PRIVATE MEMBERS' BUSINESS: Indigenous Servicemen and Servicewomen

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (13:08): Every capital city, regional centre and remote one-horse town in Australia is immensely proud of its military heritage, and this is certainly so with Wagga Wagga in the Riverina. My progressive, vibrant home town is a tri-service centre and is renowned as the 'home of the soldier'. Every recruit soldier undertakes their initial training at Kapooka, south-west of the city, established in November, 1951.

On the eastern side of Wagga Wagga, the Royal Australian Air Force base at Forest Hill has been an integral part of the local community for nearly 70 years. RAAF Wagga delivers technical and non-technical initial employment and postgraduate training which is fundamental to the delivery of military air and space power in support of national objectives. Four major training units are supported at the base: No. 1 Recruit Training Unit, RAAF School of Technical Training, RAAF School of Administration and Logistics, and the School of Postgraduate Studies. Since 1993, Royal Australian Navy personnel have been undertaking aviation initial technical training at the RAAF School of Technical Training at Forest Hill. Navy usually has an annual intake of 100 trainees undertaking ITT, which is evenly split between aviation technician aircraft and aviation technician avionics courses throughout the year. Military ties are interwoven with Wagga Wagga's economic and social development and have been since World War II.

Understandably, there is no more important an occasion than Anzac Day in Wagga Wagga. Air men and women, sailors and soldiers, watched by large numbers of grateful and solemn citizens, march in perfect step along Baylis Street to the cenotaph in the aptly named Victory Memorial Gardens, where wreaths are laid and speeches made. It is always a grand yet sombre ceremony. For we remember, as do all Australians on 25 April, the enormous price paid so that we may live free. We are mindful of the ongoing sacrifice being made by our troops in Afghanistan, where we have lost 39 of our best and bravest since 2002, as well as other peacekeeping deployments abroad.

Given the enormous significance placed on Anzac Day observances at Wagga Wagga, it was pleasing to see that the 2012 march, for the second year running, had that fine Aboriginal advocate Hewitt Whyman leading 6 Company at the front of the parade. Born in Deniliquin in 1947, Hewitt spent eight years in the Australian Army, called up first for national service in 1968. He served with the Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery's 1st Field Regiment in Nui Dat in the then Phuoc Tuy province in South Vietnam from 17 December 1969 to 4 February 1970, spending time as an acting gun sergeant in a combat support unit and with 5RAR as an artillery signalman. Back home, Hewitt was posted to Kapooka in 1974 as a drill and weapons instructor for recruits, holding the rank of lance-bombardier. He has lived in Wagga Wagga ever since and is thought of highly, not just among Aboriginal people but throughout the wider community.

'Aboriginal people were and are proud to wear the Australian military uniform,' Hewitt told me just yesterday. He acknowledges, however, that recognition of the service of the Indigenous servicemen was not the same as that of those whom they fought alongside. Hewitt referred to the publication Too Dark for the Light Horse, based on a saying from the Great War of 1914-18, when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were seen as undesirable in the armed services. Researcher David Huggonson examined the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Defence forces. The book tells it straight in its introduction:

The invisible warriors

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have fought for Australia in all our wars through the last century, from the Boer War onwards. Often Aborigines' and Islanders' presence has been an invisible one. The services generally have not identified soldiers by race on enlistment records, and in general the Memorial has not noted a person's race in the photo captions in its collection.

But Aborigines and Islanders are there. We can find them in photos, or their families come forward with their names; often the families themselves still have old photos. Early in the 1930s, the RSL journal, Reveille, appealed for information about Aboriginal servicemen in the First World War. Since then, other researchers have added to our knowledge, and today the contribution of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders to Australia's defence is at last becoming fully recognised.

A change in attitudes:

Look, these blokes are just as good as us, they fought beside us in the [second world] war, they proved themselves. … This change in outlook is terribly important—revolutionary in a way. It has laid the basis for all the other changes that have occurred in the post war years.

That was said by Len Watson in 1974. The introduction continues:

Generally Aborigines have served alongside other races in ordinary units. Conditions of service have been the same as those for Europeans. This has helped to foster understanding and respect between the races.

