Indigenous Australians in service during World War II
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a long history of military and civilian service. Despite laws that prevented or discouraged their enlistment, First Australians have served with distinction and bravery in most major conflicts and peacekeeping operations involving Australia.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were among those who served in World War II. They played important roles both overseas and on the home front. Unfortunately, the status of Indigenous veterans and their families did not improve after their military service. Significant changes to civil rights didn't begin to occur until the 1960s.
Willingness to serve Australia
When war broke out in September 1939, Indigenous people were among the first to enlist.
One day after Menzies' announcement, 50 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men volunteered for the armed forces in the Northern Territory. Indigenous men from other states joined up over the next few months.
Among the new recruits was Victorian and Gunditjmara man, Reg Saunders, who enlisted in April 1940. Saunders would become Australia's highest-profile Aboriginal soldier. He would also be the first Indigenous Australian to receive a commission in the Army.
Of the 1 million Australians who served in Australia and overseas during World War II, we estimate that up to 3000, perhaps more, were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Important contributions to Australia's war effort by Indigenous Australians included:
- military service overseas in all theatres of the war
- service in skilled militias to defend and protect Australia's northern coastline
- provision of civilian labour in Australia
Many served overseas with the infantry or air force in some of the war's earliest campaigns in the Middle East and Europe. They also fought against Japan in South-East Asia. Some Indigenous service men died serving their country. Others became prisoners of war (POWs).
Reasons for joining the armed forces
Like other personnel, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men enlisted for many reasons:
- access to education
- better pay and respect
- greater equality
- joining up with friends or family
- seeking adventure and freedom
There was little official support for admitting Indigenous service men to the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF). But, in practice, the policy was unclear.
As such, in the first months of the war, only a small number of volunteers joined up. They were sent to Europe and the Middle East for service.
Discrimination at the time
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples may have joined up for similar reasons as other service men and women. But, their context was very different. Laws and prejudice controlled Indigenous peoples' lives.
During the 1930s, each state strengthened government control over Indigenous peoples' lives. The state Protection Acts were laws that controlled Indigenous peoples' rights to:
- earn a living
- own a dog
- travel within and across states
These laws also allowed authorities to remove Aboriginal children from their families. This policy led to the Stolen Generations. Few Indigenous families escaped the traumatic effects of these policies (see Chapter 2 of Bringing Them Home).
Negative stereotypes of Aboriginal people persisted throughout the 20th century.
Historian, Richard Broome, said these attitudes dated back to Australia's colonial past. They led to deep-seated prejudice and segregation in many country towns.
By the 1940s, many First Australians were excluded from:
- state schools, and
- swimming pools
Both men and women had limited work opportunities.
Girls trained for domestic service. They were often sent thousands of kilometres away from their homes to work for non-Indigenous families.
Men worked as labourers, often in casual employment.
In most cases, Indigenous workers received less pay than other workers. Sometimes they were not paid at all.
Because of these factors, many Aboriginal people continued to live in poverty. Poorer access to education, health care, housing and services was common.
An inconsistent system
In practice, there was little consistency in the discrimination shown towards First Australians.
Where they lived or who they dealt with could influence their treatment. Those living in cities enjoyed better work and social opportunities.
Each state applied rules, laws and policies differently. Even within a state, treatment of individuals varied greatly.
Leaders of Indigenous communities tried to speak out, but their voices often went unheard. One such activist was Australian Rules footballer, preacher and soldier, Doug Nicholls.
Read a quotation from Nicholls published by The Argus newspaper in November 1939: "OUTCAST IN OUR OWN LAND".
Navy and army 'colour bar'
In 1940, government authorities introduced rules that tightened entry to the armed forces. The changes prevented 'Australians of non-European origin or descent' from joining the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and AIF.
