In 2014, the NAIDOC Week theme was ‘Serving Country: Centenary and Beyond’. This offered an opportunity for us to acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have served with distinction in Australia’s military engagements over the past 100 years.
Here are a few of the many stories of Indigenous service.
Arthur Thomas Walker was born in Wallaroo in 1883, son of Reuben and Charlotte Walker nee Owens. He enlisted in March 1915 at 32 years of age and was part of the 7th Reinforcements of the 10th Battalion.
Arthur landed on Gallipoli in September 1915 and remained there until the evacuation in December 1915. He spent five months in Egypt and was then transferred to the 50th Battalion. Arthur arrived in France, in June 1916 and took part in the battle of Mouquet Farm, near Pozieres. During the battle Arthur was reported as missing. A Court of Inquiry later determined he had been killed in action on 16 August 1916.
Arthur’s son, born on 25 April 1915, was named Anzac, a naming tradition that has continued for several generations in the Walker family.
Alfred Hearps was born near Devonport, Tasmania in 1895. His father was an Aboriginal Australian but despite the laws of the day that prevented Indigenous men from enlisting, he joined the Australian Imperial Force within weeks of the outbreak of WWI.
He was posted to the 12th Battalion, which was among the first units to land at Anzac Cove. In August 1914 Alfred was evacuated and hospitalised having suffered a breakdown. Several weeks later he returned to his unit and served out the campaign until the evacuation in December 1915.
In 1916 the 12th Battalion fought in some of worst battles faced by Australians on the Western Front. In mid-August during one of the assaults against Mouquet Farm, Alfred, newly promoted to second lieutenant, was killed.
It took almost a year before Alfred’s fate could be officially confirmed as there were more than 6,000 Anzac casualties in the battle for Mouquet Farm.
Second Lieutenant Alfred Hearps has no known grave, but is commemorated on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial in France.
Bill Coolburra was from Palm Island in Far North Queensland. He joined the Army in 1964. Bill served in Borneo in 1964-65, Vietnam in 1965-66, Malaya in 1967-68 and Singapore in 1971-73.
Bill was one of the legendary Tunnel Rats, serving with 3 Field Troop and 1 Field Squadron. He was wounded twice in Vietnam. First through asphyxiation in a tunnel at Ho-Bo Woods in January 1966 and later by a booby trap in March 1966. Bill spent a total of 16 years in the Army and was well known for his good nature and infectious laugh.
Bill was highly respected in the north Queensland community for his support and mentoring of Indigenous youth. Over the years he actively encouraged youth participation in sport as a pathway to a healthy and purposeful life.
Over 500 people attended his funeral on Palm Island in 2009, where he was honoured with a three-volley salute fired at the grave site by the 3rd Combat Engineer Regiment. The Bill Coolburra Shield, an annual Rugby League match between the Palm Island Skipjacks and Army Thunder, started in 2008 as a way of strengthening the relationship between the Indigenous community of Palm Island and the Army.
Thomas Henry ‘Buddy’ Lea, a South Sea Islander, was born and raised in Rockhampton and later moved to Bowen, north Queensland. He enlisted in the Army in 1960 at age 20 after two years of National Service.
On 18 August 1966 Buddy found himself as a section commander patrolling with the 6th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment’s D Company in a rubber tree plantation in Long Tan, Vietnam when they came up against the enemy. For three and a half hours, in torrential rain and mud, the 108 Australian diggers fought against a regiment of 2,500 North Vietnamese soldiers.
Buddy was shot three times while trying to pull a mate to safety and spent five months in hospital recovering. He spent 33 years in the Army.
Charles Mene was born in 1915 on Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait. His family was involved in the pearling industry where he also worked, then later as a houseboy. Charles enlisted in the Militia on 3 September 1939 and later transferred to the 2nd Australian Imperial Force eventually joining the 2/33rd Battalion that was sent to the Middle East as part of the Syrian campaign.
The 2/33rd Battalion also saw action at Kokoda, Buna and Gona. The Battalion lost over a hundred men and experienced some of the toughest fighting that Australian soldiers would endure during WWII.
Charles also served in the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan from 1946. In 1950, he re-engaged to serve in Korea with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment. Due to his extensive combat experience, he served in the machine gun platoon of Support Company but was occasionally seconded to rifle companies to lead less experienced soldiers in battle. In 1952 Charles was awarded the Military Medal for his leadership and coolness under fire.
After the Korean War, Charles joined the Regular Army and was posted to the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment as the battalion prepared for operations in Malaya. After two years of serving in Malaya, he returned home to Australia and discharged in April 1961.
