Pat Ansell-Dodds displays the war medals earned by her father Private Jack Dodd.
Pat Ansell-Dodds displays the war medals earned by her father Private Jack Dodd. Glenn Morrison

Remembering all who served on Anzac Day

AT THE Anzac Day dawn service in Alice Springs, a town so often called the Australian frontier, there is usually little sign of the racial divide said to permeate the outback community.

On Anzac Day, Aboriginal Australians are just Australians.

If that seems trite, consider what it means for our country.

Aboriginal Australians served in virtually every conflict and peace-keeping mission undertaken by this country's armed services from the Boer War on.

Even when non-Europeans were banned from the armed forces, roughly 500 Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders served in the First World War.

That is quite an undertaking, given Australia did not recognise Aboriginals as citizens until 1967.

Still, many enlisted, and for a host of reasons, though the exact number of indigenous Australians serving in Australian wars remains unknown.

In fact, little was known of the indigenous contribution to Australia's defence generally until well into the twentieth century.

Ethnicity wasn't recorded when joining up, and recruiters didn't care about the colour of your skin so much as a willingness to put your life on the line for your country.

And in the trenches of Gallipoli and other conflict zones, skin colour was soon forgotten.

As the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies notes: "The misconceptions and negative stereotypes that surely many non-Aboriginal diggers had in their minds when they joined would have quickly disappeared when they were living, eating, laughing and dying with these young fellas."

Upon returning home, however, the benefits extended to non-Aboriginal soldiers, such as the "Soldier Settlement Scheme", were not available to indigenous soldiers.

To make matters worse, indigenous Australians remember many other conflicts that go largely unacknowledged by the nation.

A long precolonial warrior tradition and history of inter-group conflict (though not full-blown wars) led to many indigenous groups resisting European settlement and at a range of levels, from hit and run raids to pitched battles. Frontier warfare in Australia generally lasted some 20 to 30 years, longer in the Centre, where police and others continued to ride out to "teach the blacks a lesson" into the late 1920s.

Despite such events, Aboriginals employed as guides and trackers still sometimes became soldiers, and by federation several were serving in South Africa.

Others served during the First World War at Gallipoli, on the Western Front and in the Middle East, and some were decorated for outstanding actions.

As historian John Moremon notes for the Australian Government Department of Veterans Affairs: "Corporal Albert Knight, 43rd Battalion, and Private William Irwin, 33rd Battalion, were each awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal - second only to the Victoria Cross for men in their ranks - and others the Military Medal.

"Private William Rawlings, 29th Battalion, was awarded his Military Medal for 'rare bravery in the performance of his duty' in July 1917. He was killed in action the following year."

In the Second World War, some 3000 Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders served in the armed forces.

And indigenous women also enlisted, notably Kathleen Ruska, of the Noonuccal people of Stradbroke Island, who joined the Australian Women's Army Service, and later became known as Kath Walker, the celebrated poet.

Some in the north joined "irregular units" that patrolled the coastline and "searched for crashed enemy and Allied airmen."

"Men in these units were not formally enlisted, and it took over four decades for their services to be recognised. At least 3000 others worked for the military as labourers," Mr Moremon writes.

One of those soldiers was Central Australian Private Jack Ansell, a cattle hand at Undoolya Station and some-time boxer in his younger days.

Born in 1911, (though he later told an interviewer 1917), Jack joined the Native Labour Corps No 11 on June 30, 1941. He transferred to the AIF on January 2, 1942 and saw active duty in Papua New Guinea, served in the 25, 27 and 28 Works Companies in the Northern Territory, and then the No 9 Australian Docks Company in Melbourne, where he would win a boxing match against the Americans.

On return to Australia, Jack married a girl in South Australia and started a family.

One of his daughters, Patricia (Pat) Perrule Ansell-Dodds, 69, an Eastern Arrernte and Ametjere woman living in Alice Springs, remembers asking a lot of questions of Jack when she was young, but not getting too many answers.

"He never talked about anything much," says Pat. "But I was very close to him.

"He worked hard all his life and I looked after him when he got old.

"I used to ask a lot of questions, but he didn't like to be reminded − I thought something must have happened to him."

Even so, every Anzac Day Jack would march with the veterans.

"Every year he'd walk up Todd Street. In later years, I'd take him up in a car, up Anzac Hill, when he couldn't walk.

"A couple of times the Army took him up."

After Jack died in the 1980s, his marching on Anzac Day led Pat to the NT archives to retrieve his service records, which she proudly displays today.

"I was shocked: I went to the archives and found all this information."

Then Pat met a curio salesman in Adelaide who helped her find the medals Jack was due, which are the Pacific Star for operational service in the Pacific Theatre, the Australian Service Medal, the British War Medal and the 39/45 Star for service in the Second World War.

This year, Pat's nephew, Ian McAdam, will wear the medals and march in honour of Jack.

"This is the second year Ian has marched," says Pat.

"Lockie Dodds-Watson, my grandson, marched one year for his great-grandfather."

Pat still goes to the march every year, but doesn't go in it.

"I just stand there and see; his name's on the honour roll at the RSL, he's one of the first."

Indigenous Australians continue to serve their country in its armed forces.

Late last year an exhibit depicting the contribution of Australia's first people to its war efforts was opened at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. On this, Pat remains philosophical.

"Well, they've got a monument in Canberra recognising Aboriginal people.

"It took a long time coming; it's about time they recognised that."

The Canberra exhibition, For Country, For Nation, is open until September 20.

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