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Experiences of War : Aboriginals and War

Alfred Cameron Jnr Indigenous South Australians have participated in each war Australia has contributed to since the South African War. It is estimated that between four and five hundred Aboriginals served in the First World War, and that 3,000 served during World War Two. Today Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are represented in the armed forces in numbers roughly corresponding to their representation within the community.

Information on the service of Aboriginals during times of war is limited, and published works have largely concentrated on the Second World War. Robert Hall has written extensively on this topic, his publications include Fighters from the Fringe: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Recall the Second World War and The Black Diggers: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War.

Two South Australian publications, Ngarrindjeri Anzacs by Doreen Kartinyeri and Survival in our own land edited and researched by Christobel Mattingley, provide background to the conditions under which South Australian Aboriginal men enlisted and served in the two world wars.

Ngarrindjeri Anzacs tells the stories of 18 Aboriginal men from Point McLeay Mission in South Australia who served in the First World War. South Australian legislation passed in 1911 had provided for the establishment of missions and reserves and vested a government appointed Chief Protector of Aborigines with authority over the South Australian Aboriginal population. Aboriginal servicemen from Point McLeay found that on their return to Australia that they were once again subject to the authority of the Chief Protector of Aborigines.

Despite a shift in government policy from one of 'protection' to one of 'assimilation', at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the armed forces rejected applications from men and women of non-European background. The decision to restrict enlistment to 'white Australians' was based on a belief that 'black' and 'white' servicemen would not be 'comfortable' fighting alongside each other, and that 'operational performance of the service' would suffer as a consequence.

The threat of Japanese invasion of Australia in 1941 and the need for extra manpower prompted a revision of this policy, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders proceeded to enlist in large numbers. Aboriginal servicemen served in integrated units. For the first time Aboriginal servicemen were promoted to the ranks of non commissioned officer, having command over white Australians during battle.

Service in the armed forces during the Second World War gave many Aboriginal people the opportunity to undertake training in areas previously denied them. In Survival in our own land, Christobel Mattingley gives some examples of Indigenous South Australians who were able to take advantage of training completed during their military service to widen their post-war employment opportunities.

At the conclusion of the Second World War, as the demand for military manpower declined, bans were once again introduced on the service of non-Europeans, although Aboriginals who had served in the forces were allowed to remain in the forces. Indigenous Australians were excluded from the two National Service schemes of 1951 and 1965, but numerous Aboriginals served in Vietnam as volunteers.

Library Guide - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Participation in Defence

Aboriginal men and women in the armed services
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Indigenous Anzac Day 2004
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Interview with Gil Green
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Ngarrindjeri Anzacs: Alfred Cameron and Ronald Wenzel
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