On 19 February 1942, the Japanese bombed Darwin. It was the first of no fewer than 64 air attacks on the city between then and November 1943. In all, the Japanese bombed northern Australia 97 times, attacking Broome, Wyndham, Derby, Katherine, Horn Island, Townsville, Mossman, Port Hedland, Noonamah, Exmouth Gulf, Onslow and Coomalie Creek. They even bombed two Aboriginal missions: Drysdale River in the Kimberley and the Millingimbi in Arnhem Land.
The Australian government was aware after Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 that Darwin was a potential target. On 12 December the War Cabinet decided all women and children should be evacuated from the city. The fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942 and the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies and New Guinea made civilian evacuation a matter of some urgency. Before the Japanese bombers arrived, the administration had evacuated from Darwin most people judged non-essential to the war effort. At least 1100 of the 2000 white women and children in the town and suburbs had been evacuated by ship, train and plane. All Aboriginal women and about 20 per cent of Aboriginal men were moved out of the city. Of the Territory’s population of half-caste people, at least 500 women and children were evacuated to southern states. On the morning of 19 February 1942 only 100 adult Aboriginal men remained in the Darwin area: 30 employed by the armed forces, 24 prisoners of Darwin’s Fanny Bay jail, and the rest in woodcutters’ camps on the edge of town. However, a group of 40 half-caste children from the Roman Catholic mission on Melville Island had arrived at Darwin on 15 February and were still in port when the Japanese bombers struck. In his report on these events, the Territory’s Administrator, C. L. A. Abbott, wrote:
At the time of the first raid the Deputy Director, Mr White, and his remaining staff were engaged in packing remaining records and arranging the transfer of half-caste children who had been brought in from Melville Island. Although these children were actually in Darwin during the raid there were no casualties amongst them and they were got away safely the same afternoon.
By late afternoon on 20 February 1942 no Aborigines remained in Darwin.
When he was appointed the new Minister for the Interior in 1938, John McEwen had made a tour of inspection of the Northern Territory. He promised a ‘new deal’ for Aboriginal people. This began a radical reorganization of the administration of Aboriginal affairs. McEwen abolished the position of Chief Protector and replaced it with a Director of the Territory’s Native Affairs Branch. This position went to E. W. P. Chinnery, the former head of Native Affairs in New Guinea. Chinnery reversed Cook’s former disdain for missionaries and decided to hand over care of half-caste children’s homes to them. Believing the dormitory system ‘obsolete’, he funded the missions to establish new accommodation and schools on Melville Island (Roman Catholic), Croker Island (Methodist) and Bagot Road (Aborigines Inland Mission).
The war with Japan, however, interrupted these plans. The Northern Territory came under Army rule. Most of the new mission buildings were quickly taken over by the Army and their inmates evacuated south. Those on Melville Island went to a Catholic institution at Carrieton in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia; those on Croker Island went to the Crusaders Camp Mission Hostel at Otford in New South Wales; and half-castes from the Bagot Reserve and elsewhere in Darwin were transferred to Balaklava in South Australia. Some southern centres took evacuees from a variety of locations. The Sydney branch of the Anglican-based Church Missionary Society accommodated at Ashfield and Mulgoa eleven half-caste women and 35 children, most of whom were the women’s offspring. They came from its own Northern Territory missions at Roper River and Groote Eylandt, from the Bungalow in Alice Springs, and also from other Territory missions and government settlements at Borroloola, Mataranka, Darwin, Jay Creek, Newcastle Waters, Tennant Creek, McArthur River, Alexandria and Barrow Creek, plus two boys from Wyndham in Western Australia and Alexandra River in Queensland. A group of older boys went to Tally Ho, a Methodist boys training farm in Victoria.
Civilian control of the Territory was re-established in July 1945. Not until April 1946 did the first of the half-caste evacuees return north. It was a small but intricate logistical exercise. That month, the Catholics from Carrieton went by train to Alice Springs, by road convoy to Larrimah, by train to Darwin and then by ship to Garden Point on Melville Island. The Methodists left Sydney on the SS Reynella and transferred at Darwin to a naval vessel bound for Croker Island. All the evacuees held at Balaklava went by train to Alice Springs and then by motor convoy to Darwin where they lodged temporarily at the Bagot reserve before going off with their families or next of kin to housing in the town. Only unattached children remained at Bagot under the care of the Aborigines Inland Mission. The Bungalow never reopened as a half-caste home but in 1946 the Church of England established a new hostel called St Mary’s for half-castes in Alice Springs. Several of the new missions took advantage of buildings constructed by the Army during the war and moved into much larger premises. However, the half-caste colony on Groote Eylandt was not re-established. When the missionaries returned to the island they directed their efforts towards the local full-blood population. The children who went from the Northern Territory and Groote Eylandt to Mulgoa remained there until the Church of England provided alternative accommodation in Alice Springs. Some remained until 1949 when Mulgoa closed, by which time they were either transferred to St Mary’s Hostel in Alice Springs, St Francis House in Adelaide or else had become too old to be maintained in a children’s home.
