Territory's Aboriginal population. Aboriginal women were employed in domestic duties or as hospital orderlies at the 121/101 Australian General Hospital at Katherine.

In Port Hedland in Western Australia, many local Aborigines who were man-powered [in occupations which were essential for the production of equipment or supplies for the war effort] on stations and in the pastoral industry, were also members of the Voluntary Defence Corps (VDC) operating coastal defences, searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries in emergencies. One resident, Mr Teddy Allen, was a VDC member on De Grey Station. He, and a couple of the other Aboriginal station workers, received some military training and were responsible for ensuring that the Aboriginal station workers and their families complied with blackout provisions. They also moved them to safety in air raid shelters on the banks of the nearby river whenever a military plane flew overhead.

Although they were not classed or treated as Australian citizens, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women fought and died for Australia during World War II.

The 'Nackeroos'– North Australia Observer Unit

A joint conference of service personnel early in 1942 called for the establishment of a Northern Australian observer organisation. William Stanner, personal assistant to Frank Forde, Minister for the Army, was another anthropologist with a detailed knowledge of northern Australia. Stanner had suggested a mobile unit based on the Boer commandos during the Boer War as well as on Australia's own Lighthorse tradition and he was tasked with raising and organising the mobile unit. Approval for the unit was given in May 1942 and its task was to patrol the north of Australia from Normanton in Queensland to Yampi Sound in Western Australia. Recruits rushed to volunteer in the new mobile unit, many of them bushmen and pre-1939 members of Lighthorse units.

Their basic training was at Ingleburn, New South Wales, and in July 1942 the 500-strong unit embarked for Northern Australia where they established their headquarters at Katherine. Deployed in four companies, they were dispersed as:

  • HQ at Roper Bar on the Roper River was deployed to patrol the region of the Roper River and the Limmen Bight region of the Gulf of Carpentaria
  • B Company established its HQ near Ivanhoe Station and patrolled the Victoria and Ord Rivers and the Kimberley regions
  • C Company had its HQ near Gregory Downs station in the Gulf Country of NW Q from Normanton to Borroloola
  • D Company comprised the reinforcements that they expected would be necessary to make good anticipated losses. Remained at HQ.

Members of the NAOU were intended to constantly patrol their allocated areas and report back to the headquarters in Katherine through a wireless network. Their role was to shadow any enemy who landed and engage in guerilla attacks to hinder their movements.

There was little action apart from patrol work for the men and once the threat of invasion seemed less likely, the outlying defence posts were closed and the unit was reorganised. The patrols stopped and their activities were restricted to the twelve coastwatching stations around Darwin and three near Wyndham. The HQ was moved from Katherine to the Manton Dam and Stanner was posted to Melbourne in October 1943.

As well there were numerous fixed coastwatching posts in the Darwin area with several small boats patrolling off shore and supplying the remote outposts.

[For a more detailed account of the NAOU see Peter Donovan, 'The Northern Territory and the Defence of Australia', Working Paper No 176, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, Canberra, 1989]

The Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit

The Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit, raised in 1941 by Flight Lieutenant Donald Thomson, a Melbourne anthropologist, was formed almost exclusively of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Thomson had lived in Arnhem Land during 1935-36 and when the Director of Special Operations heard about Thomson's experiences he decided to use the local Aborigines to provide early warnings of Japanese landings in the area. There were several reasons for the special unit.

The Aborigines in Arnhem Land had been most successful in dissuading outsiders from entering and a number of intruders were killed during the early 1930s. Military authorities were also concerned about their own lack of knowledge of the area, the vulnerability of Arnhem Land and the sympathies of the Aborigines.

Thomson recruited 49 Aborigines to his special observer unit, which was also to be responsible for the protection of the east flank of Darwin. Primarily concerned with surveillance, the unit was also to become the nucleus for a larger force of Aborigines if the need arose. Thomson lived in the same manner as his soldiers and he insisted that only traditional weapons should be used.

The unit didn't ever have to use the skills they had honed and they were disbanded when the threat of a Japanese landing had receded. Another unit took over their coastal surveillance tasks. For sixteen months they had trained in guerilla warfare and moved all over Arnhem Land.


Last updated: 13 January 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Indigenous service, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 28 September 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/world-war-ii-1939-1945/resources/all-australian-homefront-1939-1945/indigenous-service
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