Aboriginal Military Service

Sgt Saunders
Sergeant Saunders with fellow soldiers of the 2/7th Infantry Battalion in North Queensland, October 1943.

Military service and war is a significant part of our mob’s history and current experience. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have served in large numbers in every conflict since Australia’s Federation in 1901 and some signed up to colonial forces before this.


Aboriginal Service People:

Military service and war is a significant part of our mob’s history and current experience. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have served in large numbers in every conflict since Australia’s Federation in 1901 and some signed up to colonial forces before this.

It is hard to know the exact number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service people because the Australian Defence Force did not record the cultural background of members until recently. In the early 1900s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were not legally able to join the Army, so many hid their identity in order to sign up.

More recently, many families, Community-members and organisations have been working to bring to light the stories, contributions and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service people. We now know that:

  • A number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in the Boer War (1899-1902)
  • Over 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people served in World War I (1914-1918) and around 70 fought at Gallipoli
  • At least 3000 Aboriginal and 850 Torres Strait Islander people served in World War II (1939-1945)
  • In both World Wars, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had the highest participation rates in the military as a proportion of their population in Australia
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have participated in all military conflicts since the World Wars, including in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and in peacekeeping operations including in Somalia and East Timor
  • In 2011 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 1.7% of the Australian Army.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have also been involved in work at home to support the war effort. For example, during World War II, entire Aboriginal communities in Northern Australia did defence work such as construction, farming and butchery for the army.

There have also been Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander units. During World War II, the Torres Strait Light Infantry was started to patrol the Torres Strait Islands and support ships going through their waterways. At the same time the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit was formed. This unit was made up of Yolngu men from Arnhem Land and aimed to use Aboriginal tactics and weaponry to fight the Japanese military. In 1981, the NorthWest Mobile Force or NORFORCE was created in the Northern Territory. This unit continues today and has 60% Aboriginal membership.

Link: Deadlystory NORFORCE Article

Prince Charles visits Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Group

 

NORFORCE
Aboriginal soldiers form up to 60 percent of the NORFORCE personnel. Uniquely, NORFORCE personnel patrol the areas they come from and therefore use their local knowledge of Country and community.

Sources: Australian War Memorial, Reconciliation Australia 2015, N Riseman 2013: Australian Army Journal.

 


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