Australia in the 1940s

Indigenous war service

Many Indigenous people enlisted in the Australian Defence Force at the beginning of the Second World War; however, in 1940 the Defence Committee stated that Indigenous enlistment was 'neither necessary nor desirable'. It was not until Japan entered the war that Indigenous people were again encouraged to enlist. It is difficult to estimate how many Indigenous men and women enlisted as Australian Defence Force enlistment forms did not allow for Indigenous people to declare their heritage until 1980.

Indigenous service people were also employed as labourers performing vital tasks for the military. They salvaged crashed aircraft, located unexploded bombs, built roads and airfields and assisted in the delivery of civilian and military supplies.

Many Indigenous people served in the regular armed forces during the Second World War and a smaller number in irregular units. In northern Australia, there were Special Reconnaissance Units made up almost exclusively of Indigenous people. The Indigenous people who served in those units were not formally enlisted and were not paid. It was not until 1992 that they were finally awarded medals and remuneration.

Lieutenant Reginald (Reg) Saunders was the first known Aboriginal commissioned officer. He was commissioned in the Australian Army after his graduation from the Officers Cadet Training Unit at Seymour, Victoria, on 25 November 1944. He served as a lieutenant and later a captain.

A snapshot of 1948

  • January
    • Employees working under the Federal Award System begin working a 40-hour week.

  • May
    • The Housing Commission in Melbourne holds its first ballot to allocate new homes for families of returned servicemen.

  • June
    • The federal government ends the rationing of meat and clothing.

  • August
    • The federal government's legislation to nationalise private banks is declared invalid by the High Court.

  • October
    • The first Australian Holden motor car comes off the assembly line and becomes a symbol of Australian prosperity.

  • December
    • Dr Herbert Vere Evatt (1894–1965), former minister for external affairs and attorney-general, is elected president of the General Assembly of the United Nations.


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