Category Archives: War

Len and Gladys: They wouldn’t take the likes of you

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.

Len and Gladys

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’.

Black Magic

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.

Aircraftman Leonard Victor Waters in full winter flying kit – No. 2 Operational Training School, Mildura, 1944.
Curtiss P40 N-15 ‘Kittyhawk’ aircraft, ‘Black Magic’, (HU-E) Famous for its association with Len Waters, the aircraft known as ‘Black Magic’ was initially named by Flight Lieutenant Denis Russell Baker, DFC, 78 Squadron, RAAF. Australian War Memorial P02808.001

‘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.

Gladys_Waters_ Civilian_ID_2

Gladys_Waters_ Civilian_ID_1

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.

Cultural Warning

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.

On this day: Queensland Prisoners secret radio revealed

On the 12 November 1945, the day after Remembrance Day, an article appeared in the Telegraph highlighting a fine example of Australian ingenuity.

Remembrance Day is celebrated on the day World War I ended but commemorates all those who died in war. An estimated four million people died during the World War II Japanese occupation of Indonesia, including 30,000 European civilians.


The secret radio

Two Queensland brothers, Ernest and Charles Hildebrandt, built a secret wireless radio receiver which they operated in the camp near Bandoeng in Java which was overran by Japanese soldiers in 1942.

Constructed of parts scrounged from the internment camp where they were held prisoner in Java during the war, the transmitter was built into a Dutch gas-mask container and hidden under a square of concrete measuring 12 by 7 inches.

For the last sixteen months of the war, they secretly shared news from the Australian Broadcasting Service, the British Broadcasting Service, United States and many other stations.


Seventy-four years after her uncles, Ernest and Charles, donated this radio transmitter to Queensland Museum, Pamela Robinson visited the Museum to see the set and to fill in some missing details for our records.

12 November 1945

Explore the Anzac Legacy Gallery

Are you interested in seeing war artefacts that tell the fascinating story of the First World War in Queensland? Visit the Anzac Legacy Gallery on Level 1 of the Museum.

Foundations of Remembrance in Ipswich

In 1920, General Sir William Birdwood, warmly known as the ‘Soul of Anzac’ or the ‘Digger-in-Chief’, toured Australia to meet and present medals to soldiers who had served in World War I. An Englishmen who could relate to and appreciate the Australian character, Birdwood was greatly admired by the Diggers he commanded in Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

Birdwood arrived in Ipswich on Tuesday, May 4th to much fanfare. A procession was formed from East Ipswich Station where he was met by soldiers on parade and then taken by motor car to Queens Park to present medals. Such was the importance of the visit to returned soldiers that the President of the Ipswich Branch of the Returned Sailors’ & Soldiers’ Imperial League Australia asked employers to grant their soldier employees leave to attend all the various functions.

Before leaving for Brisbane, General Birdwood was given the great honour of laying the foundation stone for the Ipswich Soldiers’ Memorial Hall, which would be built in the central gardens (also known as the Pump Yard). This photograph, by Bert Roberts of AE Roberts Carriage Works, was taken from inside the Technical College and gives an impression of how significant and well attended Birdwood’s visit was to the city.

Photo: General Sir William Birdwood laying the foundation stone of the Ipswich Soldiers’ Memorial Hall, 1920. Queensland Museum Network Collection.

Rob Shiels
Collection Manager
The Workshops Rail Museum

Queenslanders Band Together

As Queensland celebrates its 160th birthday this year, we’re shining the spotlight on a time throughout history where Queenslanders banded together, the First World War. 

Each year Queensland Day on 6 June marks the official separation from New South Wales as an independent colony. One of the most significant historical events to rock Queensland was the First World War in 1914. Today we look at items on display at the Anzac Legacy Gallery which serve as a reminder of challenging times for the state, sacrifice and comradeship.


Queensland Army Recruiting Poster

Could you imagine seeing this Army recruitment poster in the streets and enlisting into the army at 18 years old? This was the reality for nearly 58,000 Queenslanders, and more than ten times as many civilians who supported their war efforts back home. The poster shows two maps; one of south east Europe and the other focusing on the Gallipoli area. The poster reads “Queenslanders your country calls” along the top and “We’re coming lads hold on!” in bottom right hand corner.


