NACCHO report: Anzac Day’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemoration Ceremony

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When freedom calls

Gunditjmara soldier Herbert Stahle Lovett served as a machine gunner on the Western Front during the First World War and then signed up again for the Second World War. After returning from service his father was denied land under a Soldier Settlement Scheme administered by the Victorian Government, despite meeting all of the selection criteria. He watched on as his traditional homeland around Lake Condah was divided and distributed to white soldiers.

Picture above: From right John Lovett (son of  Herbert Stahle Lovett who fought in two world wars) Royal Australian Navy veteran (35 years) Gary Oakley and Dave Arden (great nephew of Lt Reg Saunders)

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Lance Corporal Kathleen Jean Mary (Kath) Walker, (Ooderoo Noomuccal) and Lt Reg Saunders

Report on the Anzac Day Commemoration Ceremony April 25 2013

Thank you to Ian Warden Columnist for The Canberra Times for most of this narrative /Photos and Video Colin Cowell NACCHO media

As if the bush setting on the slopes of Mount Ainslie wasn’t already  authentic enough, a big mob of kangaroos bounded past the clearing where we all  (about 250 of us) were gathered for the Anzac Day Aboriginal And Torres Strait  Islander Commemoration Ceremony.

We didn’t see any echidnas but master of ceremonies Garth O’Connell swore  he’d seen one there one Anzac Day and that it was a good place for snakes  too.

“They’re in bed. It’s too cold for them!” one of the many beanie-wearers  ventured. Yes, as the sky lightened (the ceremony began at 6.30am, giving people  time to troop up to this modest occasion from the grand occasion of the Dawn  Service at the Australian War Memorial) the still air had some bracingly  Siberian qualities about it

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association  is beginning to lobby for a grander memorial than the simple one we were meeting  at.

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The present one is modest to the point of being almost obscure. There are no  signs pointing to it (until you’re almost upon it) and the path up to it from  behind the Australian War Memorial is narrow and steep, the kind of track  favoured by the sorts of runners and joggers who like to torture themselves.

After about 250 metres of this, a signposted path veers left and 70 metres  later you are in a small bush clearing not as big as a tennis court and beside  which, in an outcrop of lichen-upholstered boulders, there’s a plaque indicating  that this place is the memorial.

There are just two park benches there and ANZAC DAYS congregation (arriving  in single file to the tuneful growlings Jeff Timbery’s didgeridoo) filled the  clearing and then also spilled and arranged itself among the trees and the  boulders.

The contrast with the spaciousness and grandeur of the Australian War  Memorial and its surrounds was extreme and yet the simplicity and intimacy and  leafiness of the space was really rather lovely.

When the one magpie there warbled and trilled and when the one raven there  sighed these soloists felt like our little event’s very own magpie and raven  performing just for us. The mob of kangaroos (some of its members beefy and  enormous), hurtling uphill, felt like our very own mob and certainly gave us  something the Dawn Service clientele had missed out on.

Bemedalled Royal Australian Navy veteran (35 years) Gary Oakley, gave the  Commemorative Address, giving it very informally, conversationally and  engagingly. He works at the Australian War Memorial now on the history of  indigenous service in the Australian Defence Force.

“I always tells people the ADF was the first equal opportunity employer of  indigenous Australians, and it was … In the Western Mail in 1932 it  was said that ‘The A.I.F.  judges a man not by his colour but by his worth,’  which I think sums it up about indigenous service in the ADF.

“We [indigenous people] have been in uniform now, for, golly!, since before  Federation. Now, you wonder why we serve. I ask myself that question. In my case  I joined [at 15] because I wanted a job, because I wanted to see the world, I  wanted to do things. But what went through the heads of [indigenous] people in  1914?  I mean, you’re not a citizen of your own country. You’ve really got no  rights. And yet you fly to the colours! Why?

“One of my jobs at the War Memorial is to research the over 1000 Aboriginal  people who joined up in the First World War … and out of that 1000, over 100  were killed. That’s a big percentage. And of that 1000 some 22 or 23 won awards  for bravery, including two winners of the DCM (the poor man’s VC). As a people  we punch well above out weight.

“But why did they join? The wages for a start. Six shillings a day was good  money, especially when you consider the average British soldier got six  shillings a week. So for us it was probably a chance to send money home as  well.

“But there was also the possibility that after the war when you came back  home you’d be looked upon as something different, that people might [at last]  look upon your race of people differently.”

Oakley told us, to the soft accompaniment of our virtuoso magpie, that in the  Great War records of indigenous people he finds a great determination to enlist,  against all the odds (some medical officers knocked them back because they  suffered the “affliction” of being Aboriginal) with some men trying again and  again and even going interstate to try to clear more sympathetic hurdles.

