[Acknowledgements to Traditional Owners, and all organisations/individuals involved in this project]
I’m very pleased to be here, it’s clear to see that this project has really brought the community together. Looking at the beautiful memorial here today, there’s no doubt that it will be a place for reflection and contemplation. Mayor Mene has already mentioned those involved in its construction and landscaping and I commend your work.
I welcome the up-swell in our regional communities to recognise those who have served their country.
Many people wouldn’t know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have fought for Australia in all our wars through the last century, from the Boer war onwards. Often, their presence has been an invisible one, as the services generally have not identified soldiers by race on enlistment records.
But they are there; there are photographs and writings, and researchers have added to our knowledge, such as the work of Geoff Wharton here today.
Reading up a bit on the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders during Australia’s foreign conflicts and you start to get some idea of the complexities surrounding their service.
When war broke out in 1914, many indigenous Australians who tried to enlist were rejected on the grounds of race. Some slipped through the cracks by pretending to be Maori, Indian or Pacific Islander.
The 400 or so Indigenous Australians who served in the First World War served on equal terms but after the war, in areas such as education, employment and civil liberties, they found that discrimination remained or had even worsened.
By 1939, indigenous Australians were divided over the issue of military service. Some believed that service would help the push for full citizenship rights. Others had lost sons in WWI and were bitter that their sacrifice had not brought about any improvements in conditions.
Nevertheless, at the start of the Second World War, indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders were allowed to enlist and many did so. They worked on construction sites, in army butcheries and on army farms. They also drove trucks, handled cargo and provided general labour around camps. The RAAF established airfields and radar stations near missions that could provide aboriginal labour.
At a time when the Commonwealth was drawing on all its reserves of men and women to support the war effort, the contribution of Indigenous Australians was vital.
With the Japanese advance in 1942, indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders found themselves in the front line. Manpower was urgently needed. On September 8th, 1943, the Army Lugger HB departed from Thursday Island on a recruitment drive.
Sailing up the Western Cape, a total of 30 young men from the mission communities signed on the dotted line, travelled up to TI and were posted to the 14th Australian Water Transport Operating Company. Why did they join?
Living in the missions on remote Cape York, they had seen first-hand much of the discriminatory and repressive treatment of aboriginal people. Yet still they chose to put their life on the line for this country. Many felt compelled to protect their land, as they always have.
The Army environment also mirrored some aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture of belonging to a group, of sharing responsibility, hardship and danger, of looking out for each other.
It offered an opportunity where each was treated on their merits, there was a chance to travel, to receive regular food and learn new skills. For many, it was the first time they had received equal treatment and it helped to build their confidence.
In his account of fighting in Malaya and Vietnam wars, an Australian Colonel, Max Carroll described his Indigenous servicemen as “first and foremost Australian soldiers”. He said:
“In an operational infantry platoon, company or battalion we rely on each other too much for there to be any nonsense, such as misguided prejudice. A man is accepted for himself, his abilities, his skills and his contribution to the esprit de corps of the battalion.”
Colonel Carroll noted the strengths of his indigenous troops in bushcraft and observation in fact he credited one with saving his life, spotting an uncleared mine on a track.
For those serving in the Torres Strait two decades earlier, it was no different the new recruits had valuable knowledge of the Torres Strait and Gulf coastal waters, gained from experience on pearl or beche de mer luggers, or on the Presbyterian Church’s fleet of sailing vessels.
Of course, being war, many Indigenous Australians lost their lives. The ultimate sacrifice was paid by the men of Napranum too. Private Alfred Gostelow died of illness en route to Egypt in WWI, and Privates Benny George and Jimmy James passed away on active service in the Torres Strait.
I have long advocated for greater recognition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander troops who fought to defend the Torres Strait from the Japanese bombers from 1942 onwards. The Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion was unique, being the only indigenous battalion ever formed by the Australian Army.
We also cannot forget the impacts of war on the home front, and the contributions from those who were left behind. It was people like Alfred Gostelow’s widow Rosie, and the other women and girls, who supported the war effort by sewing bandages and clothing for the Queensland Red Cross to give to soldiers at the front.
Others helped to rescue downed RAAF pilots, and there are several tales of this occurring in the Western Cape in what must have been incredibly difficult circumstances.
While serving together may have helped foster and understanding between the races, it saddens me to say that on their return to post-service life, many found that civilian society treated them with the same prejudice and discrimination as before.
Instead of recognition and respect, indigenous servicemen were banned from RSL clubs, except on Anazc Day. Many were not given the right to vote for another 17 years. Some had to go back to the missions they had lived on, or found that their children had been taken away. Others had their pay withheld from their families, couldn’t access veterans’ benefits – including parcels of land they were entitled to – and suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
It’s clear that we have come a long way as a society since then, and events such as today reassure me that key steps forward in recognition are happening. As a whole, war has accelerated the process of cultural change in Australia and helped create a position of greater equality.
I’d like to finish with a poem by Sapper Bert Beros, a non-Aboriginal soldier in WWII, written about an Aboriginal soldier in his unit, Private West.
The Coloured Digger
He came and joined the colours, when the War God’s anvil rang,
He took up modern weapons to replace his boomerang,
He waited for no call-up, he didn’t need a push,
He came in from the stations, and the townships of the bush.
He helped when help was wanting, just because he wasn’t deaf;
He is right amongst the columns of the fighting A.I.F.
He is always there when wanted, with his Owen gun or Bren,
He is in the forward area, the place where men are men.
He proved he’s still a warrior, in action not afraid,
He faced the blasting red hot fire from mortar and grenade;
He didn’t mind when food was low, or we were getting thin,
He didn’t growl or worry then, he’d cheer us with his grin.
He’d heard us talk democracy–, They preach it to his face–
Yet knows that in our Federal House there’s no one of his race.
He feels we push his kinsmen out, where cities do not reach,
And Parliament has yet to hear the Aboriginal’s maiden speech.
One day he’ll leave the Army, then join the League he shall,
And he hopes we’ll give a better deal to the Aboriginal.
Here, today, with the opening of this wonderful memorial, there’s no doubt that we are recognising the very valuable contribution made by the people of Napranum and more broadly, Indigenous servicemen nationwide. I extend my very warm congratulations to all those involved.
**Note – not checked against delivery.