Pride of Place
This article was originally published in the March 2019 Edition of Reveille.
By Luke Ryan
Camaraderie and mateship are the words that Uncle Harry Allie keeps coming back to when he talks about his life in the service. A Gudjala man from Charters Towers, a once-legendary gold rush town located 130km west of Townsville, Harry spent 23 years in the air force, becoming a highly decorated warrant officer, before dedicating his life to the elevation and further recognition of our nation’s oft-forgotten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women.
It’s a mission driven by his own love of the service and what it offered him at a time when Aboriginal people were still denied many of the basic opportunities of civil society. “We could count on one hand the amount of Indigenous men and women that were in the air force back then,” he tells me. “But the mateship was strong and they always supported me. The strong help the weak, and the weak help the strong. That’s the way it is in the service. It binds you.”
For Harry, now 76 and living in south-west Sydney, this connection to service runs back generations. “My Uncle Charlie served in World War I and II, my Uncle William was in the army and my Aunty Martha served in the Women’s Land Army,” Harry explains. “Even my father took up with the Civil Constructional Corps during World War II.” His grandmother’s house gave pride of place to photos of her children in uniform. “The only time they were taken down was when a new wedding photo came on the scene,” he laughs.
Entering the service had always been on Harry’s mind, but he was adamant that he wanted to do something different. “Back in the ’50s and ’60s, there was a real belief that the navy and air force wouldn’t enlist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he tells me. The chief impediment was usually education. “All us Indigenous boys left school at 14 back then. The focus was on bringing in more money to help the family.”
A bright student at school, Harry was encouraged by his principal to take the Post Office exam, with a view to becoming a telegram boy. He passed, yet soon received a stark reminder of his place in the hierarchy when a white mother came to berate the Post Master for giving Harry the position over her son. “I poked my head out to see what was happening,” Harry recalls, “and heard him telling her, ‘Harold came seventh in the exam, and your son came eighth.’ And that was the end of it. I’ve always felt very thankful for the diligence of that Post Master. He gave me the self-confidence to think that I could hold my own.”
After a decade working for the Postmaster General’s Department, Harry enlisted with the air force on 5 January 1966. (Even now, 53 years on, the date is firmly etched in Harry’s mind.) Given a role in the air force’s supply team, he stayed with the same mustering for the next 23 years, a period that included postings in Sale, Amberley, Laverton, Sydney, Perth, Townsville, the USA and Malaysia.
Eventually attaining the rank of warrant officer, Harry at different times served in the air force’s radio school, stores depot and publication unit and as a contractor liaison, as well as helping to transport the first batch of F-111s from America to Australia in 1973. He never flew a plane himself, yet his career is testament to the efforts of quiet men at every level of service. Towards the end of his career, Harry was awarded the British Empire Medal. “To be honoured like that when my job at the time was about maintaining morale and ensuring that my subordinates were going forward like a big family meant everything to me.”
Harry’s pride in his service and his gratitude for the dignity and opportunity offered by the air force are perhaps easy to understand, given that when he first enlisted, Indigenous Australians were still not allowed to vote. “Things were different outside the fence,” he tells me. “One time when I was in Adelaide during recruit training, I was refused service at a pub. I told my mates – there were eight of us – and they said, ‘Come on, we’ll buy the beers. And if they get to you and say they can’t serve you, we’ll all walk out. But we’ll have seven beers first.’ But that was the mateship. Even after fifty-odd years, we get together and we can still talk about yesterday like it was today.”
While the Australian Defence Force has a better track record than many when it comes to the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – for instance, it offered Indigenous soldiers equal conditions and pay during World War II – there are still glaring omissions in our understanding of Indigenous service to this country. Case-in-point: no-one knows exactly how many Indigenous people served in World War II; the best guess is around 8,000. Worse, many of those who did serve returned to great prejudice, being denied entry to their local RSLs and having pay and entitlements refused or stolen. “There are still elements of the wider population who believe that Aboriginal people never served,” says Harry. “People don’t understand the hardships that those coming from community had to endure.”
Starting during his time in the air force, Harry became an advocate for the recognition and honouring of the service provided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers, as well as providing new opportunities for the advancement of Indigenous people in all aspects of society.
Since he left the air force in 1989, Harry has (among many other things) worked for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and served as a member of the Gandangara Land Council, the NSW Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association and the Coloured Diggers Project, and in 2012 was made the first Indigenous Elder of the air force. “As they say in the classics, I’m not out barking at cars or chasing hubcaps,” he says. “It’s all about helping where we can help each other.”
The advocacy of people like Harry is having an impact. In 2017, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans were chosen to lead the ANZAC Day March for the first time, and Harry was front and centre – a moment that he describes as “an honour and a pleasure”. And on 28 March this year, the Australian War Memorial unveiled its first dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sculpture pavilion called For Our Country, a project that Harry has been intimately involved with.
“It’s about passing this information on to the next generation, so that hopefully there won’t be that lack of understanding,” he tells me. “And it’s to make us a better country as well.” For Harry, acknowledging the service of our Indigenous people and helping them to honour their own heritage goes hand-in-hand with the process of reconciliation.
“I always say to our people who are serving that you need to be proud of who you are and where you come from, because that’s what I’ve never forgotten over the years. I’ve never forgotten my country and who I am and who my mob are.”