One of the evacuated children was Gordon Briscoe, who as an adult became a radical Aboriginal political activist and eventually a research fellow at the Australian National University’s Australian Centre for Indigenous History. In 1942, the Northern Territory’s Native Affairs Branch despatched him and his mother from the Bungalow in Alice Springs to Mulgoa where the Church Missionary Society housed them for the duration of the war. In 1996, Briscoe recorded a series of interviews for the National Library of Australia’s oral history project. In them, he claimed he and his mother were not evacuated to keep them out of harm’s way. The real reason, Briscoe claimed, was because ‘during World War II Aborigines were seen as possible collaborators with the enemy’.
This story does no credit to Briscoe’s reputation as an academic historian. There was no plausible collaboration possible between the Japanese military and a 2-year-old boy and his 22-year-old mother from Alice Springs, nor with any of the other 500 mothers and children evacuated at the same time. It is true that one Australian intelligence report made after the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939 did question the loyalty of some Aborigines, particularly those at the German Lutheran missions Hermannsburg in central Australia and Hope Vale in far north Queensland. The military historian Robert Hall devoted a chapter to investigating this issue in his 1989 work, The Black Diggers: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second Word War. He argued that the intelligence officer who wrote the report was proven completely wrong when hostilities began in earnest and the Army quickly found the Territory’s Aborigines a willing and invaluable labour force. Apart from wanting to save them from Japanese bombs and potential invasion, the other major motive the Administrator had for wanting Aboriginal women removed from Darwin was to prevent them becoming a major source of prostitution for the large number of white labourers and troops brought to the city and northern region by the boom in defence construction.
The Human Rights Commission also described the evacuations in a passage that has just as little credibility. In Bringing Them Home it claimed:
The children were taken to ‘homes, rented rural housing and disgraceful makeshift camps’ in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. They lived there for several years, far from their families and communities. In 1946 some but not all of these children returned to the Territory. Some went ‘missing’. Others were refused financial assistance by either the Commonwealth or the State governments to return to the Territory.
The report offered no evidence to support the charge that some went missing. And as far as their accommodation was concerned, most Aboriginal evacuees were placed in premises that previously housed white children, white families, or ministers of the church. At Mulgoa, the children were put up in the rectory of St Thomas’s church. At Balaclava in South Australia, the Native Affairs Branch rented five farmhouses for its women and children. ‘The townspeople of Balaklava rallied to the cause,’ according to oral interviews recorded later by Barbara Cummings, ‘providing all that was necessary to make life as comfortable for the evacuees.’ The only ‘makeshift’ accommodation was at the Balaclava racecourse, which the government rented for the initial contingent of evacuees, housing the women and children beneath the grandstand and the few men in the stables. It also provided the site with a four-bed hospital, school house, dining room, electricity and hot water, which was more than most evacuees had ever enjoyed at home. At the same time, Balaclava also accommodated in similarly improvised premises the wives and families of British troops evacuated after the fall of Singapore.
Meanwhile, back in the Northern Territory, more than 200,000 white servicemen and women bedded down in tents. Many had come to the railhead at Alice Springs by train, some of them travelling in cattle trucks. During the war, such improvised accommodation and transport was not unusual. We can be confident no Aboriginal people ever went to or from the Territory by cattle truck. If they had, the Human Rights Commission today would be milking the symbol for all it was worth.
Indeed, under the circumstances, some of the Aboriginal evacuees fared very well. The increased demand for labour meant women sent to South Australia found jobs both in Balaklava and Adelaide and ‘experienced a sense of personal freedom for the first time’. Some of the children did even better. For eighteen months, seven boys at Mulgoa were transferred to the church rectory at Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains where they lived with an Anglican priest and his wife, and attended the local primary school. The village of Mount Wilson had long been one of the most exclusive, expensive and beautiful rural retreats in all Australia, a haven for Sydney’s rich and for wealthy outback graziers in the pre-war era. ‘I think it must have been quite costly to keep us there,’ John Moriarty later recalled, ‘although the fact that we were living in a home, almost a family unit in Mount Wilson, was especially good for us younger boys.’
