Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 9, 2019

Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia (2019), edited by Allison Cadzow and Mary Anne Jebb

Cultural warning: Readers are warned that this page contains the names of deceased persons and in quotations from the past, may use terminology that reflects attitudes or language used that are considered inappropriate today.

As I foreshadowed a fortnight ago when I brought this book home from the library, Our Mob Served tells the mostly untold story of Indigenous service in Australia’s defence forces.  It’s a subject I’ve been interested in ever since the Shrine of Remembrance developed a unit of work about Indigenous Service for primary schools.  In developing and adapting the unit for my students and other teachers, (see my professional blog) I learned a lot, but back then was frustrated by a lack of resources to enhance my background knowledge.  Our Mob Served fills this need perfectly because it curates individual Indigenous stories into one coherent text, and I expect that there will be a review by the professional historians at the Honest History website before long.

What this book does so well is to reveal why Indigenous Service deserves special recognition.  It takes nothing away from the rest of our defence forces to acknowledge that Indigenous people enlisting to protect their country did so in spite of the way the country from which they had been dispossessed had systematically discriminated against them from the beginning of European settlement.  They were driven  off their lands by frontier violence; their food sources were compromised by the new agriculture; men, women and children were massacred; and whole populations have been decimated by disease.  They were denied citizenship, the vote, and legal recourse to the courts, and they were expected to work for little or no reward while excluded from society and without the hope of economic or social mobility.  Throughout most of the 20th century Stolen Generations children were taken from their families in a program of eugenics, and families and communities across the country often never saw their children again.  Why would Indigenous people want to fight for a regime like that?  The answer is both simple and complex.  The simple answer is that they love their country, and want to defend it.  The complex answer is covered in Chapter 3 of this book.

Chapter I explains the rationale and the process used for gathering the untold stories of Indigenous Service in our armed forces.  It begins with a quotation from Mick Dodson:

Aboriginal history is so rich because it comes from an oral tradition…The stories are rich and they make up an important component of the history of our country since the British colonisation.  And we need to record those stories for future generations. It’s a vital story to be told. (p.2)

There are 180 oral history accounts recorded during ‘Yarn Ups’ and interviews; oral history and photo recording sessions with veterans and ex-service people or their relatives, held around Australia in 40 locations between 2014 and 2017.  The book is organised into themes which emerged from the interviews, but there are also silences in the text, silences which emerge from ancestors not wanting to revisit past trauma, but also because of cultural protocols that encourage watching and listening and discourage asking too many questions.  Disruptions to family transmission of some stories are also a consequence of the Stolen Generations, but it also increases the demand to be heard now.  So it was a complex research project, but one IMO of immense value.

Chapter 2 covers Australia’s conflicts and wars.  It’s depressing how many there have been.  The chapter acknowledges the Frontier Wars but the focus of the book is Indigenous participation in ‘overseas’ wars declared by opposing nation states.  Although the records are unclear, some took part even in the Boer War (1899-1902) with nine Indigenous troopers and a private identified so far among the 16,000 Australians who fought.  Many more took part in WW1, in the infantry and in the Light Horse, as well as in the artillery, engineers, and the flying corps.  Harry Thorpe and Albert Knight were among Indigenous servicemen decorated with Distinguished Conduct Awards and other honours, and Alfred Hearps was promoted to second lieutenant.  There were also two Indigenous nurses, though the name of only one, Marion Leane Smith, has been identified so far.  In WW2, an estimated 3000 Indigenous Australians served in the army, the navy and the air force, and made a major contribution to labour and reconnaissance work on the northern coast and in the Torres Strait Islands.  Notable names include Reg Saunders who was a commissioned officer, and Sergeant Len Waters who was a fighter pilot, while Charles Mene, Tim Hughes and others were decorated for bravery.  Indigenous personnel also served in the Malayan Emergency (1948-60); Borneo (1963-66); the Korean War (1950-53); the Vietnam War (1962-75); in Peacekeeping missions in Somalia (1992-94) and East Timor (1999-2003); and in the Gulf Wars of 1990-91 and 2003-9 and in Afghanistan (2001-present).

