BILL Edwards deserves a place in Victoria’s history as probably its last indigenous soldier who fought for his country in World War II, and as one of the most senior Aboriginal elders.
The former Warrnambool resident, who died earlier this month at the age of 91, had the unusual distinction of enlisting twice. The first time he was only 16 and was discharged when his correct age was discovered.
He later enlisted again, still underage, but was able to continue training and was eventually deployed to Papua New Guinea, where he was engaged in the battle for Lae and the capture of Shaggy Ridge and celebrated his 21st birthday in Tsili Tsili.
It was later said that his 15th Brigade of the Australian Army had marched over more of New Guinea than any other Allied formation.
Hamilton-based amateur historian Peter Bakker said his research indicated Mr Edwards was the state’s last indigenous WWII veteran.
“He was certainly the last from south-west Victoria. There are very few other survivors in other states.
“He never talked much about his war service, but I did interview him and saw his medals.
“We will pay tribute to him on Friday (November 1) during the annual memorial service at the indigenous war memorial in Warrnambool starting at 10am.”
In the book Forgotten Heroes: Aborigines at war, from the Somme to Vietnam by Alick Jackomos and Derek Fowell, Mr Edwards said he was working at Dixie milking cows when he enlisted.
“I got sick of working cows so I went to Warrnambool and joined up. That was in 1941, but I was underage, I was only 16, so they gave me a discharge.
“So I roamed around the countryside ... I got sick of it and joined up again. I put my age up.”
He described his training at Canungra as “very tough, but when we got to New Guinea we really appreciated it because you had to be tough”.
His description of the PNG battles was stark: “No prisoners were taken by either side — what could you do with prisoners on Shaggy Ridge? Besides, the Japanese thought it was shameful to surrender. It was bitter fighting.
“It stunk, but you got used to it, used to the smell of the dead. When they brought back your dead mates you couldn’t recognise them. It was the humidity.”
As a child Mr Edwards and his family slept in bark huts on dirt floors and endured dire poverty in the harshness of the pre-war economic depression.
Framlingham elder Len Clarke said Mr Edwards had been highly respected in the Aboriginal and white communities.
“He was a very hard-working man who came from humble beginnings and made something of his life,” Mr Clarke said.
“Bill was always willing to help and his views were very much respected. Bill operated dairy farms around the district and was known widely as a skilled farmer.”
Warrnambool elder Robert Lowe senior said Mr Edwards inspired formation of the Gundtijmara Aboriginal Co-op and was its first director and board chairman.
“He took a keen interest in Aboriginal issues and was always offering advice,” Mr Lowe said.
“A replica bark hut he built at Framlingham still stands as a reminder of the past and he helped assemble one at the national museum in Canberra.”
He was buried at Framlingham cemetery, not far from where he was raised during childhood.
His mother, Dolly Edwards, was a Yorta Yorta woman who moved to Framlingham mission from Carlton when Bill was three months old.
He learnt traditional crafts and was connected to the south-west’s Gunditjmara community through marriage.
“My family moved around from dairy to dairy, it was a trend in them days to walkabout for employment,” he said in Forgotten Heroes.
“And then you’d go back to the mission for three or four months and build a humpy or bark hut.
“We were all living in bark huts on the mission, dirt floors, sleeping on the grass. It was pretty hard, you know.
“In them days people were more closely knitted, more together. But if the people up the road had a bit of fat they’d give you half of it.”