Australia’s First and Only Aboriginal Fighter Pilot
Extract from “My Father the Flyer – Was it Black Magic?”
Written by Kim Orchard (nee Waters)
As the author of the authorised Leonard Victor Waters biography, “My Father the Flyer – Was it Black Magic?”, I have set up this School Project Kit to tell my Father’s life story including his becoming Australia’s first and only Aboriginal Fighter Pilot to serve in the RAAF.
In 1992, I received a research grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) so that I could document the life story of this unique Australian. My Father gave permission for me to write his story and provided information and direction for the book. Dad’s aim for documenting his story was to encourage younger generations of Australians both indigenous and non-Indigenous to be inspired to take their own destiny into their own hands. This story demonstrates that if you maintain a focus on your goals in life, your dreams can come true. The story also demonstrates that nothing falls in your lap, that you have to go out and make it happen if you want to achieve your goals and in the word’s of Len Waters, "The Sky truly is the limit".
Len's father, Donald is the child on the left being held by Len's great-grandmother, (Amelia Wightman) and his uncle, Ron McIntosh, is the baby on the right being held by his grandmother, Florence Wightman-Dennison. This photo is believed to be taken in early 1900's on Whalan Station one of the reserves declared under the Aboriginal Welfare Protection Act
Len's parents, Donald and Grace Waters married at Mungindi 23 April 1918 and had eleven children of which Len was the third son and fourth child
Len Waters family history links to the Gamilaraay people of northern NSW, the Gunditj-Mara people from the Wimmera region in Victoria and the Awabakal people near Maitland NSW. Under the Aboriginal Welfare Protection Act, his grand-parents and great-grandparents were moved from their traditional lands and placed on Whalan station in the late 1890’s. In 1912, they were moved to Euraba Aboriginal Mission neat Boomi. Len was born on 20 June 1924 at Euraba Aboriginal Mission near the northern central NSW border.
In 1926, the Aboriginal people living on Euraba Mission had to dismantle the buildings and move them to a new location and rebuild the Mission. The Mission was then renamed “Toomelah” which should be pronounced “Thoolmelah” meaning “lifted and shifted”. In 1936, Len’s Father decided to take his family off the Mission to provide greater opportunities for education and employment. Donald Waters was a fencing and shearing contractor and shearer's cook. Len worked with his Father on many stations in the south-west QLD region.
When he was a young boy, Len was fascinated with the stories about Charles Kingsford-Smith, Amy Johnson and Bert Hinkler. He read “Biggles” cartoon (a forerunner to Snoopy) and imagined himself flying. While some may say that from an Aboriginal perspective, air travel was something foreign to Aboriginal people but Len’s mother and sister, Florence whittled wings for his rubber band toy planes, fashioned on their knowledge of the aerodynamic of a boomerang.
Len’s first language was the Gamilaraay language and the Dictionary was launched on the Internet in 1996 based on tapes of Len’s grandfather, Charles Dennison. Grandfather Dennison was believed to be 110 years old when he died in 1956.
Len's maternal grandfather, George Bennett provided a model for Len in serving in the Defence Force. Grandfather Bennett joined the AIF on the first anniversary of Gallipoli and served in Somme in France. He had been gassed some 18 times with mustard gas and had been sent to London on a number of occasions only to get well and be sent back into the thick of it. This left him with 40% use of his lungs. Although Grandfather Bennett became a recluse in his later years, Len was fascinated with the impact that regimented life had on his grandfather. Grandfather Bennett had six dogs and three cats and would feed them on command. Even the cats would wait until the command was given. Three days after Grandfather Bennett died in the Mungindi Lockup (of natural causes), the Police had to go out to where he stayed and put his dogs and cats down because they would not eat until the command was given. Considering that Grandfather spoke his Gamilaraay language fluently, no one could even guess the word he used.
Education and Employment
From an Aboriginal perspective, Len believed that he was a student of life and that education was the key to achieving the life's goals. Len Waters first learnt to speak in his native Gamilaraay language. His mother taught him to also read and write by his mother in his native tongue. For a short time, he attended the Toomelah Public School before moving to Nindigully in 1936. Because he was so advanced, Len went straight into Grade 2. Len grew up in an era when it was not compulsory for Aboriginal children to go to school beyond Grade 4 because the Government of the day believed that Aboriginal people would not aspire to an occupation that required a higher education. Len remained at school until three months short of completing Grade 8 or his final year. As there were 10 children in the family at this stage, Len had to put his education on hold so that he could go to work with his Father. He also worked in the shearing sheds to help the Family make ends meet.
