Dangers and revelations

FOR INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS, experience of the Second World War went beyond service in combat roles. Consider the Davis brothers in Western Australia: as Jack Davis tells us in A Boy’s Life (Magabala Books, 1991), his brother Harold ‘was taken prisoner at Tobruk and was imprisoned in North Africa and then in Italy. He escaped and fought with the partisans. He saw the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress hung up by their heels in the streets of Milan…’ For Jack, the war was humdrum by comparison. Remaining in the Gascoyne region, where he had lived since January 1937, Jack Davis continued to work as a stockman.

Some Indigenous autobiographies do not recall the conditions of war as being of any significance. Why would they? Their life course was determined by institutional routines unchanged by the war. For Ruth Hegarty, the period of World War II coincided with the years in which the Queensland government staged the termination of her childhood and her entry into a kind of adulthood. As she tells in Is That You Ruthie? (UQP, 1999), at age fourteen (in 1943 or 1944) and having completed schooling at Cherbourg settlement, Hegarty became available as a domestic servant to white families in rural Queensland. It was this scheduled life transition, rather than the contingencies of war, that isolated her from the only community she knew – the ‘kids who were one big family’ in Cherbourg’s dormitory. Her first position – in a household at Jandowae – taught her that asserting herself was both possible and effective. A sense of self that had not been attainable at Cherbourg grew in her tense dialogues with her mistress and in her correspondence with the Department of Native Affairs. These exchanges allowed her ‘to realise that I was a person with feelings, that I was important too’. Such realisations evolved independently of the context of the war that was gripping the world at large.

However, for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the disruption of wartime made possible their discovery that Australia held more opportunities than their supervised life had ever allowed them to imagine.

THE FEAR OF imminent Japanese invasion militarised the Northern Territory and much of northern Australia, turning the homelands of many Aboriginal people into theatres of war.

On 12 December 1941, within days of Japan’s raid on Pearl Harbor, the Australian government decided to evacuate all non-essential civilians from the Top End. Among those to be moved were some who had only recently been settled there: Aboriginal children (girls mostly) placed under Methodist care on Croker Island, off the Northern Territory coast. These children had been living in government institutions such as the Kahlin Compound (Darwin) and the Bungalow (Alice Springs), but these had been closed so that the children would not be exposed to the white population in those two centres, which was anticipated to grow quickly due to the war. However, Japan’s surge south endangered those who had been relocated north. As Claire Henty-Gebert recalls in Paint Me Black (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2005), the government at first encouraged Croker Island’s female missionaries to evacuate, but they refused to leave the children. They were further disturbed, she recalls, to hear on the radio ‘that cows were being evacuated from some parts of the North. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing. They said they would have liked to ask if we ninety-six children in the path of enemy bombers weren’t more important than cows.’ Before deciding on evacuation, the government had advised the Methodists to assemble a large white cross to inform planes flying overhead that they were a mission station. The first contingent to leave the Croker Island mission began their journey on 3 March 1942: east, by boat, around the Arnhem Land coast via Groote Eylandt to Roper River; then by truck to Mataranka, and truck and train to Balaklava, South Australia. By the time the second group were able to leave Croker Island, on 5 April 1942, the Methodist Overseas Mission had decided that Balaklava was unsuitable; so the second batch of ninety-six children journeyed to Mulgoa (south of Penrith) and to Otford (between Wollongong and Sydney).

In Cockatoo: My Life in Cape York (Magabala Books, 2010), Roy McIvor recalls how in May 1942 soldiers interrupted his family as they celebrated his sister’s birthday at the Cape Bedford Lutheran mission (north of Cooktown), to tell them to leave everything and board a truck. The entire mission (some 235 people) was evacuated to the Queensland government reserve Woora-binda, and mission leader Pastor Georg Heinrich Schwarz was interned until 1944. There are grounds for thinking that the government’s motive was not only to mitigate the perceived ‘fifth-column’ threat – that is, German Lutherans – but also to use the site for an airfield. McIvor describes the arduous journey from Cooktown to Woorabinda (inland from Rockhampton), and how the confused evacuees suffered from sickness, hunger, dehydration and lack of sleep. He refers to the Woorabinda period as ‘Years of Exile’. He and his friends got into fights with Woorabinda children, particularly when they accused McIvor and others of being Nazi sympathisers. In a stroke of fortune, however, his mother met relatives whom the government had moved to Woorabinda many years before.

