Aboriginal Diggers 'couldn't even get a beer in a pub'

Thursday is one of the days on the Australian calendar that is more sacred than many religious holidays. Even McDonald's closes its doors until after 11am to honour the men and women who served and are still serving Australia in theatres of war.

The steps of the Australian War Memorial will be crowded with those wanting to pay their respects, honour the dead and remind us of that famous battle in Gallipoli on April 25, 1915.

A 10-minute walk away from the iconic dome of the war memorial, a smaller, less well-known commemoration will also have its share of people paying their respects. The small plaque on a boulder in the bush is dedicated to the Australian Aboriginal soldiers who have lost their lives in battle in every war in which Australia has participated, but whom most Australians know little about.

In fact, it wasn't until 2007 that most Australians were aware of Australia's Coloured Diggers when they held their own Anzac Day March in Redfern rather than be forced to walk at the rear of the traditional Anzac Day march because of outdated government policies in war times that failed to recognise the role of Aboriginal Australians in war efforts.

About 500 Aboriginal people served in World War I. In World War II there were about 5000 Aboriginal Diggers but accurate numbers might never be known because the official lists of enlisted men contain only names not cultural backgrounds. In fact, many Aboriginal men who enlisted had to denounce their Aboriginal heritage, claiming to be Maori.

During both wars, Aboriginal men and women who tried to enlist were rejected and sent back to their communities or often arrested because they were not allowed to leave prescribed areas.

Even today there are few war memorials that recognise Aboriginal Australians.

However, following the 2007 Coloured Diggers March, a groundswell of support for our indigenous war veterans began. In two years, in time to celebrate the centenary of the Anzac legend, there will hopefully be a memorial in Sydney's Hyde Park that will showcase the efforts of Aboriginal Australians in our military history.

The Coloured Diggers Project won't just recognise the Aboriginal Australian soldiers, but also serve as a reminder of what these brave men had to endure after they returned.

They were not only denied the recognition afforded to non-indigenous soldiers but also the same rights their comrades in arms were granted. They did not receive a war pension, were not allowed to join RSL clubs and some men even came back to find their children had been taken from them.

The nephew of Australia's most famous Aboriginal soldier, Captain Reg Saunders MBE, said when his uncle came back from serving in Korea, "he couldn't even get a beer in a pub, let alone a pension, and he wasn't permitted to become a citizen until 1968".

Coloured Digger co-founder Pastor Ray Minniecon said when the project was started in 2008: "We must also remember what happened to them when they came back and that it's not glossed over: they struggled overseas fighting bullets, then came back to Australia and had to fight racism." 

The Sydney memorial is to be built in Hyde Park South, a place of great cultural significance to the Eora nation as a ritual contest ground. As part of this project, an Aboriginal history of Hyde Park will be compiled.

So while you're waving your Australian flag at the men and women marching down your local streets on Thursday, remember the forgotten soldiers who died for our freedom - lest we forget.

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