A question of numbers - BCOF, Korean War, Malaya and Confrontation

BCOF and the Korean War


In 1945 Australia did not immediately demobilise the forces raised to carry the nation through six years of war. Instead the Commonwealth government dispatched an infantry brigade to Japan early in 1946, along with RAAF fighter squadrons and RAN warships, to join British, Indian, and New Zealand elements in a British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF). The withdrawal of the troops of other participating countries meant that by 1948 BCOF was an all-Australian show, and by 1949 the size of the army’s commitment had also shrunk to a single battalion – the other two in the original brigade were withdrawn to Australia to become the nucleus of the nation’s first regular army.

Although there was a well-publicised ban on Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander men serving in either Australia’s postwar standing army or its forces intended for Japan, claims were made in March 1946 that there were, at that time, “at least eight Aboriginal soldiers, including a sergeant and two corporals … already in Japan with the 65th Battalion” (redesignated the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, in 1948).[1] There is certainly photographic evidence that several men of Indigenous background did serve with BCOF during the five years after it arrived in Japan[2] (the names of another two have been mentioned but not yet verified). In the case of Sergeant S.K.J. “Len” Lenoy, his presence in 1949 as a member of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), was to lead on directly to his participation in the fighting in Korea, where he was killed at the battle of Kapyong in April 1951.

Korean War

When the Korean War began in June 1950 the ground, air, and naval elements of BCOF became the first Australian forces committed to the new conflict. It has been claimed that by the time the fighting was ended three years later some 35 Indigenous soldiers had served in Korea. At least 31 Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander soldiers are known to have fought in the army, while just one ordinary seaman is so far known to have served with RAN vessels committed to operations in Korean waters (Patrick Syron, in the frigate HMAS Condomine, 1952–53). Of the army contingent, two were killed: Lenoy and Toby Hazel[3]. One, Torres Strait Islander Corporal Charles Mene, received the Military Medal for his conduct on operations during 1952.[4] Without doubt, however, the standout Aboriginal figure from the Korean conflict was Reg Saunders, who served in the Second World War and, having returned to civilian employment in 1945, re-joined the army’s active list as an acting captain in August 1950. During the battle of Kapyong he was a company commander in 3RAR.

Malaya and Confrontation

Even before Australian forces were committed in Korea, another conflict had begun in Malaya in mid-1948. Known as the “Emergency” this was a struggle against a communist insurgency intended to end British rule on the Malayan peninsula in both the Malay States and Singapore. Australian air forces were sent to this new theatre of operations in June 1950, at the same time as the Korean War began, but it was another five years before ground troops entered the conflict. Even then, the men of 2RAR were sent not specifically to join in anti-guerrilla operations but as part of a Far East Strategic Reserve which also included RAN deployments and the development of a permanent RAAF presence at Butterworth airbase. The battalions were rotated regularly at two-year intervals, and even after the Emergency was declared over in 1960 Australian soldiers were conducting jungle patrols in pursuit of guerrillas.

The number of Indigenous servicemen who may have been engaged in Malaya has been put by some sources as high as 25, with a figure of 19 proposed for the equally low-level campaign which followed in 1964–65 when Indonesia opposed the creation of the Federation of Malaysia through military operations in Borneo. These estimates do not appear to have been fully investigated and tested, but even so enough firm evidence exists to confirm a presence by soldiers of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. At least nine names are definitely known for Malaya, and there are grounds for believing the number may well be larger.[5] Included is Charles Mene, who received his Military Medal won in Korea while serving with 2RAR in Malaya in June 1957;[6] Roy (“Zeke”) Mundine,[7] who became better known for his later tour of service in Vietnam; and Private Don Pickering, described as “possibly an Aboriginal serviceman”, who became one of the 27 Australian wounded in Malaya while also serving with 2RAR.[8]

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[1]  Gordon, The embarrassing Australian, pp. 135–37.

[2]  See AWM images P01067.002, HOBJ0116, and P01795.001.

[3]  C.D. (Coulthard-) Clark, “Toby’s brief war”, Wartime, issue 16, 2001, pp.36-37.

[4]  Maurice Pears, Battlefield Korea: the Korean battle honours of the Royal Australian Regiment 1950-1953, Loftus, New South Wales: Australian Military History publications, 2007, p.96.

[5]  Included are five names from the deployment of 3RAR in 1957-59 alone, recorded by Colonel O. M. (Max) Carroll (RL), in “They were foremost Australian soldiers: an oral account of Aboriginal and Thursday Island soldiers who served in Malaya and Vietnam: 1957 to 1967”, Aboriginal History, vol.16, pt.1, 1992, pp.99-105, available online at http://press.anu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/whole36.pdf.

[6]  See AWM image HAL/57/0100/MC.

[7]  See AWM image P01306.006.

[8]  See AWM image HOB/56/0673/MC.

About the author:

Military historian Dr Chris Clark wrote this brief history on the service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with the assistance of a generous grant from the Gandevia Foundation. Dr Clark has been researching and writing Australian military history for more than 40 years, and has authored, co-authored, or edited more than 30 books, including The encyclopedia of Australia’s battles (3rd edition 2010). He was an officer in the Australian Army and later worked in various government departments as a strategic analyst and historian, and at the Australian National University and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. He headed the Office of Air Force History in the Department of Defence for nine years before retiring in 2013. Dr Clark is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy.