My post today combines the A to Z challenge but also the annual Trans Tasman ANZAC day blog challenge.
CULTURAL WARNING: This post contains images and references to deceased Aboriginal people.
Today is the 25th April, Anzac Day, which commemorates the landing of ANZAC troops on the beach at Gallipoli. For Australians this event has come to symbolise our practical emergence as a nation, only 14 years after being legally proclaimed. Many of the ANZAC traditions have been romanticised with less than perfect accuracy. As time passes the knowledge and research into our military history has become more mature revealing nuances which weren’t highlighted previously, and showing shadow as well as light.
Over the past 98 years Anzac Day itself has had a varied history. When I was a teenager it had lost its lustre, perhaps influenced by our involvement in the Vietnam War. These days it has a total resurgence of pride, aided by more Australia-focused history being taught in schools, rather than mostly the British history of my youth.
In this blog over the past weeks we’ve been visiting the diverse and magnificent scenery of the Northern Territory and the top, tropical, half of Australia’s two largest states, Queensland and Western Australia.
It’s appropriate today to keep our focus in the area but to look at how Indigenous people served their country during Australia’s war-time history. Traditionally overshadowed by the Gallipoli legend, the service of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been important in diverse ways.
At the time of World War I and II, Aboriginal people were not citizens in their own country, they were not counted in the nation’s census, they could not drink in public bars, nor did they have control of their own money or their movement eg they could not visit their own families at Christmas without the permission of the local Protector of Aborigines, often the local police constable.
As recruitment commenced for WWI, “full blood” Aborigines were not permitted to enlist as this quote reveals: “This decision definitely [excludes] the enlistment of full-blooded Aborigines, but instructions have been issued to medical officers that in deciding whether or not a person is substantially of European origin, they will be guided by the general suitability of the applicant”.
Not only does the quote illuminate a prejudiced and ambivalent attitude to Indigenous recruitment, it reveals how much it depended on a white person’s assessment of them. It also ignored whether the Indigenous community viewed them as being Indigenous, either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
The very ambiguity reveals why some Aboriginal people did manage to enlist and serve side-by-side with their fellow Australians in all sites of war. Some 500 Indigenous men were among the 80,000 servicemen in the AIF, and 80 came from the Northern Territory[i].
In World War II the situation was similar though the fear for Australia’s northern shores meant that Aboriginal people were also at the forefront of the country’s protection, whether actually serving or not.
It was the missionary at Bathurst Island from the Tiwi Islands, about 30 minutes flying time north of Darwin, who radioed the news of the Japanese bombers flying in to bomb the city. . Unfortunately it was regarded as some allied aircraft returning and the warning ignored. The Tiwis also played a role as the Japanese aircraft returned to their carriers. A couple of Zero aircraft detoured to strafe the Catholic church at Nguiu and also a DC3 on the runway. One crash-landed and it was a Tiwi man, Matthias Ungura, who captured the first Japanese Prisoner of War on Australian soil, Hajime Toyoshima, who would later be a key instigator, and die, in the Cowra POW breakout. To this day the Tiwi Islanders commemorate the capture of the POW and their attempt to warn Darwin in time.
Matthias Ungura stalked the Japanese pilot who was armed with a revolver and a knife. He is quoted as saying “He got proper big fright”. “I take revolver from his right side near his knee. Then I walk backwards pointing my gun. I say ‘Stick em up…right up…two hands…no more holding hands on head”[ii]
Although still restricted in their ability to volunteer and enlist, some managed to do so, serving as officers, pilots and naval seamen. Others worked side by side with the extensive military deployment in the Northern Territory while some performed patrols searching out crashed aircraft and downed pilots, or monitored the coastline for Japanese military and naval activity. Their bush skills and knowledge of country meant that they could survive only on bush tucker and not need a supply line. Some women joined the Volunteer Air Observers Corp (as did my mother in Brisbane) learning to identify aircraft types and monitor the skies for enemy aircraft.
Probably the Indigenous men joined for many of the same reasons as the white volunteers: for adventure, seeing new places and defending their own country. However some would almost certainly have joined in the hope it might gain Aboriginal people citizenship rights on the land their ancestors had called home for over 40,000 years. This was not to be though, because that took another 25 years to come to pass, and it was not until the 1980s that they gained the back-pay they were due to put them on parity with their military peers and also official recognition of their service.
They returned home to the disenfranchised condition they had left, with few job opportunities, and extensive racial discrimination. Like their peers they had to face their wartime demons on their own –they couldn’t even go to the bar and have a drink with their former colleagues on Anzac Day, a traditional opportunity for the servicemen to re-bond and talk frankly among themselves, and have an equally traditional game of two-up.
The more you read of our Indigenous history, the more you appreciate why we have such a comprehensive social problem which seems almost unable to be resolved. As I’ve prepared this post I’ve come to realise just how paltry my own knowledge is, so my goal is to read more around the topic.
This is the first stanza of a poem called Black Anzac by Cecil Fisher.
They have forgotten him, need him no more
He who fought for his land in nearly every war
Tribal fights before his country was taken by Captain Cook
Then went overseas to fight at Gallipoli and Tobruk.
This Anzac Day, please remember our Indigenous servicemen who gave their lives, and their courage, to make life better for others.
LEST WE FORGET
[i] This story has been greatly assisted by a teaching resource Indigenous Service, a collaboration between the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance. It draws on an exhibition held at the Shrine in 2009 called Indigenous Australians at war, from the Boer War to the present.
[ii] Smith, Heide. Tiwi: The life and art of Australia’s Tiwi People. Edition Habit Press, Adelaide, 1990, page 25.
The Australian series of Who Do You Think You Are? have two excellent shows on Indigenous Australians, Olympic runner Cathy Freeman and footballer Michael O’Loughlin. Both were amazing for revealing what life was like for their Aboriginal ancestors, as well as their ANZAC heritage (Cathy Freeman) and cultural foresight (Michael O’Loughlin).
Or some of my own posts on Australian service during the war:
V is for the Valiant of Villers-Brettoneux (the 2012 Anzac Day post)
Fromelles, Lt WEH Cass and family collections (another exhibition at the Shrine)
Australia Day 2012: Life for toil on the railway (including WWI Railway military service)