Chapter 3 explains the special appeal of serving in the military.  Joining the military meant that Indigenous people could be free from movement restrictions that segregated them into missions and reserves.  It offered opportunities for education and training, it provided paid employment, and it enabled economic and social mobility.  But eligibility to enlist was a contradictory process: there were conflicting definitions of ‘Aboriginal’ and there were erratic restrictions.   In WW1 Indigenous men were prohibited from enlisting but many did so anyway; in WW2 they were initially allowed to enlist only if they were not ‘too’ Aboriginal, and then restrictions were relaxed because of the manpower shortage for the defence of the northern coastline.  When the draft was introduced for Vietnam, some were called up, while others were excluded.  Indigenous women were not allowed to enlist at all until the women’s services were formed in during WW2.  There are vivid stories from Vietnam veterans in this chapter as well as a profile of Stephen Jones, a Yorta Yorta man who is the first known graduate of the Royal Military College in Duntroon, in 1977.  He had a distinguished career including a post as Military Attaché to the United Nations.  It’s notable also that a tradition of serving in the military tends to run in families.

Chapter 4 is called ‘Mates’.  The editors make the point that while politicians, media advisers, journalists and others often hijack the word ‘mates’ for their own purposes, especially around Anzac Day and related events, the Aboriginal servicemen and women who feature in this book experienced mateship in the services genuinely and honestly and saw it as central to their continuing sense of belonging.  This chapter also explores in more detail the extraordinary records of service within families, with successive generations enlisting along with members of the extended family too.

Chapter 5: ‘Equal’ explores the ways in which Indigenous servicemen and women were able, in the military, to transcend the usual discrimination:

Aboriginal people could be the boss, in command of white men and women, an occurrence that was rare outside the services until recent decades.  Many people spoke of rewarding careers, gaining promotions, realising their potential and their leadership skills. (p.104)

This does not mean there was no racism, which often occurred during the training stages of service and when recruits were young.  And it was often associated with darker skin colours:

Many Australians were raised to associate skin colour with identity rather than the cultural, familial identity Aboriginal people know to be the basis of their own identity. (p.105)

Often the racism occurred in civilian settings, with Aboriginal men being refused a drink alongside mates in the pub being a common issue.

For Aboriginal men denial of that right could be the ultimate insult and exclusion.  Drinking publicly with mates was a ‘demonstration of equality with other Australians’ and had powerful symbolism.  For their descendants, reflecting on their fathers’, uncles’, or grandfathers’ experiences, the unfairness of servicemen and women coming home to prejudice — having served their country — was galling. (p.105)

It was perhaps especially hurtful on Anzac Day.

What was also hurtful was the denial of benefits after the war, but more than that, that exclusion affected the lives not only of the veterans, but also their descendants. Chapter 6: ‘Country’ explains the way that Indigenous servicemen and women were denied grants of soldier settlement blocks that were available to their white mates after WW1.  Our Mob Served cites the case of Herbert Lovett whose request for a block was denied, even though he had the support of the Portland Shire Council and RSSILA (the predecessor to the RSL). Herbert’s son John currently has an unresolved case for compensation because as he says, he had a ‘wrongful life’ and his father did too because he was denied an asset that can be shown to have been an economic benefit to other soldiers and their descendants who did receive a land grant.

Chapter 7: ‘Taken Away’ reveals an aspect of service that is even more shameful.  When husbands and fathers were away on war service, their wives and children became much more vulnerable to the devastating practice of child removal under the policies that affected the Stolen Generations.  Children grew up not knowing their families and thus not hearing any news about the parent on active service, exacerbating the sense of loss.  They were unable to know about their cultural inheritance or about the war service of their parent, sometimes not even knowing that their father had been killed on active service.  In the case of the evacuation from Darwin after it was bombed by the Japanese, Aboriginal children were taken south — away from their land and family — and not always returned.  The voices of contributors to this chapter are particularly poignant.  These lines are from a poem called ‘The Black Rat’ by Iris Clayton, which is about her father Cecil Clayton who was a Rat of Tobruk:

He sold his all medals he once proudly wore / They were of no use to him any more


He fought for this land so he could be free / Yet he could not vote after his desert melee. (p.188)

Iris never knew her brave father because she, like all but one of her siblings, was taken from her family at Leeton to the Cootamundra Training Home for Aboriginal Girls.