Arriving in autumn, far to the south and inland, these people of Cape York had to adjust to the cold. Many became ill and Roy’s sister, Emily, aged thirteen, was one of the many ‘exiles’ who died. ‘The old horse trooper was busy pulling coffins to the cemetery. One coffin after the other went there. These were such sad times.’ Under the authority of Pastor Schwarz, the Cape Bedford people had become a strongly Christian community. McIvor’s countryman, Willie Gordon, wrote in Guurrbi: My Family & Other Stories (Guurrbi Tours, 2012) that the war’s interruption of Schwarz’s authority allowed the Cape Bedford people ‘to maintain their culture again for a time.’ This account of resurgent ‘culture’ is corroborated, up to a point, by McIvor when he recalls that it was at Woorabinda, during the war, that he first saw a traditional Aboriginal ceremony: ‘…we saw people dressed up in costumes, painted up, preparing for a corroboree. We had never seen these costumes before. Once the kids stopped being scared, they were interesting to watch!’ However, he also recalls the desire of the Cape Bedford people to maintain their Christian beliefs while at Woorabinda. Roy’s father Paddy took over ‘spiritual leadership’, and conducted twice-weekly services and funerals. Not far from Woorabinda was a station called Foleyvale, with working camps on either side of the McKenzie River, where McIvor and the other men from Cape Bedford and Woorabinda received wages for the first time – two pounds ten shillings per week, in McIvor’s case.

It was good to be out in the bush and working with men from Woora-binda and our home country. Our community leaders operated in the same way as they had at Cape Bedford among the boatmen, the stockmen, and farmworkers at the outstations. Billy Jacko was the elder at top Foleyvale, taking devotions night and morning and leading the singing from the Sankey and the Lutheran hymn books. Major Mango was in charge at the bottom camp.

For those steeped in the Old Testament, ‘exile’ names a testing interregnum that is followed by (rewarded by) return to a desired place. War’s end allowed the return home to Cape York for these Christians, but home was a new site – Hope Vale, under Schwarz’s renewed care.

ANOTHER YOUNG NORTHERN Territory evacuee, Hilda Jarman Muir, was charmed by the city of Brisbane. ‘In Brisbane I had to go into the world,’ she recalls in Very Big Journey (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2004). By the time the war broke out, Muir had been living in Darwin for eleven years, having been removed from the Borroloola area when she was eight to live in the Kahlin Compound. She had her first child when she was sixteen. As war broke out, she and her husband Billy were among the many ‘coloured people’ living in makeshift housing at ‘Police Paddock’ (now the suburb of Stuart Park). Billy was assured a role in Australia’s defence: having joined the Citizen Military Force before the war, he was called into the AIF to guard Darwin’s infrastructure. Hilda was evacuated to Brisbane with their three children in January 1942, a month before the bombing of Darwin. Billy’s foster mother Sarah was already there and, ‘like a fairy godmother’, helped them to settle. When Sarah showed her the city, Hilda was thrilled by its size and material abundance. At her hostel accommodation in Wynnum, she felt too shy, at first, to mix with other evacuees. Sarah soon found a house in Bowen Hills that was large enough for two mothers and their children, and they schooled the children in Fortitude Valley. Later, they moved to Milton ‘with lovely old Aboriginal people’. Muir’s account of Brisbane is a story of her own emergence as a confident young woman.