“And you wonder why the hell would they do that? After all some of them are  nearly traditional or they’re one generation away from being traditional.  They’ve been disenfranchised. But they’re warriors. They want to serve. They  want to prove themselves. And prove themselves they did … We [indigenous  people] have been in this game [wearing the nation’s uniforms] a long time.  We’ve served this country honourably and nobly, though the country hasn’t served  us honourably and nobly at every stage. But it’s changing.”

He said that the ADF had changed considerably, too, and that he was proud,  now, of the way the ADF looked at its indigenous men and women; and that with  that he’d stop because he knew we were all freezing and needed to get on with  things.

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Flight Sergeant Mick Enchong,Trooper Jason Enchong and LACW Tara Enchong at the Anzac Day Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemoration Ceremony

The things got on with included the laying of wreaths and poppies at the  ceremonial stones with people coming and going to the soulful yodellings of the  didgeridoo. The bright red poppies contrasted beautifully with the grey/green  lichen of the rocks. One young woman placed among the wreaths a framed portrait  of a touchingly boyish-looking young man in uniform.

There were no hymns and prayers and the God so much involved and invoked in  the Dawn Service was not bothered at all in this ceremony. But Dave Arden sang,  to his guitar accompaniment, a hymn-like song Freedom Called he’d  co-written with the famous Paul Kelly.


And Garth O’Connell recited, as if it were scripture, the passionate WW2 poem  The Coloured Digger that a non-Aboriginal servicemen wrote to honour an  Aboriginal soldier he knew in New Guinea. It’s feisty sentiments rang in our  chilly little glade, and included:

Poem “The Coloured digger”

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He came and joined the colours, when the War God’s anvil rang,

He took up modern weapons to replace his boomerang,

He waited for no call-up, he didn’t need a push,

He came in from the stations, and the townships of the bush.

He helped when help was wanting, just because he wasn’t deaf ;

He is right amongst the columns of the fighting A.I.F.

He is always there when wanted, with his Owen gun or Bren,

He is in the forward area, the place where men are men.

He proved he’s still a warrior, in action not afraid,

He faced the blasting red hot fire from mortar and grenade;

He didn’t mind when food was low, or were getting thin,

He didn’t growl or worry then, he’d cheer us with his grin.

He’d heard us talk democracy, they preach it to his face

Yet knows that in our Federal House there’s no one of his race.

He feels we push his kinsmen out, where cities do not reach,

And Parliament has yet to hear the Abo’s maiden speech.

One day he will leave the Army, then join the League he shall,

And he hope’s well give a better deal to the Aboriginal.

The author, sapper Bert Beros was a non-Aboriginal soldier. This poem was written about an Aboriginal soldier whom he met in New Guinea, Private Harold West of the 2/1st Battalion AIF.

After our heartfelt “We will remember them,” the one minute’s silence was  especially deep and profound up there on Mount Ainslie’s bushy slopes although  our very own raven did mutter to himself a little during it.

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Lt Reg Saunders

25 November 1944, Lieutenant (Lt) Tom “Driver” Derrick, VC DCM (right) shaking hands with Lt Reg Saunders (left), as they congratulate each other following their successful graduation from the Officer’s  Cadet Training Unit at Seymour, Victoria Lt Saunders was the first Aboriginal commissioned in the Australian Army and later served with further distinction during the Korean War. He later became the first Aboriginal Council member of the Australian War Memorial. Reg is the great uncle of   Mr David Arden


Lance Corporal Kathleen Jean Mary (Kath) Walker

Studio portrait of Lance Corporal Kathleen Jean Mary (Kath) Walker, of Stradbroke Island, QLD Kath Walker enlisted in 1942 with the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS). She later changed her name to Ooderoo Noomuccal and is a well known and respected Australian poet, actress, writer, teacher, artist and campaigner for Aboriginal rights. Oodgeroo was best known for her poetry and was the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse. Two of her brothers were captured at Singapore in 1942 .

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association (ATSIVSA)

This commemorative ceremony is conducted to remember those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who have served in the Australian forces since federation in 1901.

It is hosted by members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association an Indigenous Veterans Advocacy group, and is open to all members of the public. ATSIVSA wishes to thank the Australian War Memorial the Returned and Services League and the Department of Veterans Affairs for their support of our Association and with the conduct of this ceremony today. Thank you also to the various media outlets for their live coverage of the ceremony again.

For further information contact Mr. Gary Oakley National President ATSIVSA on 02  62434532 or email

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