A question of numbers - Second World War

While several sizable lists of names have been assembled at a national level by the Australian War Memorial, the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the Australian National University, as well as several that are state or regionally based, none is currently capable of offering a definite figure for the number of Indigenous Australians who served during the Second World War. The best estimates range between 3,000 and 4,000, with the most extravagant proposing about 6,000. The reality is that no one has yet subjected these databases to the same rigorous screening undertaken for comparable listings from the First World War. Even cursory examination reveals glaring problems, including entries comprising nothing more than a first and last name, with no date of birth, service number, unit title, or anything that helps the process of proper identification, let alone verification of heritage.

Second AIF

Even so, it is clear that Indigenous participation in the war effort of 1939–45 was, by enlistment in one or other of the armed services, on a much greater scale than that of 1914–18. Similarly, it can be noted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people volunteered for service in the Second World War from an early stage, and as a consequence “black diggers” were present at the Second AIF’s first campaigns in the Middle East, including those in the Western Desert, Greece and Crete, and Syria – long before Japan entered the war and brought the conflict to the Australian mainland. In this two-year phase some Indigenous servicemen even became prisoners of war of the Germans (a case in point being Tommy Harold Green of the 2/1st Battalion).[1]

Group photograph Australian prisoners of war

Front row, second from right, NX22784 Thomas Harold Green, 2/1 Battalion of Collarenebri, NSW (born at Booyulgil [Baryulgil], P04379.001

Portrait Tommy Negus Green

Portrait of Tommy Negus Green, Prisoner of War at Stalag XIIIc at Hammelburg, smoking a pipe. Green, an aboriginal serviceman, had been named 'Negus' by the German guards at the camp. He is probably NX22784 Thomas Harold Green, 2/1 Battalion of Collarenebri, NSW (born at Booyulgil [Baryulgil])., P04379.003

Once Japanese forces swept through south-east Asia and occupied mandated island territories close to Australia’s national borders and began air attacks on the mainland and submarine attacks in its shipping lanes, the Australian armed forces were expanded to their maximum strength. Inevitably, this also saw an expansion in Indigenous Australian representation in the AIF elements returned from abroad and in the Militia units sent to garrison and defend outposts in the northern islands. The result of this was that, in addition to those Indigenous Australians captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore, numbers of those who were killed or died of wounds or illness also reached a maximum during this phase of operations in Papua, New Guinea, Bougainville, and Borneo.[2]


A far less comprehensive picture can be presented for the other services, especially in the RAN, for which only one name of a serving member has been proposed (and not confirmed). The navy is known to have had “black sailors” on some of its ships (including HMAS Matafele, which was lost at sea in 1944), but these men were Pacific Islanders (mostly New Guineans), not Indigenous Australians. Others are known to have been in the auxiliary minesweeper Patricia Cam when it was attacked from the air and sunk in the Arafura Sea in January 1943, but these were passengers carried to assist with navigation, not formally enlisted sailors.[3]


In the case of the RAAF, much has been heard in recent years of Sergeant (later Warrant Officer) Leonard Waters, who became Australia’s first Aboriginal fighter pilot in 1944; less has been heard of his older brother Donald, who served with the AIF at Tarakan Island, Borneo.[4] Still less is known of Pilot Officer (later Squadron Leader) David Paul, also a pilot, who became a prisoner of the Germans after his Baltimore bomber was shot down over the Aegean Sea in December 1943. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in March 1944, he returned to Australia at the war’s end and joined the New South Wales Police Force, becoming a detective sergeant. However, it was only after his death that his family revealed his Indigenous heritage.[5] Another prisoner of war, this time of the Japanese, was Flight Sergeant Arnold Lockyer, shot down in a Liberator in July 1945 over Manado, Celebes, and killed by his captors on 21 August – six days after Japan surrendered.[6]

Armed forces in Australia

What was especially different about the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander connection was the change that occurred with the armed forces within Australia. Efforts by Indigenous Australians to become part of the war effort were embraced initially on what amounted to a purely “honorary” capacity. Not only the RAN but also the Army’s Water Transport Group and the RAAF Marine Section utilised the Indigenous people of northern Australia for a range of ship-borne tasks, from deckhand to pilots; the RAAF also found such assistance invaluable in the rescue of allied airmen and seamen, and for capturing Japanese airmen brought down on Australian territory.[7] But it was not until distinctly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sub-units were formed in both the army[8] and RAN that the armed services became serious about integrating the Indigenous population for the first time.

Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit (NTSRU) and North Australian Observer Unit (NAOU)

The breakthrough in this regard came in February 1942, at the height of Japan’s southern advance towards Australian shores, with the formation of the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit (NTSRU) in Arnhem Land. This was a wholly Aboriginal auxiliary unit under command of RAAF Flight Lieutenant Donald Thomson, an anthropologist in civilian life, and remained in existence until April 1943, when it was disbanded and its role taken over by the North Australian Observer Unit (NAOU).

