Remembrance Day 2015: commemorative address

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Dr Jackie Huggins AM FAHA

Governor General

Your Royal Highnesses

Prime Minister

Opposition Leader

Chief of the Australian Defence Force

Distinguished Guests



I commence by paying my respects to the traditional owners, the Ngunnawal people, their Elders, past, present and future. 

I also pay my respects to the past and present Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who enlisted, and who served in an auxiliary capacity for the Australian Defence Forces, and to all Australians who have given their lives for us in war and in peace.

Amongst them, we are especially mindful of the families of the forty two men who gave their lives for our nation in Afghanistan who are with us here today.

I am deeply appreciative of the opportunity to address you today on an occasion that resonates through our collective memories. 

The Australian War Memorial is a sacred place to all Australians. 

In this centenary year of the Gallipoli landings and all that followed, Remembrance Day 2015 assumes an even more poignant meaning.

World War I remains Australia’s greatest modern tragedy – almost 62,000 dead, another 60,000 dying within a decade of their return and many more injured, maimed and psychologically scarred.

Few families, mine included, were untouched by its horror.

My name is Jackie Huggins, and I am a Bidjara and Birri-Gubba Juru woman from Queensland. 

My family proudly served this nation – our nation in both World Wars.

Like many others touched by the evacuation of Gallipoli, my grandfather John Huggins enlisted in December 1915 from Charters Towers, embarking from Brisbane on HMAT Seang Choon A49 on 4th  May 1916. 

Grandfather was a superb stockman and would have loved to continue his craft and ride horses overseas.  Unfortunately he was not assigned to the Light Horse Brigade.

Private Huggins was first sent to Egypt, where he continued his training with the 9th Battalion, and then to England, where he was posted to the 3rd Training Battalion.  On 3rd December 1916, after arriving in France, Huggins was transferred to the 26th Battalion and where he remained for the rest of his service.  The 26th Battalion was part of the 7th Brigade of the 2nd Division.

Grandfather was wounded in Belgium on the 4th of October 1917 during the bloody battle of Broodseinde.  As the 26th Battalion came over Broodseinde Ridge they encountered heavy fire from snipers and enemy machine guns situated in concrete bunkers known as pill boxes.  He suffered a gunshot wound to the left forearm.  He was evacuated to England on the HS Pieter de Cornick and admitted to Norfolk & Norwich Hospital, and later to Norfolk War Hospital.

In March 1918 the 26th Battalion went into the front line near the Belgian town of Ploegsteert.  Private Huggins was wounded for the second time, suffering a gunshot wound to the leg.  He was evacuated to the military hospital in Bethnal Green, London, and from there was repatriated to Australia on board HMAT Saxon.

My father - also named John Huggins was born in Ayr, North Queensland in 1920.  To those of us who knew and loved him, he was ‘Jack’ - a man of high degree, compassion and integrity.

This was a different Australia from the one we are today.

Despite the class and racial barriers of the time, he was the first Indigenous Australian to serve in the Australian Post Office.  He was a surf lifesaver and a fervent ‘A grade’ Rugby League player. 

Like his father before him, he understood that serving his country and his nation was a privilege.

My father enlisted in the Second AIF on 27 March 1941 in Ayr, joining the 2/29th Battalion, which was part of the 27th Brigade of the 8th Division. 

The 27th Brigade was the last AIF infantry brigade raised for service during the Second World War. It fell to the Japanese in February 1942 after the fierce defence of Singapore. The 2/29th Battalion spent three and a half years as prisoners of war, first concentrated in Changi prison.

As one of the fittest soldiers, dad was sent to the horror that was building the Thai-Burma Railway. 

Japanese engineers estimated that the Railway, to be built through dense jungle and mountain, would take five years to construct and required thousands of engineers and labourers.  Instead it took under a year, using starved, diseased and beaten POW labour.  Sadly and ironically the railway was completed in mid-October 1943, but it was never used.   Almost as soon as it was completed, it was damaged by Allied bombing. Today only sections of it survive.

An only child, my father adored his mother and father. 

The saddest moment of his life was when he arrived in Townsville after returning from the War.  As my father got off the train, weak, emaciated and tired, he scanned around for his mother and wondered why she had not written to him for a few months since his liberation. 

On the platform he was told the tragic news by a good mate - she had died three months earlier. 

He collapsed in his friend’s arms.  His father had died earlier in 1942. Neither knew their beloved son survived the brutal horrors of the Thai-Burma Railway.

When my father returned to civilian life, he did not experience the invisibility and exclusion dished out to many other Aboriginal service people.  

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans were often denied the honour and rights given to other veterans, such as soldier settlement land grants.  Many were refused membership, even entrance to RSL clubs.   

As a prominent member of the local community, my father was welcomed at the Ayr RSL club where he enjoyed a drink or two.   He sought comfort in the POW Association where those who had experienced the terrors of captivity, starvation and unrelenting work could feel fully understood and accepted. 

It was not until 1962 that all Indigenous peoples were granted full Australian citizenship.

Like others, my father died at the age of 38 from complications of his war injuries. I was only 2 years old. I mourn his loss and the emptiness in my heart every day.

My father and grandfather, along with many other Indigenous men and women, served our nation in war. 

Yet the dispossession, beginning in 1788, had destroyed their ancient civilisation.

However their abiding loyalty to this country we all call home, rose above the deep bitterness of the past. These men and women forged new identities that challenged the haunting devastations wrought by widespread violent colonial brutality and heralded a new and different future for us all.

On this historic occasion here at the Australian War Memorial, we honour and remember with pride, all those Australians who served our nation, and all those families like mine, that have so loved and supported them.

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