A question of numbers - Peacetime forces, later conflicts and commitments

Service in peacetime forces

Not all Indigenous service in Australia’s defence forces post-1945 was performed overseas or during warlike operations. Tantalising but as yet incomplete evidence has emerged which demonstrates that some Indigenous Australians received the opportunity to participate in home defence activities for what was known until 1980 as the Citizen Military Forces (CMF), and after that for the reserve component of the Australian Defence Force. Records suggest some men participated in the National Service Scheme which operated in 1951–59, and pictorial evidence exists showing others involved in annual CMF training camps also in the mid-1950s.[1] That these were not aberrations–at least for the army–becomes apparent from a further image showing six Indigenous members of 51st Battalion, Royal Queensland Regiment, in 1969.[2]

A company of the 42nd Battalion

A company of the 42nd Battalion, CMF, at the annual camp in Queensland, c. 1955, P00893.001

Indigenous members of the 51st Battalion

Indigenous members of the 51st Battalion, RQR, at Yarrabah Mission, 1969, DNE/69/0223/NC

That the experience could be different in other services at this time appears to be demonstrated by the case of one Aboriginal man seeking to join the RAN in 1966. Upon the defence recruiters discovering that the applicant was a “quarter Aboriginal”, he was told that it was against policy “to take people who were Aborigines into the Navy or Air Force”. According to the later account of the disappointed young man, his rejection became the subject of considerable public debate over a period of six months, “after which time I received a letter inviting me to join”. Imagining his treatment after the bad publicity, the applicant ultimately decided against accepting.[3] In contrast to this were the experiences of Marjorie Tripp, who had already joined the RAN as a stewardess in 1963 (followed by her younger brother, who became a junior recruit), and Gary Oakley, who joined the RAN in July 1969.[4]

Within little more than a decade the ADF had completely reversed any reluctance to admit Indigenous men and women into its ranks, most notably with the creation of three regional force surveillance units as part of the Army Reserve: NORFORCE (1981), the Pilbara Regiment (1982), and the 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment (1985). Today all three are largely, even dominantly, made up of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander personnel. These units are in addition to the increasing numbers of Indigenous men and women enlisted into the full-time ADF. 

Later conflicts and commitments

Because of the recruiting policies adopted across the ADF since the 1990s, which dropped all forms of discrimination against Indigenous enlistment in favour of positive encouragement, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people serving in the ADF has grown steadily; in 2012 the Indigenous population of the ADF was stated to be more than 800,[5] and by March 2014 it had risen to 1,054 (632 permanent, 422 active reserve), about 1.4 per cent of the total strength. As a consequence of this growth it has become an almost accepted fact that Indigenous men and women can be found on virtually any operational deployment undertaken by Australia’s armed forces. Although comprehensive data establishing this does not appear to have been purposely compiled or readily available, enough indicators can be found to demonstrate the case, chiefly in the form of images provided by ADF public relations. Drawing on this source, photographs have been located showing at least two different Indigenous soldiers who served in Cambodia in 1992,[6] three on duty with 1RAR in Somalia in 1993,[7] and one who served with the protection element sent with an Australian medical team to Rwanda in 1994.[8]

Although no photographs have so far emerged proving Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander service in East Timor after Australia’s initial intervention in 1999, the names are known of at least three men who served there (Australian War Memorial employee Garth O’Connell, Jason Garlett, and the grandson of Second World War veteran Claude McDermott), while others are still to be verified. Similarly, two names are available for men who served in Afghanistan, and anecdotal accounts so far provide the only evidence of Indigenous service in Iraq. While it is known that one Memorial employee (O’Connell again) served in the Solomon Islands as an army reservist in 2008, no evidence has become available to support claims made on a current Defence Department website declaring that Indigenous servicemen and servicewomen have been included in other recent ADF deployments to Bougainville, Mozambique, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, the Sudan, and Yugoslavia.[9]

Even so, it can be demonstrated beyond all doubt that the record of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the armed forces of Australia can be traced back to the beginnings of the Commonwealth era and beyond, into the late colonial period.

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[1]  AWM image P00893.001.

[2]  AWM image DNE/69/0223/NC.

[3]  Christobel Mattingley, Survival in our own land: “Aboriginal” experiences in “South Australia” since 1836, Wakefield Press, Adelaide 1988, p. 267.

[4]  Serving my country: an Indigenous story, booklet published by Kildare College, Adelaide, 2013.

[5]  National Reconciliation Week 2012 publication, p. 14.

[6]  AWM images P05081.001 and P01748.084.

[7]  AWM images P05081.001, P01735.401, and P01735.274.

[8]  AWM image MSU/94/0015/18.

[9]  "History of indigenous involvement in Defence", Centre of Diverstiy Expertise, Indigenous Affairs, Department of Defence, accessed 7 May 2015.

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.