Chief of Army Anzac Day 2014 address
I begin by acknowledging the first people of Australia. I acknowledge their custodianship of this land. I honour their elders, past and present and today, especially, I honour all of those from our indigenous communities who have served this Nation as members of the Australian Defence Force.
We stand here today at the virtual gateway to Australia. One cannot come to Northern Australia, especially to Thursday Island, without being very aware of two things. Firstly, ours is a large, sparsely populated land. Secondly, our Northern approaches are very close to Papua New Guinea, where in 1942 a desperate fight took place to protect Australia from invasion.
In that war, as in all of Australia’s wars, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served bravely and displayed a special love of country.
Every Australian soldier loves this Nation. But the original custodians of this land love it in a way, and with a depth, that “White Fella” language probably cannot express. Sadly, for too long, many Australians were blind to the reality of our history. The celebrations of our victories in war were blind to the mixed emotions that they may have engendered in those who called this land home long before it was called Australia.
On a day when we pay tribute to our soldiers who stormed ashore on a foreign beach, we must also remember that some Australians remember men from across the world coming here to take their land.
Today, I think that all of us have deeper appreciation of the significance of the land to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. In that spirit today, I want to pay tribute to the many indigenous men and women who have served in Australia’s Armed Forces. They have served in every war since the formation of the Commonwealth in 1901.
There were Aboriginal trackers on the veldt in the Boer War. Later, in World War I, over 500 Aboriginal men fought in the First AIF and nearly a third of them were killed or wounded. Those men fought for a Nation that did not even fully recognise their rights and status as human beings, let alone citizens. Yet their love of land and country preceded any flag or crown, so they went forth as proud warriors. That makes their unselfishness and sacrifice even more remarkable.
Notable among them were Albert Knight who was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his conspicuous gallantry in the attack on the village of Bony on 30 September 1918 and William Rawlings who was awarded the Military Medal for leading a bayonet charge at Morlancourt on 29 July 1918.
However, it was the Second World War, which saw the greatest contribution of Aboriginal and Islander soldiers to this Nation. The first Aboriginal man to become an officer of the Australian Army was Reg Saunders, who rose to prominence in that conflict. He was a trailblazer who led integrated units with distinction. He remains one of the most revered soldiers to ever serve in our Army.
Another man, Leonard Waters had always dreamt of flying. And so he did. He flew over 90 operational missions in the Second World War. That feat was unimaginable for an Aboriginal man in the period before the war. Very few Aboriginal people would have been passengers on planes in the 1930s, yet Leonard Waters flew and fought one. These were but two of hundreds of indigenous men who served bravely though in both World Wars. Differing social norms and discriminations sometimes impaired the accuracy of records so that the full contribution of indigenous soldiers may never be completely understood.
Local Torres Strait Islander men also did their bit. The most distinguished was Charles Mene who served right through the Second World War, including the Syrian campaign and later in New Guinea. He went on to serve with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan before deploying to the Korean War where he was awarded the Military Medal for his bravery. Likewise, Victor Blanco and Kamuel Abednego served in the Greek campaign and the Pacific theatre respectively.
All these men were pioneers and role models. Inside the Army they were judged on their merits not the colour of their skin. Change came too slowly to Australia, but our indigenous soldiers earned the respect of their mates even before they were recognised decently in wider society. In the notable case of Reg Saunders, white men learned to take orders from an Aboriginal man. In no other part of our society was this prevalent in 1945.
You understand myths and dreaming. It seems to me that Anzac is a sort of Dreaming for Australians. Of course it is a war story. But its moral tale is about the qualities that no single race of people may lay exclusive claim to - love for country, love for friends and family and the willingness to bear terrible suffering to protect what we love. Let us focus on those things today, and let us remember the bravery of all of our forebears in serving their country - however one defines that term.
Today all of us are natives of a beautiful, bountiful land. Let us be grateful for that. And let us be grateful for all those whose sacrifice has so endeared them to this country. Lest We Forget.