The new policy was inconsistently applied as soon as it began. Although it was not developed for Indigenous people, it was applied to them as a colour bar due to:
- an entrenched White Australia policy
- a less urgent need for labour in the early months of the war
So only First Australians with some European heritage could apply to join the army. New recruits were accepted at the discretion of local army medical officers. These officers could make subjective judgements on 'the type of man presenting himself' and whether applicants were 'substantially of European origin'.
I am anxious to serve Australia, but without any examination or explanation I am being sent back — a thousand mile journey for nothing.
Sendy Togo in "3 Blacks Sent Home By Army" The Sun 4 January 1942
The 'colour bar' enlistment restrictions were not applied to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
Australia had made a commitment to supply 27,000 airmen to the United Kingdom. RAAF enlistment standards were more relaxed than for the RAN and AIF to help achieve the recruitment quota.
Under the Empire Air Training Scheme, three Indigenous pilots flew missions across Europe and Asia:
Lockyer, who was one of five brothers to serve, did not return. He was killed while a prisoner of war in Celebes, Indonesia (now Sulawesi), 6 days after the war ended.
Service in Australia
Australia under attack
By late 1941, Australia was under threat from a new belligerent, Japan.
Within weeks of entering the war, the Japanese began to push south through Australia's nearest neighbours. They planned to cut Australia's supply lines from the United States. By the end of March 1942, the Japanese had conquered much of South-East Asia.
On the home front, Japanese planes attacked Darwin in February 1942. On 19 February alone, 252 Allied service personnel and civilians were killed. When the Japanese attacked Broome in Western Australia 2 weeks later, at least 40 people died.
In May 1942, Japanese submarines entered Sydney Harbour.
By the end of September 1943, Japanese pilots had flown 97 air raids against towns and bases in northern Australia.
Change in recruitment policy
These events prompted a change in Australia's military recruitment policy.
Authorities now considered how to use the unique skills and knowledge of First Australians.
Local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were recruited by the land, sea and air forces for specialist units.
Using their knowledge of the land and coast, service men in these specialist units would:
- carry out surveillance
- defend the northern coastline and nearby islands
- search for and rescue crashed enemy and allied airmen
Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit
In 1941, anthropologist Donald Thomson established an Indigenous specialist unit, the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit (NTSRU).
The unit included 51 Yolngu men from Arnhem Land and 6 Pacific and Torres Strait Islanders.
Their role was to patrol the coastline of Darwin for signs of Japanese attack. Equipped with traditional weapons, the men were taught how to make and use Molotov cocktails. They were also trained to use guerrilla tactics against any Japanese who landed.
Thomson had lived and worked with the Yolngu in the 1930s. He recognised the advantages of mobilising their:
- knowledge of the land
- bushcraft skills
- traditional fighting skills
There was opposition to the unit, but the benefits of cheap labour brought many opponents around to the idea.
Members of the unit received payment as rations of tobacco and fishing and hunting supplies. They received no back-pay or medals until 1993, 50 years after the unit was disbanded.
Similar units were formed at:
- Melville Island
- Groote Eylandt
- Cox Peninsula
You always felt safe when you had an Aborigine with you.
['A' Company, North Australia Observation Unit, Timber Creek Memorial]
In the small town of Timber Creek, 600km south of Darwin, there's a simple memorial to a lesser-known unit of wartime volunteers.
The memorial features two plaques to acknowledge:
- the service men of the North Australia Observation Unit (NAOU)
- the important support role played by local Aboriginal people
The unit formed under the leadership of respected anthropologist, William Stanner, in May 1942.
At the time, Stanner was personal assistant to Frank Forde, Minister for the Army. But, he had also worked with Northern Territory Aboriginal communities in the 1930s and had detailed knowledge of northern Australia and its peoples.
Known informally as the 'Nackeroos' and 'Curtin's Cowboys', the North Australia Observation Unit was based on Australia’s Light Horse tradition.
Working in smaller companies and travelling by horse, the Nackeroos patrolled their allocated areas for signs of Japanese invasion. They then reported back to their headquarters in Katherine by wireless.