Another heart-breaking story comes from Clarence Harradine, whose letter in August 1945 reveals that he was never told that his children were taken away while he was on active service.  His son Lionel wasn’t reunited with his father until 1955, and Lionel didn’t find his two siblings until adulthood when his mother died.  These stories are harrowing, and it beggars belief that such cruelty occurred in these cases because of a parent’s war service.  And because Indigenous war service has only recently begun to be recognised as meriting special attention, most people, when they talk about the sacrifices made by people serving in the military, do not know just how grievous the sacrifice was for many Indigenous families.

Chapter 8: ‘Identities’ covers the situation for Aboriginal families that included an ‘enemy alien’, for example, those who had married or had relationships with Japanese pearlers in northern Australia were interned as well.  And because Aboriginal identity was decreed by officials, and often in confusing and irrational ways, eligibility or ineligibility to serve or be drafted was a cruel lottery.

Chapter 9 is called ‘Healing’ and it covers the awkward process of returning to civilian life, whether as a POW coming home from Singapore or from the chaotic environment in Iraq.  Living in remote communities can make it more difficult to access help for PTSD or for recurring bouts of malaria.  Their descendants’ stories in this chapter often reveal the bewilderment of children encountering a barely-known father behaving in strange ways, ranging from a former POW refusing to have rice in the house, or a Vietnam veteran spending long solitary hours down on the river bank.

Chapter 10: ‘Found, Told and Treasures’ reveals the process by which Indigenous people research the untold stories of their families, using the National Archives of Australia, service files, and the Australian War Memorial collections.  The editors say that the most comprehensive, intimate and storied of all archives are people’s personal collections, especially their photos — many of which are used to enhance the text.  It is profusely illustrated with family and official photos which bring the people to life, and what shines through this book is the pride on their faces.  It’s beautiful to see.  But there are also poignant diaries and letters home from the front; a ‘death penny’ from WW1; a treasured greatcoat; memorial plaques and the Reg Saunders Commemorative Stone at Lake Condah.  The sort of mementoes we all like to have, but all the more important if the family has been fractured.

Chapter 11 is called ‘Recognition’ and it traces the distinctive ways in which Aboriginal families have commemorated service.  It is only in recent years that there has been much in the way of official recognition and this book is an excellent contribution which deserves a wide readership.  All secondary schools should have a copy, and so should each branch of the RSL.

Also recommended reading for this topic is: Defending Country, by Noah Riseman and Richard Trembath

The book includes notes and a comprehensive index.

Editors: Allison Cadzow and Mary Anne Jebb
Title: Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia
Publisher: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2019, 399 pages
ISBN: 9780855750718
Source: Kingston Library Service


  1. Thank you, Lisa, for the background information on the silences and gaps in some of the stories as well as the chapter summaries. I’m in awe of the transcription, research, and writing processes involved in bringing this work of scholarship into fruition. The chapter themes with the adjoining oral testimonies and stories shows the intersectional modes of exploitation and domination which not only negatively impacted indigenous soldiers and service workers but their families as well. In learning of black indigenous woman service workers, it brought to mind the late poet, activist, and cultural worker Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker) who served in the Australian Women’s Army Service. It would be interesting to know if her military efforts were noted in the Our Mob.

    Chapter 7 “Taken Away” was illuminating for me because in my research on literature exploring the forced abduction of Aboriginal children, it never dawned on me that there were aboriginal male soldiers and service workers who were directly impacted by this.

    It would be interesting follow-up to this blog post in finding out if there are any life stories by Aboriginal military and civilian men who were directly effected by child removal policies. I know of the memoir The Mish by Robert Lowe but it is now out-of-print.

    Thank you for another informative and engaging blog post Lisa.



    • Yes, you’ll be pleased to hear that Oodgeroo Noonuccal is included: she was a WW2 telegraphist/radio operator in the AWAS and was promoted to Lance Corporal. Before enlisting she worked in domestic service, but in the army she completed a stenography course, as well as shorthand, typing and bookkeeping, seizing every opportunity she could. (p.165) You can read more about her here:
      It’s too long ago since I read The Mish to remember if Lowe wrote much about military aspects of the removal from his family: I haven’t made any mention of it in my review, ( and unfortunately, I haven’t got the book now. But I think I would have noted it if mention had been made, because it came as such a shock to me to read in Our Mob Served that military service increased the chance of removal.
      However, what your query raises is the difficulty we have in knowing about works by Indigenous authors writing any kind of text. Unless publicity signals that a book is by an Indigenous author, it can pass under that radar, and in a way that’s a good thing because it means that Indigenous writing is mainstream, but in another way it makes it harder to locate and celebrate what’s out there. I have asked all the Australian publishers that I know of to let me know of new releases by Indigenous authors and yet still I eventually discover books that no one had told me about.
      One of the reasons I started my Indigenous Reading List was so that there could be an open resource, linked to reviews. The AWW site has one, but that’s only women authors. The AustLit site has one, but it’s subscriber only. Wikipedia has one, but it’s just a list of names linked to their Wikipedia page if there is one, but again, no reviews. And none of these sites pay the authors the respect of including their country, something which is extremely important to Indigenous people because their country is part of their identity. It’s similar to the way that Canadian and North American Indians like to have their tribe acknowledged.


