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Indigenous contribution to the war

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During World War II which engulfed the world from 1939 to 1945, the Aboriginal population of the Northern Territory participated in a variety of ways which has been largely unrecognised.

Some of this participation was relevant because of the geographical location of Aboriginal settlements. For example, the Tiwi Islanders were in the direct path of enemy attacks on Darwin and for this reason many Tiwi Islanders became caught up in the conflict.

In other types of involvement, Aboriginal people simply stepped forward to "do their bit" in uniform, as ordinary members of the Australian Defence Force, while others became auxiliary workers to the Defence Force. They were directly involved in support roles and became guides within the outback, or worked providing material support for the defence effort.

The Army and RAAF depended heavily on Aboriginal labour in the Northern Territory. At a time when Australia was drawing on all its reserves of men and women to support the war effort, the contribution of Indigenous Australians was vital. Indigenous Australians served in a wide variety of capacities in the Northern Territory in WWII. Some joined up, and left the Territory, sometimes for ever, absorbed into the military machine. Some served in military units in the Northern Territory. These were semi-uniformed units such as Coastwatchers, army Marine Section Darwin, Darwin Aboriginal Naval Forces attached to HMAS Melville, local infantry platoon known as

The Black Watch", The North Australia Observation Unit, known as the "Nackeroos", and the Northern Territory Special Reconnaissance Unit.

Working for the forces

A far great number contribute to the war in other fields. The armed serves in the Northern Territory employed one quarter of the Territory’s Aboriginal population in a wide variety of roles, including stockmen to drove cattle to army slaughter yards dotted along the road and rail link, and in butcheries, and as labourers . Aboriginal women were employed in domestic duties or as hospital orderlies at the Australian General Hospital and in laundries

Army workers

It is suggested by photographic evidence that a multitude of Aboriginal workers were employed by the armed forces around the Darwin area during the war. The case for the workers being more towards "unofficial" than not is supported by the fact that they are not in uniform; not carrying weapons – armed forces personnel in enemy-prone areas carry firearms 24 hours a day; and are employed in a variety of tasks often as individuals rather than as formed squad.

Photographs also exist showing these personnel being paid by the armed forces. These "pay" parades" show workers again not in uniform – although there are pictures showing uniformed Indigenous workers also receiving wages – and accounting for their pay by using a thumbprint (in those cases not being literate enough for a signature).

The units they were assigned to, or did supporting work for, were many and varied. For example one photo shows Alec and Joseph, two Bathurst ISLAND Natives who were attached to 42 Australian Camp Hospital for general duties. They are shown with Staff-Sergeant AEP Wharton of the Hospital staff and their laundry equipment. The 42 Camp Hospital arrived in Darwin on the freighter Zealandia, on 6 February 1942 which was sunk 13 days later in the first Japanese air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942

Aborigines employed by the Department of the Interior, loading exhausted oxygen tubes, used in the construction of the new power house, on to a truck. (Image Courtesy of AWM 028353).
Darwin, NT. 1943. A squad of Melville Island natives who are enlisted in the royal Australian navy for special duties such as locating stranded airmen and Japanese mines. (Image Courtesy of Australian War Memorial).