Walter Christopher (Chris) George Saunders was from Warrnambool, Victoria. He worked as a groom prior to enlisting on 29 August 1916 with the 10th Machine Gun Company. He later transferred to the 3rd Machine Gun Battalion as a driver. He embarked for service in France on 27 May 1916 and returned to Australia in June 1919.
Chris Saunders’ tales of mateship and adventure during World War One inspired his son to enlist in World War Two. His son was Captain Reginald Saunders.
Private Eddie Albert was a member of the 51st Militia Battalion and among the first to enlist on the outbreak of World War Two. Eddie joined the 2/15th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force and was one of many soldiers captured following a short but vicious action against German armour during a battle near Derna, Libya in April 1941. He was interrogated in Benghazi and then sent to the prisoner of war (POW) camp at Sabratha, near Tripoli. He was later transferred to a camp in Capura, Italy.
Eddie spent two years in various Italian POW camps before escaping from Campo 106, Vercelli, Italy in early September 1943. Crossing the Alps was not an option due to a particularly bad winter, so he remained on the loose until 25 April 1944 when he and six other Allied soldiers were discovered near Biella in the foothills of the Italian Alps. Three of the seven soldiers were immediately executed before their Italian captors realised the men were escaped POWs. Eddie and the others were handed to the Germans and transferred to Stalag 7A near Munich until the cessation of hostilities.
Five of Eddie’s eight children have served in the ADF and his post-war experience is the ongoing inspiration to his grandson, artist Tony Albert. In 2012 Tony became the first Indigenous Australian to be appointed as an official war artist by the Australian War Memorial. His NORFORCE exhibition will open on 9 July 2014. Tony has also been recently commissioned to create a sculpture in Hyde Park to honour the sacrifice and bravery of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men and women. The artwork will be unveiled prior to Anzac Day 2015.
Frank Archibald was a Gumbaynggirr man, born in Walcha, New South Wales. He enlisted at Kempsey in 1940 with his younger brother Ronald and his uncle Richard. Frank saw service with the 2/2nd Battalion in the Middle East, Greece and Crete before being sent back to Australia.
After a brief trip back home to Kempsey, Frank and his brother Ronald were sent to Papua New Guinea. They fought in some of the worst conditions along the Kokoda Track. Ronald became ill with malaria and was evacuated to hospital, while Frank was sent to the Siege of Buna.
On 24 November 1942, in the swampland around Sanananda, Frank was killed by a sniper’s bullet while trying to save a mate who survived the action.
On Anzac Day 2012, members of the Archibald family gathered at Bomana Cemetery in Port Moresby to call Frank’s spirit home in a traditional spiritual ceremony. Soil was also taken from his gravesite and reinterred with his family in Armidale Cemetery. A warrior finally at rest.
Frank Fisher was born in Claremont, Queensland. He lived with his wife Esme and three children from his first marriage, at the Barambah Settlement, Queensland (renamed Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement in 1931) at the time of his enlistment.
Frank enlisted on 16 August 1917 in the 28th Reinforcements to the 11th Light Horse Regiment and embarked to Sydney on the troopship Ulysses in December 1917. After landing at Suez he was transferred to the 4th Light Horse Training Regiment at Moascar, Egypt, and eventually returned to the 11th Light Horse Regiment in April 1918.
Frank returned to Australia on the troopship Morvada in July 1919. After the war he was a well known Rugby League player. ‘King’ Fisher played at five-eight in representative teams for Wide Bay and in 1932 and 1936 against touring teams from Great Britain.
Frank is the great grandfather of the Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman.
The Beale brothers were from Quirindi, New South Wales. In June 1941 George and his younger brother Frederick enlisted in the Australian Army. They were sent with the 2/20th Battalion to defend the Malay peninsula.
The Beale brothers became prisoners of war at the fall of Singapore. After being held captive in Changi camp they were sent to Japan to work in the Naoetsu Camp. George worked in a steel mill under extremely harsh conditions and on 28 May 1943 he died as a result of injuries he received after being dragged into a machine. He was the second of 60 Australians to die in the Naoetsu Camp in Japan between 1943 and March 1944.
Frederick survived the camp and returned home to Australia in 1945. The following year, he and his wife welcomed another son and named him Donald George Beale, in honour of his uncle who hadn’t made it home.
Harry Thorpe was born at the Lake Tyers Mission Station near Lakes Entrance, Victoria.
In February 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and joined the 17th Reinforcements to the 7th Battalion on the way to the Western Front.
After two weeks of fighting Harry was evacuated with a gunshot wound to his leg. He was promoted to Lance Corporal in January 1917, and went on to fight in the battle of Bullecourt where he was wounded for the second time by a gunshot wound to the shoulder. Later that year, Harry was involved in the operations near Ypres in Belgium.