On 24 August 1942, he joined the RAAF as a mechanic trainee but attended night school and visited the technical college library so that he could gain entry into the Pilot Training Program in 1943.
The majority of Len’s working life was spent as a shearer. Len believed that he would have shorn a million sheep during his career. Like anything he did, he aimed to do the best - setting and achieving high standards. Although he had proven himself in the RAAF as an elite Pilot, after the War Len returned to the real world. He had ambitions of setting up his own air taxi service but he was only given the same opportunities as most other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that is working in unskilled labouring positions. He had returned to St George and utilised his mechanical skills for a short time. That is, until his brother Ranald became the only qualified mechanic in town, taking Len's job off him.
He left the RAAF in January 1946 and married Gladys May Saunders in February 1946, starting a new chapter in life. Demands of setting up a new life and family forced Len to put his dream of an air taxi on hold and he returned to the shed work. This was something that he knew he could do well and it paid good money. In his later life he worked at Hutton’s Meat Works in the slaughter room, and EA Watts Construction driving a truck. Len could turn his hand to anything including emu egg carving and woodworking.
Flt Sgt Waters at the controls of P40 Kittyhawk "Black Magic
The Official portrait of Pilot, Len Waters 78144
Source of Photographs: RAAF, the Australian War Memorial and Kim Orchard
Leonard Victor Waters was destined to become a unique Aboriginal Australian. He was fascinated by the achievements of Charles Kingsford-Smith, Amy Johnston and Bert Hinkler, being the first of their kind in aviation history. Little did he know that he too would be the first of his kind to also make aviation and Australian history.
Len utilises his mechanical skills when he works on his P40 Kittyhawk, "Black Magic"
On 24 August 1942, Len and his brother, Donald Edward (nicknamed Jimmy) went to the Brisbane Showground where the Defence Force Recruitment booths were set up, Jimmy went in the door for the Army and Len took his first step in making Australian history. Len enlisted with the RAAF as a Mechanic Trainee and member of the aircrew. He did his rooky training at Maryborough in QLD and then transferred to Ultimo in Sydney for his mechanics training course. He was then transferred to Ascotvale in Melbourne. He commenced his Pilot Training Program in 1943 at Narrandera in western NSW, learning how to fly Tiger Moths. Len transferred to Uranquinty in February 1944 where he was introduced to flying the Wirraways. He transferred to Narromine to develop his skills on instrument flying, circuits, landing, aerobatics, formation attacks and high dive bombing.
On 1 July 1944, he had achieved the rank of Sergeant and classification of Airman Pilot. On 28 August 1944, he was transferred to Mildura to do his final training on the P40 Kittyhawk before joining 78 Squadron at Kamiri Strip Noemfer Island on 17 November 1944. He saw the reality of War within ten days when one of the squadron member, Stan Hattersley was “hacked down”. Within a couple more days F/Lt Jonnie Griffith was killed by a freak accident after a hectic day of fighting the Japanese. He had returned to his tent to relax when a bough of a tree crashed through the roof of his tent. On 8 December 1944, Len and the 78 squadron were transferred to Wama Strip on Morotai Island which was a little closer to the attraction.
On 20 January 1945, Len was issued with a replacement Kittyhawk serial number A29-575. The previous pilot, John Blackmore had named the plane “Black Magic”. I would be ironic that the first and only Aboriginal Fighter Pilot would be issued with this plane. In June 1945, 78 squadron was transferred to Croydon Strip at Tarakan where they were in the thick of it. The last record in Len’s log book is dated the 6 August 1945 the day the bomb hit Hiroshima. He signed off the log book on 15 August 1945 closing that chapter in his life. Before leaving the RAAF, he was promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer which was the highest rank for non-commissioned officers.