  2. Straight on my library reserve list for September! Thank you.


  3. […] Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia, edit… […]


  4. Sounds like a significant contribution to Australian military and aboriginal history. I’m trying to understand its form though. How is it different from a book written by historians based on, say, oral histories they do for their topic? I’m thinking of books I’ve read which are drawn from oral histories and/or diaries and letters which the historian organises under themes that they devise and to which they contribute their analysis? Where is the line between authoring and editing – or are these almost completely straight oral history transcriptions organised under themes?


    • That is a very good question, and one that proper historians will no doubt address! But I would say, based on what is written in chapter 1 about the process, that it was the collaborative approach to organising the themes and the collection of stories which makes the book different. It doesn’t read like an history, it reads more like an anthology of stories and every contributor is named. The format is basically a one or two page introduction which sets the context for the chapter’s theme and the rest of it is given over to individual oral histories along with photos of people and memorabilia, and there is editorial intervention only to set context and occasionally to summarise the details of service or something like that (especially if the serviceman or woman has passed away).


      • Ah well, that does sound like they are more “editors” then. I felt that was probably how the book was presented from what you wrote but wanted to confirm. Thanks.


        • You’re right that it’s a fine line. I dithered over whether to include this in ILW because of that, but in the end opted for inclusion:)


          • I think that’s a good decision given the stories are in the indigenous people’s words.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. What an essential volume. (And excellent point about the way in which the injustice was perpetuated by removing the benefit of the land being potentially passed to descendants.) Thanks for posting – and hosting!


    • Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a book by an economist (one who could write in a reader-friendly way) who could quantify the effects of inheritance in our societies, and look at how it perpetuates the gulf between rich and poor over successive generations?


  6. The breaking up of the large Western District estates – many of which were 20-30,000 acres – for soldier settlement would have been an ideal opportunity to return land to the Indigenous people who had been gathered into the Condah and Framlingham settlements. (Some of the estates remain, so the opportunity is still there).


    • Yes, exactly. And also, if the Depression era stories about how so many of these soldier settlements failed and people walked away from them, I’d like to know what happened to that land afterwards. There’s bound to be an historian somewhere who’s done this work, but everything in my memory of it is framed from the perspective of the ‘poor soldier badly treated after the war’ though I couldn’t tell you where I read this.


      • The soldier settlement farms I knew of in the Western District seemed quite prosperous – it’s very good land. Dad, who was originally a Queenslander, spoke of the failures in the brigalow country, southern inland Qld, which was much more difficult country and I think some (many?) settlers there just walked away.

        I have a Marilyn Lake history of soldier settlement in my TBR which I keep meaning to read.


        • Ah, Marilyn Lake, well that would be the book to read.
          Dredging for remnants of memory, I think that most of what I know of it comes from the family history of the Ex, in Mallee country, which was/is a dustbowl in dry times. That lot all served, so maybe one or more of them actually had a soldier settlement which failed.


  7. […] people served in the armed forces of the regime which had dispossessed them.  (See my review here). This may have coloured my reading of the novel, but I was also curious about why Indigenous […]


  8. […] Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia, edit… […]


  9. […] Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia, edit… […]


  10. […] mining.  (I think the ADF is a key employer too, but that’s just an impression I have from my reading of Our Mob Served).  It would be more than just interesting to know how Indigenous economic participation has weathered […]


  11. […] Our Mob Served, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories of war and defending Australia, edit… […]


  12. […] see my ANZ LitLovers review […]


  13. […] of Aborigines who volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War. You can read more about this in my review of Our Mob Served, or better still, read the […]


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