The unit consisted of 500 service men who completed their basic training at Ingleburn in New South Wales, before deployment to the Northern Territory.
Many had extensive experience of living in the bush and working with horses. But, they still relied heavily on the local knowledge of Aboriginal people in each of the isolated communities, as well as the 50 Indigenous personnel assigned to the unit as labourers and guides.
The patrols saw little action and the unit was disbanded in March 1945.
Learn more about the Nackeroos
The Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion
By early 1942, the possibility of Japan invading Australia was a genuine concern.
Rabaul, the peacetime capital of the Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea, fell to the Japanese in January. That led to the Torres Strait Islands becoming Australia's northern-most line of defence.
Australian and United States forces established a military base on Thursday Island. It was 40km north of Queensland's Cape York Peninsula.
Horn Island, another of the larger islands in the Torres Strait, also played a strategic role. The RAAF and the United States Air Force used the island for refuelling and rearming fighter planes. These were deployed for battle in New Guinea.
Japanese planes attacked Horn Island several times. Civilians were evacuated and a garrison of Torres Strait Islander men remained.
This garrison became the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, Australia's first and only Indigenous unit.
By the end of 1942, more than 800 Torres Strait Islander men had enlisted. They were given training in infantry skills and worked side-by-side with thousands of non-Indigenous troops sent from the mainland. The following year, some were also deployed to Dutch New Guinea.
Curator of the Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island, Queensland, Vanessa Seekee, said Islanders and non-Indigenous soldiers largely respected and appreciated each other.
Yet Torres Strait Islanders received less equal treatment from authorities. They received one-third of the pay given to non-Indigenous troops and were denied any benefits.
In 1943, the Battalion went on strike for better pay. They were successful in having their pay increased to two-thirds that of non-Indigenous soldiers. Not until 1986 did they receive full back-pay for their war service.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples also contributed to the war effort as civilians.
Samuel Furphy, in Serving our Country, argues that the contributions of Indigenous men and women to the wartime economy is 'often undervalued'.
Furphy says Indigenous men and women were in demand because of labour shortages. They were employed in a variety of industries across Australia, including as:
- farm assistants
- building labourers
- domestic staff
- munitions factory workers
This was particularly the case in the Northern Territory, where an influx of 100,000 service personnel had been stationed in response to the threat of Japanese invasion.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were generally treated with less fairness than other Australians, despite the important support they provided.
At times, they were expected to work for room and board only. At others, they were denied their entitled pay. In some cases, when they were paid, it was a much lower wage than that of non-Indigenous workers in comparable positions.
But, there were some improvements to their status. For many, especially those from mission settlements, this was the first time they had earned a cash wage.
Food, housing and welfare services provided by the Army were better than what many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had experienced before the war.
Role of Indigenous women
Indigenous women played many roles during the Second World War.
Some joined the services and learned valuable new skills with the auxiliary branches of the Navy, Army and Air Force:
- Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS)
- Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF)
- Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS)
These auxiliary forces were formed in 1941 to allow the release of men for active service overseas.
Allison Cadzow, in Serving our Country, says 34 Indigenous women are known to have served in the auxiliary services, though that number is likely higher.
Ethnic background was not recorded in the women's service records. Some women, like Betty Pike, lied about their background to join the services.
Pike enlisted in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force and learned to fix aircraft engines, taking the planes up for test flights as part of her duties. She remained in the WAAF for two years.
Indigenous women filled a variety of roles in the auxiliary forces. Among them:
- cooks, cleaners and kitchen staff
- health care
Kathleen Walker, who would later become known as the poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, trained as a wireless operator for the Australian Women’s Army Service. After the war, Walker became a passionate advocate for Aboriginal rights.
Indigenous wives, daughters and sisters also played a more personal role. They supported families while men served away, often under extraordinarily emotionally trying circumstances. Some had to evacuate from their homes due to the threat of attack. Some had their children removed under the state Protection Acts.
Women also helped their male family members on their return from war.
