by Judith Hickson, Curator – Queensland Stories, Queensland Museum
He was Australia’s first and only Aboriginal fighter pilot during World War II. She was a driver for the United States Army in Townsville. Drawn together by fate, Len Waters and Gladys Saunders also found common ground in their shared cultural and wartime experiences. Their marriage, after a whirlwind courtship of two weeks, spanned 46 years and produced six children.
In breaking the bounds of social, cultural and racist limitations of the time, Len’s and Gladys’s story is one of courage and determination to succeed against the odds.
Gladys Saunders met her dashing ‘flyboy’, Leonard (Len) Waters, on her seventeenth birthday in February 1946. Today, Len is recognised and celebrated as the only known Aboriginal fighter pilot in World War Two. Yet on his return to civilian life in 1945, Len’s wartime flying achievements received little recognition. He said to most people he was ‘just another blackfella’.
Less well-known is Gladys’ contribution as a Women’s National Emergency League driver for the United States Army in Townsville – a job she applied for after a friend sneeringly remarked, ‘they wouldn’t take the likes of you’.
I’m just a fly boy
When Len Waters received his pilot’s wings in June 1944 it was the realisation of a boyhood dream. When he wasn’t labouring in dusty shearing sheds in South-West Queensland, Len spent his time ‘engrossed in the feats’ of heroic aviators like Hinkler, Kingsford Smith and Johnson.
… there was so much history being made … I made a silent vow to one day take to the skies myself. Little did I imagine that it would take a world war to realise my ambition … I … never lost my desire to fly.
… When the war broke out in ’39 I couldn’t get into it quick enough.
In joining the RAAF, Len himself made history, flying a total of 95 sorties, mostly ground attacks, from bases in New Guinea and the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). Among Len’s awards were the Australian Service Medal, Pacific Star, 1939-45 Star, British War Medal and Dutch War Commemorative Cross.
‘They wouldn’t take the likes of you’
In December 1943, eager to contribute to the war effort, Gladys – then aged 14 – altered her birthdate on her identity documents and applied for work.
… I was really down about what this girl said … the likes of you … the first thing that came to my mind was she was throwing off about [my] colour and I thought, jeez, I’m as good as anyone … So … I went in and I handed the papers over and I said I’m applying for the job.
Rejected first by the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), Gladys then approached the US Army who at that time were recruiting drivers through the Women’s National Emergency Legion (WNEL). To her great surprise, they offered her a job.
… Anyway, they take the papers and holy hell! … they passed! And Captain Peterson said I could start straight away. I got the papers and oh! Was I happy!
Gladys’ work for the US Army and her membership of the WNEL remains one of her proudest experiences.
Queensland Museum donation
In 2019, Gladys made a heartfelt donation of Len’s uniform and diary. It was only as we talked of Len’s wartime stories that Gladys’s own story of her previously untold war experiences came out, and subsequently one more donation – that of the gift Gladys received when she finished work with the US Army. Over the last two years Gladys has worked with Queensland Museum curators to share her stories of her husband, children, family and her own experiences. Many people have heard of Len’s wartime efforts, and we now have the chance to tell Gladys’s story – a unique glimpse of World War II in North Queensland.
Queensland Museum Network is fortunate to share these stories and objects.
Although Len passed away in 1993, Gladys Waters, now 91, has never let age or prejudice stand in her way.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this material contains images and includes accounts of people who have passed away.
We also advise that any racist and derogatory language contained in this material is ‘of its time’ and does not reflect the contemporary views of Queensland Museum. We have preserved this to help our audiences understand both past and ongoing experiences of Australian First Nations people and as part of our commitment to truth and reconciliation.