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.
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