Oral accounts, such as those gathered by the Serving our Country project, provide insight into the impact on family life when fathers and husbands returned home, often with significant mental and physical health problems.
Families provided vital emotional and practical support as their loved ones made the transition to post-war life.
Coming home and civil rights
On the battlefield, everyone was equal. Aboriginal and white Australians fought side by side. But any equality was stripped upon the return home. Attitudes are not changed. Aboriginal people were still subject to discrimination. They couldn’t go into a bar to have a beer with mates. Their kids and they couldn’t go into swimming pools etc. Aboriginal people could die for their country but it would be more than 20 years after the war before they could even vote.
[Dot Peters, excerpt from digital story, Australian Centre for the Moving Image, 2010]
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who served Australia during the war returned to a country that continued to discriminate against them.
Despite the relative equality of their service years, and the fact they had fought and died for their country, their service was not immediately rewarded with citizenship rights.
Indigenous service men and women did not receive the same recognition as other veterans. Some were not offered the same compensation as non-Indigenous veterans, such as soldier settlement blocks or spousal pensions. For many, it would be at least 40 years before they received the benefits owed to them, including wages in some cases.
In the years following the war, Indigenous veterans were discriminated against by inconsistent state laws that tried to control their rights to:
- move freely
- own property, or
- drink with their mates in a pub on Anzac Day
This continuing racial prejudice encouraged many Indigenous ex-service men to become activists for improved conditions.
Reform was slow to happen, but in the 1960s there were some significant changes:
- all Indigenous Australians were granted the right to vote at federal elections in 1962
- by 1965, all Indigenous Australians could vote in state elections (Queensland was the last state to grant this right)
- 90% of Australian voters said 'Yes' in 1967 to a constitutional change to allow the Australian Government to make beneficial laws for Aboriginal people and include them in the census
The 1967 referendum was a symbolic result for campaigners. It marked a growing awareness of civil rights for First Australians. However, it didn't grant Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people citizenship or voting rights.
Practical changes that benefited Indigenous communities didn't begin until reforms were introduced by the Whitlam government in 1972.
Commemorating their service
Every Anzac Day, a quiet ceremony is held on the side of Mount Ainslie in Canberra.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association (ATSIVSA) hosts a service to honour the wartime contribution of Indigenous Australians.
The commemoration of the war service of First Australians has been a complex and sometimes politically sensitive issue.
Many Indigenous veterans felt their service was not adequately recognised and commemorated. Others felt that the Anzac story did not reflect their contributions.
These feelings fuelled a desire for commemorations that specifically recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service.
Today, many memorials focus on the service and sacrifice of First Australians.
For Our Country – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander memorial was officially dedicated in a public ceremony in Canberra on 28 March 2019. The pavilion commemorates the military service and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who have fought to protect their country.
Other memorials include:
- Australian War Memorial in Canberra
- RSL Aboriginal Memorial in Perth
- Yirrkala memorial in the Northern Territory
- Yugambeh War Memorial on the Gold Coast
Several exhibitions, texts and ceremonies also recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service. These include the annual commemoration ceremony held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.
- Beaumont, J and McDonnell, S 2018. Serving Our Country: Indigenous Australians, war, defence and citizenship. New South, Sydney.
- Beaumont, J 1996. Australia's War, 1939-45. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.
- Broome, R 2010. Aboriginal Australians: a history since 1788. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest.
- Cadzow, A and Jebb, MA 2019. Our Mob Served: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories of War and Defending Australia. Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra.
- Riseman, NJ 2007. Defending whose country? Yolngu and the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance in the Second World War. Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies 13: 80-91.
- Shrine of Remembrance 2017. Indigenous Australians at war from the Boer War to the present. Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne.
Stories of those who served
Learn more about some of those who served:
Student enquiry questions
- What were the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples during World War II?
- How did Indigenous people contribute to the war effort, overseas and on the home front?
- In what ways did the war change the rights and status of the First Australians?