His great courage and leadership earned him a Military Medal and promotion to Corporal.
Harry was wounded for the third and final time during the great offensive of August 1918.
He was seriously wounded in the stomach during the battle at Lihons. When stretcher-bearers finally reached him, his wounds proved to be fatal and he died shortly afterwards. He was 34. Harry is buried in the large Heath Cemetery near Harbonnières, a few kilometres from where he fell and next to his friend Bill Rawlings MM, who died on the same day.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal was born Kathleen Ruska in 1920 on North Stradbroke Island. In 1933, at 13, she left school and went to work as a domestic servant on the mainland to support her family.
Kath enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service in 1942 after her two brothers were captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. Her service in the Army gave her access to training and educational opportunities. Kath trained as an Army signaller in Brisbane and was promoted to Corporal. She made many friends, including non-Indigenous Australians and African-American soldiers, who were serving in segregated units stationed in the area.
Kath left the Army in December 1942 because of a persistent middle ear infection which made her unable to perform her job. After leaving the Army, her previous positive experiences highlighted the discrimination she then faced as a civilian. This led Kath to become a fervent advocate for Aboriginal rights.
The bicentenary of white settlement in Australia in 1988 frustrated Kath because of the slow progress of Aboriginal rights. She returned the MBE she received in 1970 for services to Aboriginal people and changed her name to Oodgeroo Noonuccal in recognition of her Noonuccal ancestors.
Reg Saunders was born in 1920 in Victoria. Both his father, Walter (Chris) Saunders and his uncle, William Reginald Rawlings MM fought in WWI. Following this family military tradition Reg and his brother Harry, enlisted in WWII. Tragically, Harry was killed in action on the Kokoda Trail.
Reg proved to be a natural soldier and became a popular NCO in the 2/7th Battalion. He saw action in Libya, Greece and Crete. During the British evacuation of Crete in May 1941, Reg was one of several hundred left behind. He eventually rejoined his battalion in New Guinea and in late 1944 attended officer training in Victoria. Reg was commissioned Lieutenant and went back to New Guinea as a platoon commander in the 2/7th Battalion.
Reg returned to the Army when the Korean War began. He was promoted to Captain and led C Company, 3rd Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment through fierce fighting, including the battle at Kapyong in April 1951. Reg left Korea in October 1952 and resigned from the Regular Army in 1954.
In 1969 Reg became one of the first Aboriginal Liaison Officers for the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. In 1971 he was awarded an MBE and in 1985 was appointed to the Council of the Australian War Memorial.
Sergeant John Angel-Hands and Lance Corporal Natalie Whyte raised the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Flags at Al Minhad Air Base, United Arab Emirates to celebrate NAIDOC Week 2013.
It was the first time on record that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags had been flown on operational service outside Australia. The flags will be presented to the Australian War Memorial during the Defence Indigenous Memorial Service to mark NAIDOC Week 2014.
Sergeant Angel-Hands and Lance Corporal Whyte, who is Bill Coolburrra’s granddaughter, are currently part of a specialist recruiting team of eight Indigenous recruiting officers appointed by the Chief of Army to support Indigenous candidates throughout the recruiting process and help boost Indigenous participation across the service.
Timothy Hughes was born in 1919 at Point Pearce Aboriginal Community on Yorke Peninsula – a member of the Narannga Aboriginal community of South Australia. He served from 1939 to 1945 with 9 Platoon of the 2nd/10th Battalion. He was a ‘Rat of Tobruk’ and also saw service in Libya, New Guinea and Borneo.
Tim was awarded the Military Medal for his act of conspicuous gallantry and bravery during the advance of the battalion supporting American units at the Buna Aerodrome. His citation states that he “…showed remarkable bravery, exceptional coolness and initiative. His total disregard for his own safety set a fine example through the Platoon and also throughout the Company”.
In the 1950s Tim took up a Soldier Settlers’ farm in south-east South Australia, which he named ‘Bhoodkayana’, the traditional name of the Point Pearce Aboriginal Community lands where he came from.
William Reginald Rawlings was born in Purnim, Victoria and worked as a horse-breaker around the Framlingham Aboriginal Reserve before WWI. Although there were restrictions on enlistment for Indigenous Australians, Bill managed to enlist in March 1916 and eventually left for France with the 8th Reinforcements to the 29th Battalion.
In July 1918, Bill was part of the advance along Morlancourt Ridge. He led a successful charge against a Communications Post that forced out the enemy. He was commended for his ‘irresistible dash and courage’ and was awarded the Military Medal.
Bill was killed by a shell during the capture of Vauvillers in France. He is buried in the Heath Cemetery in France alongside his friend Corporal Harry Thorpe, a fellow Military Medal recipient who was killed in action on the same day.