For some of that Brisbane time, Muir was joined by her sister Bridget, whose ship voyage from Darwin had been traumatic. Muir mentored Bridget in city life, as Sarah had mentored her. Their Bowen Hills household was increased by the arrival of two old Filipino people: ‘I don’t know where they turned up from, but…Sarah hated to see anyone left out.’ Muir and her evacuee network, receiving letters in Brisbane, knew more than officials were allowing them to know about the bombing of Darwin: ‘…in Brisbane we were cut off. We were safe living there, but the War still scared us.’

At the end of the war, with Billy demobbed and wanting to return to Darwin, Muir found that she was ‘a city slicker now and I liked the big city with good shops, trams and buses’.

‘It was such a good life with the shops, people I knew, and my new friends. The kids were doing well at school and they had friends there, too. After the freedom of the big city, I didn’t like the idea of a small place. But I had no choice: my husband wanted me back in Darwin…’

Because her husband’s work postings for the Department of Native Affairs took them to rural parts of the Top End (Billy worked at the Aboriginal settlement Delissaville), the children had to be left in the care of the Retta Dixon Home to receive schooling. Hilda recalls being restless:

Living in Brisbane for four years had showed me what life could be for me and the children. I’d enjoyed the shops and met and chatted with people. The children were happy and accepted in school and had friends there, too. Now I was feeling lonely and missing my children.

Billy arranged for her to have domestic help – ‘a beautiful old Larrakia woman’. That this helper was deaf and dumb limited her companionship. Muir eventually persuaded her husband to get a transfer closer to town, but their home was not right in Darwin, where she wanted to be, but at Berrimah. Whereas Billy worked outside the home and had plenty of male companionship in the evenings, Hilda found herself repeatedly pregnant and living in substandard accommodation on Darwin’s periphery. Her demobilisation, so to speak, was her disappointment. ‘The evacuation had shown me that I could live in a big city.’

Brisbane held promise for the Torres Strait Islander Ellie Gaffney, too, as she recalls in Somebody Now (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989). Gaffney moved with her mother and her sisters from the Cape York hamlet of Allau (now known as Umagico) to Brisbane, where her brother Ted Loban was living. Ted had enlisted in the AIF, but had been severely wounded by German fire and then repatriated. Now out of action, he could accommodate his family in the city. For Ellie, Brisbane presented new opportunities. Lying about her age, she began to work as a pantry maid in a café in 1944. This suddenly urbane teenager ‘was utilised by [her] parents and relatives as their guide in the big city and their interpreter’.

WHEN PEOPLE WERE relocated south, they were potentially escaping more than one kind of danger. Northern Australia was poised to repel the anticipated Japanese invasion – yet, as Ellie Gaffney recalls in Somebody Now (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989), the Allied troops also presented a danger. When Thursday Island was under Allied occupation, ‘it was unsafe for any female to walk the streets, or to be walking anywhere at any time, especially after dark’. Gaffney’s older sister Jean had a job, but ‘for someone as fine looking as Jean that was very risky’, so her family had to escort her to and from work. Concerned with this threat, Gaffney’s father, Tommy Loban, had first shifted the family to Allau, where there was a school, a church and a store. Loban, a man of Scottish, Indonesian and Torres Strait Islander descent, continued to work on Thursday Island, but on Friday nights his family would call for him by boat and, unknown to the authorities on Thursday Island, he would spend the weekend with his family at Allau. When the opportunity came to move to Brisbane to stay with their brother Ted – wounded serving in the AIF – the Loban women took it.

Similarly, the Anglican mission Forrest River, established near Wyndham in 1913, was changed by the war in ways that puzzled Connie Nungulla McDonald. In When I Grow Up (Magabala Books, 1996), McDonald describes how she and her mother had been brought to the mission soon after her birth in 1933. Her mother died within a year, and the mission entrusted Connie to an Aboriginal family. Like other children, she slept in a dormitory once she started school in 1939, joining her adoptive family for the short ‘walkabout’ that the mission permitted in the middle of the dry season. By March 1942, once Darwin and Wyndham had been bombed, and with the mission under Japanese aerial reconnaissance, the missionaries evacuated. The departing Anglicans left the responsibilities of ‘taking the daily services in the church, teaching in the schools, running the hospital, overseeing the sawmill, the stockwork and the running of the mission in general’ to the ‘educated’ Aboriginal people, ‘while the roles of caretakers, peacemakers and law enforcers were left to the tribal elders’. McDonald refers to the principal Aboriginal men as ‘kings’. McDonald herself became an assistant to the acting teacher, a ‘senior girl’ called Coralie Roberts; McDonald also worked in the hospital. She thus witnessed Forrest River Mission’s war years as both a child (only twelve and half years old, at the war’s end) and as a junior member of those Aboriginal elders entrusted to run the mission.

