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World War I: Relatives Of Indigenous Soldiers Fight for Recognition 100 years On

World War I: Relatives Of Indigenous Soldiers Fight for Recognition 100 years On
The cast of Black Diggers in action on stage.
December 27
11:53 2014

There is a growing push for better recognition of Indigenous Australian soldiers, many of whom had to lie about their identity to serve their country.

Some of those soldiers’ names are still not honoured in the Australian War Memorial, despite their active service.

As the centenary anniversary of the Anzac landings at Gallipoli approaches, the fight for proper acknowledgement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who fought for their country is gaining strength.

While they were equals on the battlefields of World War I, when they returned they were often not given the recognition and entitlements they deserved.

The true extent of their service is only now being realised and it goes right back to the Boer War.

More than 400 Indigenous young men went to fight in World War I – despite the Commonwealth Defence Act prohibiting any person not of “substantially European” origin from serving.

For many it was their first taste of freedom away from their lives on reserves and missions, where there were restrictions on movement, residence, employment and citizenship.

It is a story that Di Andrews knows all too well, from her grandfather Jack Lander.

His name is still not on the official war memorial and that is something I will make sure before I die is done.

Since his death in the 1960s, Ms Andrews’ family has fought for his service in the Third Light Horse Brigade to be properly honoured at the Australian War Memorial.

‘I’ll make sure he’s recognised before I die’

Ms Andrews said on his return, her grandfather received none of the entitlements his fellow soldiers did because he was Aboriginal.

“He went and served his country and then he didn’t get any of the entitlements when he returned and he was then shunned from society,” she said.

“He signed up in 1917 and in 1945 he was then issued with a black passport, which treated him as a complete outsider in his own country.

“His name is still not on the official war memorial and that is something I will make sure before I die is done.”

Ms Andrews’ quest for better recognition for her grandfather and others like him led to her organising a special commemorative service.

For the first time in its history, the Redland City Council, south-east of Brisbane, created an honour role of Indigenous people who fought for their country.

Hundreds of people made their way to the Cleveland town square when the council put on a special ceremony during NAIDOC week in July.

More than 60 names were read out – their service stretching from World War I to more recent conflicts.

Arthur Day, 91, was one of three brothers who signed up to fight for their country.

His son-in-law Denis Kerr is a Vietnam veteran and said he was relieved and proud to see Mr Day’s deeds properly recognised on the honour roll.

“The way the Indigenous people were equal when they were in the services, fighting for their country, but as soon as they left the services, they were no longer equal – I think that, what us Vietnam vets suffered was nothing compared to the Indigenous people,” Mr Kerr said.

“They weren’t even able to go into an RSL. That’s how silly it was.

“It’s never going to be completely righted. Probably not in my lifetime, probably not in your lifetime.

“But I think it’s important that we keep chipping away; [that] we keep doing everything we can to show the respect and honour that our Indigenous people deserve.”


Aboriginal fighter pilot could not get work on return home

Redland City Mayor Karen Williams said when the council put out the call to the community for information about their loved ones, the response was extraordinary.

“To in fact have these people who haven’t been recognised officially now being on that notional honour roll, is really important,” Ms Williams said.

“It will be an ongoing project and no doubt something that other cities and parts of Australia would like to take on board.”

Her voice has been joined by others calling for better recognition of Indigenous veterans.

The RSL put on a special commemoration service at Brisbane’s Anzac Square to honour Indigenous veterans as part of Reconciliation Week.

Whilst there was high regard for people when they were serving, society when they got out didn’t help.Dr Tom Calma

Dianne Russell is the daughter of Len Waters – the first Aboriginal fighter pilot and a man who served his nation in Borneo and New Guinea in World War II.

She said the treatment he received when he returned home fell far short of what he deserved.

“He was the only Aboriginal fighter pilot in the Second World War. The only one to date,” Mrs Russell said.

When he returned, despite his decorations and service, Mr Waters could not get work worthy of his experience.

Dr Tom Calma, Chancellor of the University of Canberra and a member of the National Reserves Support Council, said Mr Waters was one of many Aboriginal people who suffered after coming back from war.



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