The NAOU was far more recognisable as a traditional formed army unit than the NTSRU, its ranks filled by enlisted white soldiers. It remained, however, heavily dependent on the Indigenous people of the northern regions, who helped with breaking horses (the primary transport of the “Nackeroos”) and undertook general labouring tasks. Only 59 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (including 13 women) were reportedly employed by the NAOU, but it is clear that patrols were heavily dependent on them as guides and for the assistance they provided in living off the land to overcome the difficulties and uncertainties of army supplies.[9]

Aboriginal platoon formed at Wangaratta

Colonel Rogers inspects the special platoon consisting of aboriginal soldiers, all volunteers, at Number 9 camp at Wangaratta, 1940, P02140.003

Garrison unit in Torres Strait

The undertaking in early 1942 to establish an Indigenous garrison unit in the Torres Strait was on a larger scale. Beginning with a single company on Thursday Island, four companies were eventually raised across the strait’s 14 islands, totalling 830 men; practically every available man in the Torres Strait Islander population of almost 4,000. In May 1943 the companies formed what became the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion; while its officers were white, the makeup of its Other Ranks gave the unit a unique identity within Australia’s armed forces for the rest of the war. Although the battalion was intended to have a static defensive role, in late 1943 some of its men took part in offensive patrolling on the northern side of the strait, penetrating into enemy-held Dutch New Guinea. On 17 December this resulted in a firefight with two Japanese-manned barges on the Ipoekwa River, with one killed and six wounded on the Australian side before the patrol could extricate itself to safety.[10]


The RAN also took the initiative of establishing an Indigenous unit on Melville Island, off the Northern Territory’s coast. This 35-man coastal patrol unit, dubbed the “Snake Bay Patrol” and commanded by a white lieutenant of the Volunteer Reserve, worked to mount security patrols to detect and counter any Japanese infiltration of the island, assist in the rescue of downed airmen, and locate sea mines. Dressed in articles of RAN uniform but receiving no pay (only rations), the patrol’s members were drilled in the use of small arms and automatic weapons. Two of its men are claimed to have taken part in clandestine reconnaissance visits to Timor aboard Allied submarines.[11]  

Snake Bay Patrol

The RAN’s “Snake Bay Patrol” on Melville Island, 062385

Women's service

The other noteworthy feature regarding Indigenous service in the Second World War was the employment of women in the ranks, matching the introduction of white women into the armed forces for the first time. Although far from representing a definitive total, as many as nine Aboriginal women have been identified as serving with the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) and the Women’s Australian Auxiliary Air Force (WAAAF) (among the AWAS was Lance Corporal Kath Walker, later known as the poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal). Another three women are known to have joined the Australian Women’s Land Army, which aimed to maintain the nation’s agricultural production.[12]

A further feature of the military presence in the Northern Territory was the army’s employment of an Indigenous labour corps to perform a range of necessary support tasks. Although issued items of army clothing and accommodated, rationed, and paid by the army, these were effectively civilian auxiliaries and not formally enlisted members of the service.

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[1]  AWM images P04379.001 and P04379.003.

[2]  At least five are known to be buried at Bomana Cemetery, Port Moresby, and one at Lae War Cemetery.

[3]  John Perryman, “A brief history of Indigenous sailors” in Charles Oldham (ed.), 100 Years of the Royal Australian Navy, Faircount Media, Bondi Junction, New South Wales, 2011, pp. 198–99.

[4]  David Huggonson, “Waters, Donald Edward (1922–1974)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, Canberra, 2002, accessed online 7 May 2015.

[5]  Chris Clark (ed.), 90 Years of the RAAF – a snapshot history, Air Power Development Centre, Canberra, 2011, p. 110.

[6]  National Archives of Australia, service record, Arnold Alexander Lockyer.

[7]  See The Argus, 4 November 1944, supplement p. 2.

[8]  Initially involving a “special platoon” formed at the end of 1940 by all-volunteer Aboriginal men at No. 9 Camp at Wangaratta, Victoria, described by Army PR as the “only Aboriginal squad in the AMF”. This seems to have been a token or showpiece group which was soon disbanded. (See image AWM P02140.003; also Cinesound newsreel No. 488: “Aborigines are true soldiers of the King”, AWM F00519.)

[9]  Helen Walker and Richard Walker, Curtin’s cowboys: Australia’s secret bush commandos, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1986, pp. 138–39.

[10]  Vanessa Seekee, ‘“One Ilan Man”: the Torres Strait Light Infantry’, Wartime, issue 12, Summer 2000, pp.32-7.

[11]  John Perryman, ‘A brief history of Indigenous Sailors’, 100 Years of the Royal Australian Navy, p.199.

[12]  David Huggonson, “Aboriginal women and the war effort”, Reveille, September–October 1995.

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.