Think Piece: Recalling the lesser known Indigenous War-time legacy

Source: Group Captain Greg Weller, published on Thursday 1 June, 2017

Approximately 3000 Aboriginals and 850 Torres Strait Islanders served in Australia’s armed forces during World War II. Despite this contribution, few Australians would know about the Indigenous soldiers, airmen or sailors from World War II. From the RAAF perspective, Indigenous airmen who served in World War II made significant contributions and have become part of the legacy that today’s Australian Defence Force embraces and builds upon.  This Think Piece briefly recounts the deeds and sacrifices of three relatively unknown Indigenous RAAF airmen who served in World War 2.

Born at Euraba Mission in far northern New South Wales in 1924, Leonard Waters grew up in country south-west Queensland. He left school at 14 during the Great Depression, and had to work with his father as a ring-barker and a shearer. Inspired at an early age by the exploits of aviation pioneers such as Kingsford-Smith, Hinkler, Lindbergh and Johnson, Waters volunteered for the RAAF in August 1942. Initially trained as an aircraft mechanic, he was accepted into aircrew training in December 1943. Fearing his education would preclude him from becoming a pilot, he studied tirelessly to enhance his chances of being selected for his preferred category. His efforts paid off when he was selected for pilot training after his initial training.

Waters converted to P-40 Kittyhawk aircraft at 2 Operational Training Unit at Mildura and was then posted to 78 Squadron. Based at Noemfoor, Dutch East Indies, the squadron flew ground attack missions against the Japanese on neighbouring islands. Between November 1944 and August 1945, Waters flew 95 operational sorties in an aircraft that had been named ‘Black Magic’ by a previous pilot—a name that Waters found appropriate and retained. On one sortie, a 37mm anti-aircraft artillery shell hit his aircraft and failed to detonate, lodging itself behind his head at the rear of the canopy. Showing great courage and airmanship, Waters continued flying for another two hours before safely returning to base. By the end of his operational tour, Waters had been promoted to flight sergeant and was leading missions on a regular basis. Promoted to warrant officer at the end of the war, he declined the opportunity to deploy to Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force and left the Air Force. Unfortunately, despite showing immense interest in establishing a regional civil airline, he could not obtain financial or Government support.  After the war, he never flew again, eventually returning to shearing.

A lesser-known Indigenous RAAF pilot, David Paul, served with distinction in the European Theatre during World War II. Born in 1920 in Sydney, Paul did not disclose his Indigenous heritage (his great grandmother was Aboriginal) until after the war. Like Waters, Paul left school at 14 to become a drover. With the declaration of war in 1939, he saw his future in the RAAF and enrolled at a local technical college to improve his education. Paul enlisted in January 1941 and travelled to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for training under the Empire Air Training Scheme.

In late 1941, having successfully completed pilot training, Paul was posted to 454 Squadron where he conducted maritime patrol missions over the Aegean Sea for the next two years. In December 1943 on the final sortie of his operational tour, Paul’s Baltimore Bomber was shot down by two German Bf 109F fighters. Despite his aircraft’s fuel tanks bursting into flames, Paul successfully ditched the aircraft and swam through flames to rescue another crew member. Three surviving aircrew, including Paul, were captured by German forces. Following initial interrogation, they were made prisoners of war in a German Stalag. Paul’s family learned of his fate three months after his aircraft was shot down.

Paul was well respected and experienced, being one of 454 Squadron’s initial cadre of pilots when it formed. His Commanding Officer recalled him as one of the squadron’s most outstanding pilots. Paul was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his outstanding actions over numerous missions, often in the face of aggressive enemy attacks. The citation noted his outstanding leadership, initiative and determination.  Returning to Australia after the war, David Paul had a distinguished career with the New South Wales Police Force and served as a squadron leader in the RAAF Reserve until his death in 1973.

The account of Flight Sergeant Arnold Lockyer provides a more sobering example of the sacrifices made by Indigenous members during World War II. Lockyer joined the RAAF in May 1942 at 27 years old and served as an aircraft mechanic with No 17 Repair and Salvage Unit at Cunderdin, Western Australia. Like Waters and Paul, Lockyer wanted to fly, so in 1944, he applied for and successfully completed flight engineer training on B-24 Liberator bombers at Tocumwal, New South Wales.

Promoted to sergeant, Lockyer was posted to 24 Squadron in April 1945 as a flight engineer, and saw service in the Northern Territory, Morotai, Netherlands East Indies and Balikpapan. While based at Morotai on 27 July, Lockyer temporarily joined the crew of a 21 Squadron Liberator as flight engineer for a photo-reconnaissance mission over the Celebes. When his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire, Lockyer was one of three aircrew to successfully parachute from the doomed aircraft, only to be captured by Japanese soldiers. One of the aircrew was killed by their captors the following day. Lockyer and the other crewmember were interrogated and imprisoned near Manado, in what is now Sulawesi, Indonesia. In a cruel and tragic twist, they were executed by Japanese soldiers on 21 August 1945—six days after the Japanese surrender.

The accounts of Waters, Paul and Lockyer are inspiring but little known. They highlight the proud heritage that the RAAF and Australian Defence Force has inherited with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders serving with distinction in World War II. In this respect, their service provides a rich and strong legacy not only for Indigenous Australians, but for the Australian nation and thus, should be embraced as examples of Australian courage, determination and sacrifice. As we commemorate the Centenary of ANZAC, it is important to uncover the lesser known deeds and sacrifices of all Australians including our Indigenous soldiers, airmen and sailors, as they will only enrich the proud legacy that the Australian Defence Force and Australian nation is entrusted with today.

Lest we Forget.


Greg Weller joined the RAAF in 1989 as an Intelligence Officer. Career highlights include operational service in both East Timor and the Middle East and an Exchange Officer posting at the Joint Intelligence Centre Pacific (US Pacific Command). Greg has completed a range of command and staff officer positions including Commanding Officer No 87 Squadron, Air Force Intelligence Squadron, and is currently the Chief of Staff, Air Warfare Centre, RAAF Edinburgh. He holds a Bachelor of Arts, Master of Defence Studies, and Graduate Diploma in Management, and is a graduate of the Australian Command and Staff College. Greg was awarded a Chief of Air Force Commendation in 2011 for his contribution to Air Force joint doctrine.