The Missing Man…
About the Book:
From the outback to Tarakan, the powerful story of Len Waters, the RAAF’s only WWII Aboriginal fighter pilot.
He was our first Aboriginal fighter pilot, he flew multiple sorties during Australia’s World War II Pacific campaign, and he should have had a world of opportunity ahead of him at the war’s end, but Len Waters became the missing man in the country’s wartime flying history.
‘You were the master of the machine…you were an airman.’ Flying Officer Bob Crawford.
Len Waters was a Kamilaroi man. Born on an Aboriginal reserve, he left school at thirteen and by twenty was piloting a RAAF Kittyhawk fighter with 78 Squadron in the lethal skies over the Pacific in World War II. It was serious and dangerous work and his achievement was extraordinary. These would be the best years of his life. Respected by his peers, he was living his dream.
The war over, it should have been easy. He believed he could ‘live on both sides of the fence’ and be part of Australia’s emerging commercial airline industry. He had, after all, broken through the ‘black ceiling’ once before. Above all, he just wanted to fly. Instead, he became a missing man in Australia’s wartime flying history.
Peter Rees rights that wrong in this powerful, compelling and at times tragic examination of Len Water’s life. He also tells us something of ourselves that we need to hear.
‘They could take a bullet but not share a beer.’
Peter Rees has done an extraordinary job with putting together The Missing Man. On the one hand, this book is a biography on Len Waters, but on the other, it’s a commentary on racism throughout our Australian history. Through his navigation of the life of Len Waters, Peter Rees demonstrates the many ways in which our bureaucracy has let down Indigenous Australians. This is a book where the history very much speaks for itself.
“Unexpectedly, the Japanese attacks caused a backlash against Aborigines, with a widespread belief that they were likely to side with any Japanese invasion force. Many Aborigines were relocated to ‘control camps’, and restrictions were placed on their movements, especially those of women. Word spread that there were orders to shoot Aborigines should an invasion take place.”
Len Waters really was an incredible man. Born on a mission, he left school at the age of fourteen, despite being offered a scholarship to a Brisbane grammar school. He was a hardworking young man, quick to pick up skills on whatever job he turned his hand to, and rather ambitious, with dreams of bettering his situation and that of his family. The war gave Len an opportunity to do exactly what he wanted and it was not an opportunity Len was about to waste. From enlistment through to sitting in the cockpit of a Kittyhawk, Len worked harder and smarter than all of his contemporaries. Peter has done well at giving us an insight into the type of man Len was. This exchange between Len and a superior at his RAAF selection interview to determine his granted position brought a smile to my face:
‘Have you ever considered yourself a wireless air gunner?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Just close your eyes and just sit there and imagine yourself sitting in the tail of a Halifax or a Lancaster with four .303s in front of you. Well,’ he said, ‘how do you look?’ I said, ‘I’ve got a very disappointed look on my face, sir.’
Aviation enthusiasts will draw a lot of enjoyment from this book. Peter has presented a very well informed account of the ins and outs of being a RAAF WWII fighter pilot.
While in the RAAF, Len experienced no racism, although he witnessed a fair bit on the part of the Americans within their own force. It seemed as though this was more apparent to Len owing to the absence of it within his own experiences. Despite this, Peter demonstrates through historical records that Len’s experience was unique because racism against Indigenous Australians was in full force on the home front.
‘Therein lies the nub of Waters’ experience during his years in the RAAF from August 1942 to January 1946: he was that rare thing, an Indigenous Australian who made it into the ranks of fighter pilots at a time when discrimination based on race had created a two-tier society in which Aborigines were not expected to enter the upper level. In civilian society they were held back. Circumstances had given him a unique opportunity to break the mould, and he had grabbed it.
Waters could not imagine that the egalitarianism he had experienced in the war years would not continue. But he was wrong.’
This book has generated a lot of deep thought within me and it honestly has made me really sad. Peter has given us a face to the experience of racism throughout our history, and while many may point out that he shouldn’t have to, the fact that he has, and the power of this, cannot be questioned. I’ve learnt a lot about Australia’s history from the pages of this book. When I think about the way Len’s life panned out after the war, and even worse, the way he died, I feel a fullness, a bitterness within me. It’s more than a shame on our nation, it’s a blight. The following passage shows how Len was robbed of continuing his aviation career after the war:
‘Howe was willing to pay for Waters to acquire his civilian pilot’s licence, and also to purchase an aircraft capable of ferrying up to eight passengers to major towns in outback Queensland. Waters was optimistic, but first he had to get his civilian pilot’s licence, the permit for which was under the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth government’s Department of Civil Aviation.
Gladys recalls that her husband applied five times for the required permit from Civil Aviation, giving full details of his service as a RAAF fighter pilot. Importantly, she remembers that in each application he wrote that he was born at Euraba Aborigines’ Reserve.’
The Missing Man is such an important book. After his death, much was made of Len Waters as the first and only Indigenous Australian fighter pilot. He was buried with military honour, became a face on a stamp and a name on street signs, parks and a RAAF fighter jet. Sadly, this did little to change the fact that from the end of the war up until his death in the early 1990s, Len’s career ambitions suffered for his Aboriginal heritage with great consequence to his mental and physical health, leading to a premature and undignified death. He deserved better.
‘Waters had glimpsed the future only to have it denied him. That was his tragedy – and also Australia’s.’
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Missing Man for review.
About the Author:
Peter Rees is the author of The Boy from Boree Creek (2001), Tim Fischer’s Outback Heroes (2002), Killing Juanita (2004), which was a winner of the 2004 Ned Kelly Award for Australian crime writing, The Other Anzacs (2008) republished as Anzac Girls(2014), Desert Boys (2011), Lancaster Men(2013) and Bearing Witness (2015), which won the Anzac Centenary Literary Prize in 2015. He lives in Canberra.
The Missing Man
Published by Allen and Unwin
Available in Paperback and eBook
Released 2nd July 2018