In the short term, however, little was changed. Aborigines who had experienced equal treatment for the first time in their lives in the armed services came back to find that civilian society treated them with the same prejudice and discrimination as before.

Hewitt Whyman is the descendant of the Firebrace boys from Moulamein: proud Aborigines, dedicated soldiers, men who loved the Australian bush and who were proud to call the Riverina home. The blood ties are through Hewitt's mother, Lena Jackson. John Arthur Firebrace, 21, and his uncle William Reginald Firebrace, 22, were killed in action in France just six days apart in August 1918, only three months before World War I ended. They paid the ultimate sacrifice on the bloody battlefields of the Western Front.

'I visit the Australian War Memorial and place a poppy alongside their names every time I go to Canberra,' Hewitt said. 'Their service means a lot to my family, to our people.' Citing the difference in how black and white servicemen were treated upon their homecoming, Hewitt recounted the story of the late Tom Lyons of Narrandera. 'Tommy was a Rat of Tobruk but had been insubordinate to an officer, so he was not awarded his medals upon his return,' Hewitt recalled. 'When others who fought with him were allocated parcels of land to start a farm, Tommy missed out. He had to rely on his mates coming out the back of the RSL to have a drink. But eventually he was handed his medals after his son Cecil and I did some work to put things right. Tommy was presented with them by the Commandant of Kapooka at a special service, and it was such a proud moment.'

War memorials dotted throughout the Australian countryside, in just about every village and town and sometimes on isolated rural roads to mark the contribution made by a particular district, are a fitting reminder of service given, lives lost. Some are mere stone markers, monuments in time simply recording battles fought, campaigns won. There are those which list the names of locals who made the ultimate sacrifice, who did not come home. Others list all local names: those who served and returned; those who lie in foreign soil, including Flanders field, where, as Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae observed:

… the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row …

Sometimes the names are not always in alphabetical order, perhaps because someone with some sort of link to an area was overlooked when names were being collated for the stonemason, or, as someone once told me when he saw me taking a photograph of the memorial at Nimbin, because they were added later. Their Aboriginality, he claimed, precluded them from originally being placed on the memorial. I put that remark to Hewitt Wyman, who said he had heard the same thing. Thankfully past wrongs are being made right and I commend the member for Parkes, who has one of the largest populations of Indigenous people—second only to Lingiari of the 150 electorates in Australia—in his electorate, for putting forward this motion. It will, alongside other research and recognition work, help to appropriately recognise the marvellous contribution Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have made to our nation's military and therefore to our freedom.

In the time remaining, I would like to also commend Mark Coulton for mentioning 'Black Magic', as he was known by his mates and as he himself liked to be known—that is, Sergeant Leonard Victor Waters—who was Australia's only Indigenous fighter pilot in World War II. He was the fourth of 11 children of Donald and Grace Waters, and he was born on 20 June 1924 at Euraba mission, between Boomi and Garah. He left school when he was just 13 years old and he spent four years working as a shearer.

He enlisted with the Royal Australian Air Force on 24 August 1942 and was trained as a flight mechanic. When the RAAF called for air crew trainees, he applied and he was one of the very few accepted for flight training. He undertook initial training at Narrandera in the Riverina, then graduated among the top five in his course, as a sergeant pilot, from Uranquinty, which is just south of Wagga Wagga. He received his wings on 1 July 1944. His training continued at Mildura, from where he was posted to No. 78 Squadron on 14 November 1944. He flew 95 operational sorties against the Japanese from Noemfoor, which is West Irian Jaya in Indonesia; Morotai, Indonesia; and Tarakan, Borneo, Indonesia. With 'Black Magic' painted on the fuselage of his P-40 Kittyhawk aircraft, he logged more than 103 hours of combat flying, and it is no wonder that the member for Parkes is so proud that Len Waters was from his electorate. Len was promoted to flight sergeant on New Year's Day 1945 and to warrant officer exactly one year later. His duty done, Warrant Officer Waters was discharged on 17 January 1946 and he married Gladys Saunders four weeks later. Len never flew again, returning to shearing to make a living. He died at Cunnamulla in Queensland, but his war service was commemorated with the issue of a stamp and an aerogram in Australia Post's 1995 series Australia Remembers. We remember Len Waters; we remember all of the Aborigines who have served our country so well.

Cristy Houghton