ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 1, Winter 2011

Australia's forgotten diggers

Forgotten diggers

More than 4,500 Indigenous people fought for Australia in World Wars I and II, and thousands more have served since – yet their contributions have gone largely unrecorded. Dr Noah Riseman from the School of Arts and Sciences in Victoria is working to uncover their hidden histories, and reveal a silent legacy of service that continues to this day.

Lance-Corporal David Cook is an Aboriginal man born in Ebor, near Armidale New South Wales, in 1945. Around the time of Dave's tenth birthday, he and his four siblings were forcibly removed from their parents. Dave was placed in Kinchela Boys Home for three years before being fostered. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the Army, seeking a life away from his daily troubles.

Dave served in Papua New Guinea, Borneo and Malaya before being sent off to Vietnam. Throughout his service he proved to be a successful soldier and was well-liked by his peers. He served two tours in Vietnam before being discharged in 1968.

When Dave returned to New South Wales, his life rapidly spiralled out of control. Cycles of violence, imprisonment and racism threatened to turn him into another Aboriginal statistic. However, Dave managed to reconnect with his siblings, who helped him get his life back on track through emotional support, stability and employment. Now retired, Dave does volunteer work in Cambodia, applying his Army engineering knowledge in a land mine clearance program.

Dave Cook's story is just one of thousands of hidden histories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ex-servicemen and women. Indigenous people have served in the Australian armed forces in all conflicts and peacetimes since the Boer War.

Indigenous people enlisted during the First World War, and in the Second World War, more than 3,000 Aboriginal people and 850 Torres Strait Islanders served.

After both conflicts, returned servicemen and women continued to confront racial discrimination in the law, and prejudice in their daily interactions with non-Indigenous Australians.

Yet Indigenous people continued to serve in the armed forces in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as during peacetime and in overseas peacekeeping missions.

Linda McBride-Yuke's father served in World War II, and her brother was in the Royal Australian Navy for more than 30 years.

"Our people definitely, definitely know that our people served," she said. "Most Aboriginal families… would have someone somewhere in their family that served."

In 2009 I began to record these important contributions by Australian Indigenous people as part of my research.

Entitled Defending Australia, Defending Indigenous Rights: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service and Australian Identity, 1946-2003, the project aims to learn about the wider impact of military service on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ex-service personnel, their families and their communities, as well as the impact of their service on the attitudes of their non- Indigenous compatriots.

It began with a grant from ACU's Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Australian Army History Research Unit. Last year the project successfully gained Australian Research Council funding which will see us through till at least 2013.

As well as interviewing ex-service personnel and their families, I have been trawling through archival records, personal documents and photographs. The stories these men and women have to share are quite amazing, and it is interesting that the majority consider their experience in the armed forces to be a positive one, with very few mentioning instances of racism.

They also emphasised that when isolated racism did occur, the armed forces did not usually have sufficient racial vilification policies in place to handle the matter.

Another striking point is that many of them have gone on to become leaders in their local Aboriginal communities. Vietnam veteran George Bostock became a playwright and is now a respected Elder on the Murri Courts in Brisbane. Vietnam veteran Bob Blair founded the Dreamtime Culture Centre in Rockhampton in 1988, and Gulf War veteran Neil MacDonald became one of the co-chairs of the ACT branch of Reconciliation Australia in the late 1990s.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable stories is that of Sue Gordon, who was a member of the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps from 1961-64. She later served as the first Aboriginal magistrate of the Western Australia Children's Court. An advocate for children's rights, particularly in Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, Sue also oversaw the first year of the Northern Territory Intervention.

The histories recorded so far have been both confronting and inspiring, but there is still a long way to go. It is tough to find interview participants because until the early 1990s, the Australian Defence Force did not identify members' racial background.

What has been vital, though, is working closely with various Indigenous community organisations, such as Honouring Indigenous War Graves based out of Perth, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Veterans and Services Association in Canberra, and the Jim-baa-yer Centre for Indigenous Education and Research at ACU's Melbourne and Ballarat campuses.

As word of the project spreads, I look forward to meeting more Indigenous ex-servicemen and women. Each has a story to share, and every story adds to our understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contributions to Australia's defence, and to the development of a true Indigenous and Australian national identity.

Dr Noah Riseman

Originally from Boston, Dr Noah Riseman is a history lecturer in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University's Melbourne Campus. In 2009 his PhD was awarded the prestigious C.E.W. Bean Prize for Military History by the Australian Army. If you would like to get in touch with Dr Riseman, email


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