It fell to these men to organise the Patronal Festival of Saint Michael and all Angels in September 1942 – a day of competitive sports and prizes. To their surprise, a ‘commando’ force (the North Australia Observer Unit or ‘Curtin’s Cowboys’, volunteers from the region) appeared and, after due courtesies, joined the games and gave out the prizes. With co-operation from the ‘kings’, the NAOU soon established a base at Bremlah, on the other side of the Forrest River. The elders told the mission residents that this was to protect women and girls, who were forbidden to visit the soldiers; the dormitory girls proved an irresistible temptation. Some soldiers persuaded an Aboriginal man (a brengen, whose alignment with the mission was weak) to break into the senior girls’ dormitory and fetch them some companions. Their plan was thwarted the next day and the girls returned; they were ‘grounded for three months’ and three soldiers were transferred out of the unit.

The idea that white men in uniform could be a source of safety was counterintuitive to Aboriginal people in the Kimberley – brutal police action on a violent frontier was within the living memory of folk not much older than McDonald. The soldiers turned out, in a number of ways, to be an ambiguous presence, and their authority was repeatedly subverted by how the mission people discussed and evaluated them. The unit – no doubt with helpful intentions – dug trenches as air raid shelters near the mission’s main buildings. However, the residents soon heard that the use of such shelters had maximised casualties when the Japanese had bombed and strafed the Kalumburu mission in September 1943. McDonald recalls how the mission folk resolved that, should any planes attack, they would ignore the trenches and run into the bush.

The residents of Forrest River heard a rumour that if the Japanese invaded, all Aboriginal people would be rounded up and shot, presumably to prevent them from assisting the invaders. A subsequent rumour then emerged that the unit at Bremlah had assured the mission they would refuse to carry out such an order. This story has been the cause for much controversy. Elizabeth Wynhausen interviewed McDonald when her book came out in 1996. After looking into the factual basis of the rumour, Wynhausen reported in an article for the Australian that ‘no one has produced the documents as yet’ to prove that the unit’s orders included killing Aboriginals if the Japanese landed. However, the historian of the Forrest River mission at the time, Neville Green, relayed to Wynhausen that a missionary, John Best, had been told by an officer that it might be necessary to do away with the Aboriginals, should the Japanese invade. Morrie Vane, who was a nineteen-year-old member of the squad camped at Bremlah, has since become the unit’s historian and insists that there is no evidence of such an instruction.

Some members of the public and the Australian military were not confident that Aboriginal people would side with Europeans against the invading Japanese; frontier memories were fresh on both sides. McDonald recalls what ‘King David’ said when the rumour that soldiers might kill them began to circulate. He reminded them that gudiyar (Euro-Australians) had been killing Aboriginals since entering their country, and insisted that if all the residents were killed it would obviate the greater tragedies of children being left without parents, and parents losing children. Mediated in these terms by the Aboriginal delegates of the evacuated missionaries, the ‘security’ offered by the commandos seemed a mixed blessing to mission residents such as McDonald. ‘We, the children, were now sad and afraid, to think that although these men cared for us, they had the power to end our lives.’

