Not many people know that we have fought in every war in which Australia has been engaged and often with great distinction.
Thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders served in Australian defence forces in World War I and World War II. Many more served in Vietnam and Korea, and then in the Somalia, Serbia, Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even though we were legally excluded from serving in the armed forces, Aboriginal men fought at Gallipoli and the Western Front in the First World War. Yet when they returned to Australia, almost all were denied rights given to other returned servicemen, which included the soldier-settlement schemes.
Female Army Cadets from remote Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory sing the Australian National Anthem on the ‘To Become A Leader In Your Community’ Indigenous army cadet camp. Photo © Department of Defence.
At the War's Front.
'One Ailan Man': Torres Strait Islander Infantry.
'ONE AILAN MAN': TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER INFANTRY
From a population of a few thousand, nearly 1000 Torres Strait Islander recruits signed up to join Australia’s war effort between 1942 to 1945. This was despite it being the pearling season, when many island men normally worked on the boats.
Fearful of the Japanese advance, the army allowed the Islanders to enlist. They later became the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion.
The Islanders had maintained their traditional island identities; now, in joining the Australian army, they fought side by side with other Australians. In wartime, they saw themselves working together as ‘one ailan man’.
While the Torres Strait Islanders risked their lives defending Australia, they received only a third of the pay of other Australian soldiers. Frustrated at the discrimination and needing to take care of their families, in 1943 they decided to go on strike. The army agreed to raise the pay to two-thirds that of other army personnel. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Indigenous soldiers received their back pay.