Life After the RAAF
Len and Gladys had a whirl-wind romance but Len knew she was the woman he would marry
Len's Family - stepson Geoffrey, and Len's children Lenise, Donald, Dianne, Julia, Kim and Maxine
Len's Family - stepson Geoffrey, and Len's children Lenise, Donald, Dianne, Julia, Kim and Maxine
During a trip back to St George before going overseas, Len took his mother to the pictures. They met a young Women named Gladys Saunders. Her father told her to look up some friends of his when she went to St George. Gladys' Father, George Saunders was best man at the wedding of Don and Grace Waters and they were witnesses at his wedding to Totty Munro. George had separated from Totty Munro and some time later met Gladys' mother, Gladys McEwan. Len and Gladys hit it off straight away and agreed to write to each other while he was overseas. Len often told his mates in 78 squadron that he had met the woman he was going to marry.
After leaving the RAAF on 18 January 1946, he returned to St George. He attended Gladys' 17th birthday party on 4 February and married her on 16 February 1946, starting another chapter in his life. While Len had ambitions to set up his own air taxi service when he returned to St George, he decided to return to the work that he knew well and knew that he could bring home good money for his new family. Gladys had one son, Geoffry before marrying Len. Len and Gladys welcomed the birth of their first child, Lenise May who was born in St George. She inherited a version of Len's name and Gladys' middle name, May. They had a total of six children, the second being Len's only son, Donald born at Cunnamulla. Then came Dianne also born at Cunnamulla. Gladys Julia-Kaye and Kim Lorell were born in St George. As a result of the shearers strike in 1956, Len moved the family to Inala in Brisbane. There, the youngest daughter, Maxine Anne was born.
Len found work in the building industry as a labourer. While he found work at Hutton's Meatworks and at EA Watt's Construction he was drawn back to the sheds shearing and cooking. Following a car accident in 1972, Len became an epileptic and was restricted in the type of work he could do. Later in his life, he was drawn back to the land and became a caretaker of a property in Goroke in Victoria for a short time. Len was never idle. Even in his retirement, he would from time to time go out to the sheds and do a some cooking. He also had strong links to his cultural heritage and carved his emu eggs as he had been taught by his Elders, Harry Lang and his Uncle Walter Binge.
The Final Chapter
The Final Chapter was the one chapter that I did not want to write. On 24 August 1993 (ironically 51 years to the day of when he joined the RAAF) Len Waters was found on the footpath of Louisa Street Cunnamulla. It is believed that Len had a epileptic fit and was unconscious when he fell and hit his head. Considering his affliction, he had lived life to the fullest and had in 1993 been fortunate to have been invited by the RAAF to attend a number of special events in Townsville QLD and Marble Bar in WA. The RAAF acknowledged the achievements of Len Waters and honoured him at the celebration of the Centenary of the Marble Bar Aboriginal Community. Len attended the reunion of the 78 squadron on 17 and 18 July.
The RAAF also treated Len to a flight in an F18 and allowed him to take the controls. One of the last photos taken of Len was five days before his 69th birthday and two months before his death. He is tipping his hat and looking to the skies where he always dreamed to be.
Len thrilled to be back in the air Len saying goodbye-looking to the skies yet again
Source of photo: RAAF
Source of photo: RAAF
His passing was acknowledged Australia wide with media coverage and obituaries on television in newspapers. The RAAF flew a Hercules to St George to Len's funeral, carrying some members of the 78 Squadron and service personnel who had recent contact with Len on the Townsville and Marble Bar trips. Wing Commander Alex Johnston spoke of their all-but-brief friendship and the impact that Len had on RAAF personnel.
I was proud to give my Father's eulogy as "Daddy's Little Girl". My brother, Don also spoke of his best mate and the good times that they shared. The procession through the small town of St George extended the full length of the main street from the St Alban's Church of England at the western end of town to the cemetery at the eastern end of town. Len was laid to rest on the 28 August 1993, while nine Hornets flew overhead in formation.
At his funeral, the family felt that the following quote, the last words of Chief Sitting Bull, best encompassed the philosophy by which Len leaved.
I am a part of this creation as you are,
no more and no less than each and every one of you within the sound of my voice
I am the generation of generations to come.....
If I have gone against this creation - no man on this universe holds the power to punish me other than the Creator himself...........