ON MORNINGTON ISLAND, when war broke out, some young men at the Presbyterian mission were restless and hoped for work and money on the mainland. As Dick Roughsey recalls in Moon and Rainbow (Rigby International, 1971), he and his friends borrowed a dugout canoe and paddled to a point on the mainland whence they could walk to Burketown. The police told them there were no jobs, and put them on the first boat back to Mornington Island. Roughsey and his friends then killed a bullock. The Protector of Aborigines had recently begun to punish such actions by expelling the perpetrators to Palm Island – a penalty that worried the mission’s women, but promised much to the men who received it. ‘They had to be fed while in jail,’ Roughsey recalls thinking, ‘and when they got out they had a chance of getting a job on cattle stations out from Townsville and Burketown.’ The same exit to a wider world did not open for him and his mates: even though the mission authorities reported the cattle killing to the Department of Native Affairs, no action was taken against the offenders. Apparently, the demands of wartime administration were giving the department more to think about than a few purloined bullocks. Fortunately for Roughsey, the war was also luring white workers out of the beef industry. The Burketown police were soon approaching the mission, asking for young men to come to the mainland to work the cattle. Roughsey found employment that required him to learn to ride a horse: ‘I had money in my pocket for the first time in my life.’

For Alec Kruger, working for Harry Bloomfield on Loves Creek Station (east of Alice Springs) had become hard to endure by 1942, and stockmen such as he were attracted to the unprecedented alternative of joining the army. ‘The idea of getting equal pay was a shock for us all,’ he recalls in Alone On the Soaks (Institute for Aboriginal Development, 2007). ‘The local station owners and bosses were not happy about it.’ Indeed, in order to get to the recruiting office he had to evade Bloomfield’s supervision, and local officials with little regard for Bloomfield were pleased to sign him up. According to Kruger, Bloomfield began to pay his remaining workers better.

Kruger found himself in a unit with many young men who had been with him at the Bungalow – the Commonwealth’s Alice Springs institution for ‘half-caste’ children. ‘We found ourselves mixing with more strangers than we had ever had to deal with before.’ Within a short time – after some use of the football and their fists – they had established relationships of respect with the white soldiers in the unit. To exchange labour time for cash was an exhilarating break from Bloomfield’s penny-pinching oversight. ‘The army had taken over telling me what to do, but it didn’t care what I did with my own money. Just as long as I turned up when I was told, ready for duty.’ Kruger was also free of the Aboriginals Ordinance. ‘With money and a uniform I could go wherever other soldiers could go.’ He had never been so well fed, and he realised that past regimes – at the Bungalow and under Bloomfield – had made him a compulsive hoarder of food. For all its liberties and generosity, however, the army had its own ideas of obedience: ‘They would call parades any time.’

Kruger had been born at Donkey Camp, just outside Katherine, but the Aboriginal Protectorate had relocated him, as a child, to Pine Creek and then to Alice Springs. Now the strategic need to fortify the north was taking Kruger back there. Stationed at the Larrimah army camp – to unload trucks and load the train that supplied bases further north – he had a chance meeting with his brother George, a fettler. They had not seen each other for nine years. George brought him up to date with his dispersed family’s history. Their father had died, but their mother was alive and living at Donkey Camp, now under army supervision. Alec had not seen her for fifteen years. When George and Alec went to visit her, a police sergeant told them that their mother’s compound was off limits to soldiers; they must leave or be charged with co-habitation. When he was able to spend time with her, Kruger found his mother inaccessible in other ways: her English was poor, and she had become a devout Christian and pacifist who worried that, as a soldier, Kruger might have to kill.

Kruger looked back on his army time as both emancipating and inhibiting. The army’s model of mateship enabled him to be a ‘regular army bloke’, keen to be accepted in the company of men – white and black – older than himself, and to drink and fight as they did. But it provided no space for the person that he had started to become – ‘a person of magic in the world of the Eastern Arrernte’ – and so ‘I missed doing things I was good at. I missed the horses and the individualism of working out bush.’ The army did not bring him any closer to the world of women either: ‘I still hadn’t been kissed or had someone love me. This was part of my anger. The army was a womanless world.’

