A light is shone on Aboriginal soldiers' service


Leonard Ogilvie served in the Korean war and says Indigenous soldiers were denied the thanks white Australians received (Jan James)

Andrew O'Connor ABC news Oct 29, 2010

It was a plan that treated Aborigines as potential enemies of Australia.

It was hatched in the dark days of June 1942, when Australia appeared threatened with invasion by the Japanese forces on their conquering advance through south- east Asia.

In February, Australia had been shocked by the Japanese attack on Darwin where 188 enemy aircraft bombed and strafed the harbour and city. At least 243 people were killed and 400 wounded.

Just weeks later, Broome was bombed, destroying 24 aircraft and killing 40 people.

The raids elevated fears of a Japanese assault on the mainland and the military in Western Australia prepared to repel a possible invasion.

In a bizarre twist, they feared the state's Indigenous population, after decades of ill-treatment and neglect at the hands of white Australians, would side with the invaders.

Their plan was to virtually intern Aborigines in their own country. Aborigines living and working in the wheatbelt were to be rounded up, transported by rail to Goomalling, and then taken by train to Malcolm at the edge of the Nullabor.

This astonishing tale has been unravelled by Northam genealogist and author Jan James who uncovered official letters and documents.

Restrictions

It was during Jan James' research that she enountered records of Aboriginal soldiers, a largely overlooked aspect of the nation's military history.

"One day, I was looking at some records and I saw where it said father's occupation: soldier, and I thought no, no-one ever told me, I never knew."

She eventually identified more than 700 Aborigines who served in Australia's armed forces from the Boer War. Their service has been documented in her just-released book "Forever Warriors".

As she delved deeper into the military records she also found evidence of the harsh treatment of Aborigines at home by military authorities.

In her book, she says Aborigines were forced to register with authorities and could only travel with a permit. If they worked, they were compelled to remain at their place of work. If they left, they were arrested and taken into custody.

Even if they were going on holidays, Aboriginal people had to carry a note from their employer.

If they didn't work, they were held at the Moore River Native Settlement, north of Perth. If they escaped, the military would track them down and take them into custody.

Ms James says the restrictions provoked deep resentment among Indigenous people.

"There were two Kojunup (Aboriginal) men who complained about the way they were being treated. They complained to the Protector of Aborigines about this and he in turn contacted the government and they said, well, we can't have this because this is subversive.

"The government, they didn't know how they were going to deal with this. They immediately sent letters to all the Protectors of Aborigines, telling them that they wanted lists of names of Aboriginal people, and the district that they lived in; whether they were in prisons, whether they were in native settlements or missions."

Ms James says the lists had a purpose. They allowed authorities to trace Aborigines and control their movements so that in the event of an invasion, they could be taken into custody.

Surprise

The former head of Reconciliation Australia Fred Chaney launched "Forever Warriors" at the RSL's Perth headquarters, Anzac House.

He was surprised to read how Aborigines were forced to work and live with such severe restrictions.

"Aboriginal people who were not in the services were actually civilly conscripted. That's a part of it that I didn't know much about but essentially, as the book says, people were treated as slaves.

"Their freedom of movement, their freedom of action, what they could do was completely taken away from them."

While Mr Chaney was saddened by the attitudes of the era, he also found the recognition of Aboriginal military service in "Forever Warriors" uplifting.

"As a fellow Australian I found it mortifying, I found it truly sad, to read some of what was here.

"At the same time, I found it inspirational to see how many people, at a time when they were not fully recognised as Australians, were prepared to put themselves forward in our country's interest."

Former WA magistrate Sue Gordon is one of the ex-servicewomen included in the book. She joined the army after being raised at Sister Kate's as one of the stolen generation.

She enjoyed her military service but knows all too well the lack of recognition given to returning Aboriginal soldiers.

"These were Aboriginal people who served and went through horrific, horrific incidents which is probably a nice way to put it and then to come back here and be treated like a piece of shit."

Len Ogilvie, his brother Wally and father John are among them - Len served in the Korean War and was wounded when his position was overrun by communist troops.

He remembers how returning Aboriginal soldiers were denied the thanks and gratitude offered to white soldiers.

"My father was in the first world war, my brother was in the second world war and Korea. I have five uncles - six uncles - in the Second World War. One was killed in New Guinea just before the war finished.

"They were all discriminated. They weren't allowed in to have a drink with their mates that they fought along side of. And even on Anzac Day, because you were an Aborigine you weren't allowed in the pub to have a beer.

"Fighting in jungles and deserts with your mates, all in together. And when you come back here, just nothing. A lot of white Australians got soldier settlement farms, not the case for Aboriginals."

Memories

Sue Gordon says the hurtful memories of those times still linger for many veterans.

"I see that on the face of the boys I grew up with 'cause they still remember that. But to see them when we have special occasions, and Anzac Day with their medals marching proud, just makes me feel beaut."

She shares the hope that the book will be widely read and build a deeper understanding of the extent of Aboriginal service.

"I would hope it would reach all Australians. The Aboriginal families of those men who served and died, or have died since, they will appreciate it because finally it is the recognition that their families never got."

Jan James is already seeing the impact of her work on Aboriginal people. Since the publication of her book she's been overwhelmed by calls from Indigenous Australians filled with new pride in the service of their family members.

She hopes that these positive examples will help give Aboriginal soldiers the recognition they deserve.

"I hope the Aboriginal people can come to terms with it all and move on. And know how wonderful these people were. They don't need to have American heroes. They've got 'em, got 'em right here in this book, and they were heroes alright. They did some miraculous things."

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Indigenous servicemen honoured

Alex Sinnott The Standard 02 Nov, 2010


Gunditijmara Dancer

Victoria's first war memorial dedicated to the supreme sacrifice made by indigenous Australians was officially unveiled yesterday.
Indigenous elders, historians and politicians came together to reflect on the service of south-west Aboriginal men and women at the ceremony on Cannon Hill where the impressive memorial now stands.

It is only the second indigenous war memorial in Australia with a commemorative plaque installed near Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance.

Eighty-eight south-west Aboriginal war veterans have been identified as having served Australia in overseas conflicts over the past century including World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and Afghanistan.

Sergeant Ricky Morris delivered the Ode of Remebrance at yesterday's ceremony.

The East Timor and Afghanistan veteran is the 21st member of the Lovett family to serve in the Australian armed forces.

Gunditjmara Aboriginal Co-operative's Marcus Clarke said indigenous servicemen and women had been under-recognised at official ceremonies and commemorative sites.

He reflected on the hardship endured by one of his ancestors during battle in World War I and said the new plaque would give due recognition to the region's indigenous veterans.

"The Aboriginal contribution has been a missing voice from the Australian military legend and psyche for many decades," Mr Clarke said.

"We hope this new memorial can give that voice back to them."

Indigenous military historian Peter Bakker the new memorial was a practical and tangible step towards true reconciliation.

He said he was impressed by the number of people in attendance at the event.

"Despite all the personal hardships and discrimination faced by Aboriginal people at that time, these men and women enlisted in high numbers and responded to the call of duty," Mr Bakker said.

"(Yesterday was) a historic day for Aboriginal people in the south-west and across Australia because veterans all the way back to World War I are being publicly recognised for their service and commitment to Australia."

Historians have determined that more than 600 indigenous servicemen fought for Australia during World War I.

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