In fact, some of the evacuees became so fond of their conditions in the south they didn’t want to leave. In 1945, the Sydney press took up the cause of children sent by the Methodist Church to Otford, south of Sydney. During their three-year stay they had become well-liked in the local school and community. Some of them, especially 14-year-old Betty Fisher who won a singing contest on the national radio program Australia’s Amateur Hour (the then equivalent of today’s Australian Idol), felt they had a more promising future in the metropolis than back on Croker Island in the Arafura Sea. However, the Labor government’s Minister for the Interior, Vic Johnson, would brook no exceptions and decreed she and the others must all return.
In January 1949, when the last of the Mulgoa mothers and children were being repatriated to central Australia, they created another cause célèbre when 14-year-old Joyce Herbert refused to get aboard the train to Alice Springs. Her mother was employed in Sydney and Joyce told reporters she wanted to remain a student at Penrith High School to complete the Leaving Certificate, a qualification not available to her in the Northern Territory. Residents from the Penrith and Mulgoa district joined the Church of England in giving her and the other Mulgoa evacuees vocal and political support to remain. A sympathetic white family hid the girl from Territory authorities.
The issue became a front-page story in the press. Editorials condemned the Chifley government for its heartlessness: ‘These children have grown up on the outskirts of Sydney, mixing freely with whites and have acquitted themselves magnificently,’ wrote the popular magazine Pix. ‘None of them wants to leave the only real home they know.’ Press photographers and reporters besieged the children as they boarded their train at Sydney, and similar scenes greeted them when they arrived at Melbourne, Adelaide and Alice Springs. Aboriginal activist Bill Onus joined the cause, assisting a protest demonstration in the Sydney Domain organized by the Penrith Chamber of Commerce. The Trades and Labour Council of New South Wales and the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union both sent their concerns to the Chifley government. This time, Vic Johnson caved in and allowed Joyce and her mother to stay, and a few others from the now notorious train to rejoin her.
In 1949, Gordon Briscoe and another Mulgoa evacuee, John Moriarty, were sent to Adelaide to join the small group of half-caste boys recently accommodated by the Anglican priest Percy Smith at St Francis House. As Chapter Six recorded in its account of the biography of Charles Perkins, St Francis House probably produced more high-achieving Aboriginal graduates per head than any other institution in the history of Aboriginal welfare. Like Perkins, Briscoe owed the life he subsequently led to those who provided such opportunities. Rather than acting from any fear of collaborators with the enemy, the long-term motives of the Territory authorities were to fulfil the pre-war promise of a ‘new deal’ for Aborigines. This was especially true of the wartime head of Native Affairs, E. W. Pearson Chinnery who organized their evacuation in 1942. Chinnery was not only a distinguished public servant in Australia and New Guinea but also an anthropologist of considerable ability. In collaboration with Territory missions, he designed a program to integrate half-caste children into the mainstream school system and to assist older youth move to areas with greater job prospects by providing them with hostel accommodation. After the war, the plan became reality. In his report for 1946, the then acting Director of Native Affairs, V. G. Carrington, described the Territory’s introduction of non-segregated schooling:
The experiment conducted by the Aborigines Inland Mission in Darwin and the Church of England Board of Missions in Alice Springs, whereby children are cared for in the institution but receive their education at the public school along with European children and half-caste children not under the control of the Branch, will be watched with interest. This innovation eliminates the institution school and is calculated to inculcate confidence in the children by their association with European children.
The result was that by mid-1946 no less than 35 per cent of the Territory’s enrolments in public schools were of half-caste children (139 out of a total enrolment of 399). In the territory’s Catholic schools, 41 per cent of total enrolments were half-castes (89 out of 217 enrolments). The same report also commended proposals for more hostels to enhance the job prospects of Aboriginal youth:
It has become increasingly evident that if the half-caste Missions at Melville Island, Croker Island and Groote Eylandt cannot absorb in employment all adolescents after they have completed their education, they will have to seek employment on the mainland, particularly in town centres such as Darwin.
This fact calls for the establishment of hostels to house these inmates during their period of employment in town centres. The Methodist Mission authorities are alive to the question of establishing hostels for their inmates and overtures have already been made in this direction.
In short, although it initially caused some delays in Aboriginal reform, the war changed everything. Aborigines moved into the Army and from there into the peacetime civilian labour force. The old pastoral system of payment by rations was replaced by payment of wages, sometimes at the same rate as white counterparts. The government protection system lost its rationale and authority, as did tribal elders. The last of the nomads came in from the bush. Those Aboriginal children who performed well at school increasingly took up the opportunities offered by the Territory’s rapid postwar growth and modernization. It was a time of dramatic reform in Aboriginal affairs.