BILL COHEN, SON of a New England black tracker, found himself deployed as a soldier on a beach in Sydney Harbour when depth charges knocked out two Japanese submarines. His memoir, To My Delight (Aboriginal Studies Press, 1987), reveals a man keen to boast his masculine attributes, and his story of soldiering is consistently upbeat: the war was an occasion to amplify his masculine self. His enlistment answered the self-posed question: am I a coward? ‘This word “cowardice” seemed to worry me,’ he recalled in 1980. Sent to Dubbo for training, he excelled at orienteering and shooting. ‘I was one of many crack shots at the targets. Well this could be understandable as I was a notable dingo hunter.’ Proud of his boxing skills, he only got better as Army training made him fitter. ‘Oh, my mates all around me with words of praise! Little did they know I was claim [sic] Bare Knuckle King of the Tablelands.’ His ‘delighted’ recollections include trouncing, in a training exercise, ‘the barman from Kempsey’ – a town ‘well known for its prejudice to blacks’. However, fighting with an officer earned him two months in the Holsworthy Camp Prison.

Not the least of the Army’s manly opportunities were encounters with the nurses. Hospitalised for nine weeks to have twelve teeth removed, Cohen had time – after a short tussle with his conscience – for an affair with a nurse.

I thought seriously about this act. My wife and small family on the Aboriginal reserve [Bellbrook, McLeay River]. Should I date this angel I’d be coming under the act, committing adultery according to the Bible. Then other little thoughts ran through my mind. Soon I’ll be drafted away somewhere in New Guinea, a Jap creeping up behind me, putting a bayonet through my back. With these thoughts I ignored the Bible.

Cohen was not sent to New Guinea but to Lithgow, protecting a small arms factory. From Lithgow, Cohen’s unit was posted to the Gulf of Carpentaria, where he spent eight months rebuilding an old army headquarters ‘with a wonderful crew. No prejudice among them.’ Cohen was forced to leave the Gulf when he contracted a virus. Upon returning to Sydney, his record of fighting with fellow soldiers got him a dishonourable discharge. ‘Oh didn’t I jump for joy’, Cohen recalled, irrepressibly, in 1980.

Like Bill Cohen, Banjo Clarke was handy with his fists and proud of it. He boxed competitively in western Victoria as a youth in the 1930s. At the outbreak of war, he recalls in Wisdom Man (Penguin, 2003), a recruiting officer in Fitzroy persuaded him and his mate Herb to join the Allied Works Council instead of the army. They found themselves in Brisbane, where black American soldiers welcomed their company. Posted to a road-building camp, Clarke soon was unjustly accused by his overseer of creating a drunken row that had kept many men awake overnight. When he was told he must transfer to another gang (dismissal was not an option), his work-mates offered to strike. Clarke was moved by this gesture of worker solidarity, but he declined their offer, only later reflecting on ‘how momentous it was’. Had he stayed and enabled the strike, he rued, ‘It might have taught the people of Australia not to do whatever they liked to someone just because they was Aboriginal.’ Clarke found Queensland pubs unwelcoming at first, though he was served on the basis that, as a Victorian Aboriginal person, he was not covered by Queensland laws.

At a dance in Woolooga, Clarke was accosted and pushed down some stairs by a white American soldier. Clarke fought him and was pleasantly surprised that the dance crowd seemed to back him. Queensland might have been racist, he reflects, but it included ‘people what [sic] will side with you if you do the same work as they do’.

ABORIGINAL AND TORRES Strait Australians have long contributed to Australia’s defence, something that I am quite confident will be underlined by the machinery of military heritage – so powerful in this country. Equally open to our historical imaginations is what the threats and opportunities of a nation mobilised for war have contributed to their lives. In reading many of their autobiographies, I have gained the sense of the tightly woven fabric of ‘protection’ being loosened and of Aboriginal and Torres Strait men and women experiencing the boons and disappointments of a wider sociality.


This essay is from a larger study of Australia’s twentieth century experience as a settler colonial society, to be published by Oxford University Press. Tim thanks Elizabeth Watt for her research assistance and the University of Western Sydney for paying for her time.


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