Len Waters was Australia’s first and only known Indigenous fighter pilot during World War II. (Supplied: Australian War Memorial)
Len Waters was Australia’s first and only known Indigenous fighter pilot during World War II.
He achieved the unthinkable, flying an elite fighter Kittyhawk — aptly named Black Magic — for the Royal Australian Air Force.
Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following story contains images and names of people who have died.
But like many of the estimated 3,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who served during the Second World War, Mr Waters returned home as a forgotten hero.
Mr Waters flew 95 operational sorties with 78 Squadron from 1943 to 1945 but when he returned home, he became a ‘missing man’ in Australia’s wartime history.
It remained this way until his death in Cunnamulla, in western Queensland, in 1993.
But now, Len Waters’ story will be told in the book Missing Man by author Peter Rees.
Mr Rees and the extended Waters family held a book launch at Len Waters Place at Inala this week, which drew a crowd of about 300 people.
Peter Rees has written a book about Len Waters, Australia’s first and only known Indigenous fighter pilot during World War II. (ABC Southern Queensland: Sophie Volker)
A story that ‘had to be written’
Peter Rees first decided to write about Mr Waters when he heard that Badgery’s Creek Airport at Sydney could be named after the fighter pilot.
He said Mr Waters’ story had “intrigued” him.
“An Indigenous fighter pilot. The first and only. What an extraordinary feat in 1940s Australia,” Mr Rees said.
“This was a story I did not know; it just had to be written. This book is about the power of one — one man’s life, one man’s story.
“Through the lens of one man’s life, the larger story of racial discrimination and its ramifications for Indigenous people, generally, could be brought home to the Australian community in a very personal way.
“A man who breaks through the barriers of poverty, racial discrimination and limited schooling to realise a boyhood dream to fly.”
Kevin Waters, brother of World War II Indigenous fighter pilot Len Waters, says his brother had hoped to set up a regional aviation service in south-west Queensland when he returned from the war. (ABC Southern Queensland: Sophie Volker)
It was just ‘the way it was’
Mr Waters’ brother Kevin, who still lives in St George, Queensland, said he was very proud of how things had changed in Australia since he was young.
“Things are so much easier now than they were back in my days. As I say, you were a Murri and you kept your place. That’s the way it was,” said Mr Waters.
According to Mr Waters, when his brother returned from the war, he had hoped to set up a regional aviation service in south-west Queensland.
He had financial backing — all he needed was his civilian pilot’s licence. But he was rejected for this licence five times because of his Aboriginality.
“They didn’t think about his war service and his great record of flying. They didn’t worry about the experience he had,” Mr Waters said.
“It was just about his Aboriginality, that’s all it came down to. It broke his heart.”
Gladys Waters is the widow of Len Waters, Australia’s first and only known Indigenous fighter pilot during World War II. (ABC Southern Queensland: Sophie Volker)
Embracing the ‘ability to be exceptional’
Early next month, Chris Sara will take over the position of Director General in the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships.
It will be a significant step for Mr Sara, who said humanity was the one thing that united all Australians.
“We’ve seen throughout Australia, and we see in the pages in this book, that there are times when our sense of race and culture and identity is important. But there are times when our sense of humanity is even more important,” he said.
“When Len Waters is getting shot at by bullets, there’s no time for racism … that’s the time for all of us to be connected by humanity and for all of us to be the best that we can.
“When we acknowledge and we embrace the sense of capacity of Indigenous Australians, and our ability to be exceptional, magical things can happen.”
Lenise Schloss, Len Waters’ eldest daughter, was instrumental in organising the book launch at Inala. (ABC Southern Queensland: Sophie Volker)
‘The sky’s the limit’
Mr Waters’ eldest daughter, Lenise Schloss, said she had been trying to tell her father’s story for years, but people often didn’t believe her “because it wasn’t in history books”.
Ms Schloss was a high school history teacher and a lecturer at the University of Canberra.
Despite this, she said her father always taught his children to chase their dreams and be proud of where they come from.
“As Father always said, the sky’s the limit and you can always have a dream. And dreams can come true,” she said.
“You just have to believe in yourself, be honest, have pride, have dignity, integrity and be accountable. And it’ll all pay off.”