Up until the 1990s, there was no Indigenous identification process in the Defence Force so researchers may never know exactly how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women served during wartime. They fought alongside colonial troops sent to the Boer War between 1899 and 1902 and it has been suggested at least 1,000 First Nations peoples served in the Great War and 5,000 Indigenous Australians served in the Second World War. Enlistment restrictions based on race were abandoned in 1949 and Indigenous Australians went on to serve in Korea, Malaya, Borneo, and Vietnam. They continue to serve with the Australian Defence Force in conflicts and operations around the world.
It must also be noted tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were killed during the Frontier Wars that began in 1788 and, have suffered experiences of political and social inequalities, Indigenous Australians were not considered Australian citizens until 1967.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service people were not respected as veterans and did not have their service recognised. They were denied access to schemes that provided returning soldiers with land and job opportunities, had their income and pensions quarantined and were denied access to military funerals and Returned and Service League (RSL) clubs. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ex-servicemen and ex-servicewomen were only granted voting rights in 1949.
Pastor Ray Minniecon, a descendant of the Kabi nation and the Gureng nation of South-East Queensland and a descendant of the South Sea Islander people with strong connections to his people of Ambrym Island, wanted to draw attention to the history of our Aboriginal veterans.
Ray served with the 51st Battalion in the Citizens Military Forces. His two brothers served in Vietnam and relatives served in other conflicts. His grandfather Private James Lingwoodock served with the 11th Light Horse Brigade during the Great War.
In 2006, Minniecon co-founded the Coloured Digger Project with Chris Carben and Warren “Pig” Morgan.
The Coloured Digger Project takes its name from a Second World War poem written by Bert Beros in tribute to Aboriginal servicemen. Beros was a non-Aboriginal combat engineer or “Sapper” who served on the Kokoda Track. His words were inspired by Private Harold West and penned at the Donadabu Rest Camp near Port Moresby during the War.
Murrawarri man Harold West and George Leonard (Euahlayi Nation) enlisted together on 23 August 1941 and were posted to the 2/1st Battalion to serve in the Middle East, Ceylon, and Papua New Guinea. In October 1942 Leonard was killed in action while serving along the Kokoda Trail. West sought revenge and would separate from his unit for days at a time to hunt and destroy Japanese machine-gun posts. He did this for weeks until breaking his leg and then contracting scrub typhus while in hospital. He died soon after.
Both West and Leonard are buried in the Bomana War Cemetry in Port Moresby, Papual New Guinea
The Coloured Digger written by Sapper H. E. Bert Beros NX6925
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 we 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 Aborigine’s maiden speech.
One day he’ll leave the Army, then join the League he shall,
And he hopes we’ll give a better deal to the Aboriginal.
Critics asked why Aboriginal people needed their own march. It was thought a march would be a good vehicle to make the general population aware of the merits of Aboriginal war veterans and pay them their due honours, recognition, and respect.
"Honouring the service contribution of Indigenous Australians to the nation is a vital part of the reconciliation process and will feed into new and richer understandings about Australian identity and history."
(Uncle Harry Allie 'Indigenous veterans the focus of research', Koori Mail 501, p.28)
Ray Minniecon proudly led the first Coloured Diggers March on Anzac Day in 2007. Hundreds of Aboriginal veterans and their descendants marched from The Block at noon, along Redfern Street to St Saviour’s Church. Supporters lined the rainy streets of Redfern shouting, “Good on ya fellas!” and handed out sprigs of rosemary for remembrance. A traditional Aboriginal smoking ceremony and welcome dance were performed at St Saviour’s Church.1
Pastor Ray Minniecon shared the history of the Coloured Diggers March and what Anzac Day means for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men and women with the University of Sydney on Anzac Day eve in 2021.
The Babana Aboriginal Men’s Group works tirelessly to coordinate and deliver the Coloured Diggers March and Ceremony each year thanks to the passion and drive of Babana's Chairperson, Mr. Mark Spink. In 2021 the Coloured Diggers March was cancelled to protect participants and the public from COVID-19. Instead, the community was invited to Redfern Park at 3pm for a special Anzac Day Haka and Corroboree by members of the Tribal Warrior Association and Haka For Life. The performances were followed by a wreath-laying ceremony. ABC Sydney filmed the activities watch the video
“The Coloured Diggers events on Anzac Day allow the local community to come together to recognise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers, sailors and airmen have fought in every world war and pay respects and honour them. It's an affirmation of community, family and mateship.” Pastor Ray Minniecon
1 "First ever march for Coloured Diggers", South Sydney Herald May 2007 reproduced on Red Watch, accessed 19 June 2021 on http://www.redwatch.org.au/media/070501sshe/
"Anzac Day & Aboriginal Service People", Deadly Story, accessed 18 June 2021 https://www.deadlystory.com/page/culture/articles/anzac-day-2018
Bibby, P "Indigenous veterans march for history", The Age, April 17, 2007 accessed 18 June 2021 https://www.theage.com.au/national/indigenous-veterans-march-for-history-20070417-ge4ohm.html
"Coloured Diggers", Redfern Oral History - Community stories from Redfern and Surrounds, accessed 18 June 2021http://redfernoralhistory.org/Organisations/Coloureddiggers/
"The Frontier Wars", Common Ground, accessed 18 June 2021 https://www.commonground.org.au/learn/the-frontier-wars
Korff, J , "Anzac Day Coloured Digger march", accessed 18 June 2021 https://www.creativespirits.info/aboriginalculture/history/anzac-day-coloured-digger-march
Riches, T, "Hiding the Truth: Honouring the Coloured Diggers - A Conversation with Ray Minniecon" ABC Religion & Ethics, accessed 18 June 2021 https://www.abc.net.au/religion/hiding-the-truth-honouring-the-coloured-diggers---a-conversation/10097060