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Think Piece: Indigenous Brothers in Arms

Thursday 3 November, 2016

michael_von_berg-2016Driving from Melbourne some time ago I listened to an ABC Radio program about the contribution indigenous Australians have made to Australia’s defence forces. I was aware that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers had fought in every war since European settlement, but had not considered that they also fought in the Boer War (1899-1902).

Considering the Commonwealth Electoral Act was only amended in 1962 to allow Aboriginal people the right to vote, and that they were not permitted on licensed premises until 1966-67, we need to consider what was driving these proud Australians to fight and die for a country that didn’t properly recognise their citizenship.

When you’re driving for some 8 hours there is plenty of time to reflect on such matters and hearing the program led me to think of all the indigenous soldiers I had the pleasure of serving with during my time in the Australian Army. The more I thought about the various individuals and their characteristics and foibles, the more I realised that I have always looked at these blokes as soldiers first, and at their indigenous background second, if indeed at all. I remember so many, and in every instance recall that not only were they good blokes, but bloody good soldiers.

Ray Orchard, who sadly passed away in 2013 – section commander in C Coy 5RAR first tour – was an exceptional soldier and one of the nicest blokes you could ever meet. “Darky” Wright a Corporal in 1RAR first tour – was as tough as teak and a damn fine rugby half. Zeke Mundine, a wonderful NCO and one of the real characters of 5RAR, though badly wounded in Vietnam during his second tour of duty, continued to serve in the Battalion as a CQMS. More importantly in his rugby days he used the “goose step” well before Campese, and had the crowd on the sideline in hysterics.

Lance Corporal Billy Rhodes, a West Australian who went to Vietnam with 1RAR on their first tour of duty, always had a twinkle in his eye and really enjoyed a good laugh. Corporal Ron Harris ex 1RAR and then SASR, was a fine SAS trooper who was killed in Vietnam.

There’s Stuey Yow Yeh, originally 1RAR who served in Vietnam on their first tour, and who later served with 8RAR on their first tour of Vietnam. When on the rugby pitch, as a winger, this mountain of a man frightened the daylights out of his own players, as much as he did the opposition. The Yow Yeh’s are a well-respected Kananka family hailing from Rockhampton. I had the pleasure of playing rugby with all of them, and not only were they good players, but good team men as well.

Massa Clarke – an absolute legend who has fought in every war since World War 2 was a professional Lance Corporal Ex 1RAR who served in Vietnam with 7Pl, C Coy, 7RAR and where on Operation Coburg, as a great natural tracker, found the enemy (and many of them) in what was to be one of 7RARs major battles.

Norm Womal MID – a great section commander and leader who was mortally wounded in the Nui Thi Vai Mountains in October 1966, was one of nature’s gentlemen. Had he lived and gone on with his Army career, he could have achieved anything. I will never forget that fateful day and the effect it had on the entire Battalion, and on me in particular – as Norm was one of my NCO’s.

I am sure there are many of us who share the same values, beliefs and experiences. It’s quite telling when something as innocuous as a radio program can set you up to recall some of the individuals you have served with as being indigenous first and soldier second – and yet when you served it was very much the other way around. I am just waiting for some self-righteous individual, with no idea of what we went through together, to suggest that the basis of this missive is somewhat racist when it’s quite obviously the opposite. What these people don’t get is that all soldiers are colour blind!  You don’t look for colour. You just look for that mate to protect your back or to get you out when you’re in a bit of a tight spot. Within a military fighting environment the only colour is that of your Battalion Colours and your lanyard and the respect for all beside you who wear it.

As we move through the many and varied commemorations and projects of the Anzac Centenary it is appropriate to support the Register of Aboriginal Veterans South Australia (RAVSA) Committee, which is seeking to have the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Memorial at Torrens Parade Ground recognised as a National Memorial. South Australia can be proud of the fact that it is the first dedicated memorial to these brave men and women who fought for this nation in difficult circumstances, both pre and post-Vietnam.

Society as a whole owes an enormous debt to the many thousands of indigenous soldiers who fought and died for their country in the past. I am immensely proud in my own small way to have served with some of the greatest soldiers and individuals I have been privileged enough to come to know, and I encourage us all to stop and consider the incredible contribution that has been made by our indigenous brothers and sisters against the odds.


Mike von Berg served with the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment before attending Officer Cadet School, Portsea, graduating in 1965. In 1966/67 he saw active service in Vietnam with Reconnaissance Platoon, 5RAR during which time he was awarded the Military Cross. This was followed by service in the Special Air Service Regiment, Commandos, and Staff Postings before resigning his commission in 1973.  Mike lived, studied and worked in the UK, Germany, Austria, USA, South Africa and Kenya before returning to Australia in 1984 to take up his position as a director of The Hardy Wine Company. He established his own strategic management consultancy in 1991, which operated for some 20 years before retiring in 2011. Mike is the President of the RAR Association (SA). He is also the National Chairman of the RAR Corporation and Council, and a member of the Ex Service Organisation Round Table (ESORT) at federal level. He currently sits on the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Veterans’ Mental Health and on South Australia’s Veterans Advisory Council. He is a life and hall of fame member of South Australian Rugby Union, and past director of the Australian Rugby Union. Mike was recently awarded an OAM for his services to Rugby. 

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