World War 1 Nurse’s Cap

This nurse’s cap is homemade and belonged to Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) member, Miss Evelyn Drury. The primary role of a VAD member was that of nursing orderly in hospitals, carrying out menial but essential tasks – scrubbing floors, sweeping, dusting and cleaning bathrooms and other areas, dealing with bedpans, and washing patients. They were not employed in military hospitals, except as ward and pantry maids; rather, they worked in Red Cross convalescent and rest homes, canteens, and on troop trains.

Button Badge, YES, N6842

Yes button badge for 1916 or 1917 referendum

These referenda held at the height of the First World War established the principle that there would be no conscription for the armed forces during that conflict. They were remarkably divisive and demonstrated an Australian popular refusal to accept compulsory membership of the armed forces, which was at odds with the vast numbers who had joined up voluntarily.


Anzac Legacy Gallery

The Anzac Legacy Gallery is a permanent exhibition on level 1 of the museum and explores the stories, objects, and journeys that trace how the First World War changed the face of Queensland and continues to shape our lives, a century later. The gallery is summarised into three major thematic areas, Queensland at War, The Story of Mephisto and Queensland Remembers and features more than 500 objects and 200 personal stories.

Read more blog posts ‘Stories in living colour’ here and ‘A man from Glamorganvale’ here.


A Man From Glamorganvale

Mephisto, the world’s only remaining German First World War tank is without doubt a unique and fascinating object. Visitors come from across the world to see it, and many words have been written about it. It is also a treasured object to many Queenslanders who remember it out the front of the old Museum on Gregory Terrace, or lurking menacingly in the Dinosaur Garden of Queensland Museum at Southbank. But it is also close to the hearts of Museum staff and volunteers – one more than most.

Lance Barrett, Queensland Museum Volunteer, 2018.

My name is Lance Barrett, and I am a Front of House volunteer, meeting and greeting the public when they visit the museum. My paternal Grandfather William Joseph “Bill” Barrett played a part in the history of the Mephisto tank. As my grandfather passed away some years ago, I am only now coming to realise the significance of his experiences. During the 1980s my grandfather was interviewed by Queensland Museum and attended a function here but I would have been busy working at my job at Telstra then and missed it. Years later, when I joined the Sciencentre and the Museum, I began to understand that he was actually present around the time of the capture of the Mephisto and was interviewed when he was 90 about his experiences.

My grandfather enlisted in 1916, a boy from Glamorganvale, just 18 years old and fresh of the farm when he signed up. Before leaving he planted a number of Moreton Bag Fig seeds in the plot on his family farm, in case the worst should happen. By March 1917 he was on the Western Front, was wounded in battle at Broodseinde (Belgium) and returned to his unit in France in July 1918. In October he was transferred to the 26th Battalion who retrieved the tank and sent it on its way to Brisbane. At the interview with then Queensland Museum Curator, Mark Whitmore, my grandfather spoke about how he saw Mephisto when he was relieving troops holding an outpost beyond the tank.

William Barrett
William Joseph “Bill” Barrett, circa 1916.

In my role as a Front of House volunteer I regularly visited the display Courage of Ordinary Men. It made me think about my grandfather’s war experience, and really personalised the First World War for me. In 2012 my Dad visited the European battlefields, including Villers-Bretonneux, to see where his father had fought. When he brought home photos, it made me feel so connected with my grandfather and his experiences. Added to this, other relatives have served in the military over the years, including both World Wars and Vietnam. One distant cousin received a DCM in World War 2, and my Dad served in peace time. With all these family connections, and talking to visitors to the Courage of Ordinary Men exhibition, I felt everything fall into place because so many of my relatives have served our country – a family history of service. I have wondered whether I could do that – it seems to me the ultimate bravery.

Members of the Barrett family in 1986, with Mephisto. L to R : Darrell and Elaine Barrett (nee Harding), Barbara Douglas (nee Barrett), Elaine Barrett, Bill Barrett (centre), Glenda Barrett, Vivian Griffiths and Kelvin Barrett.

Now, when I talk to visitors about war time, I challenge them to think about what it really meant for the men and women who served. And today as I look at Mephisto, newly installed in the Anzac Legacy Gallery, I find myself thinking again of my grandfather, standing at an outpost on the Western Front, looking across at this tank, just after it had been captured. And once again feel that wonderful connection to my grandfather, William Joseph “Bill” Barrett. I think about our family, my Aunts and Uncles, most of who are still with us, who are so proud of Grandad, their Dad, and his role in the First World War.

Stories in living colour

By Dr Geraldine Mate, Principal Curator, History, Industry and Technology, Queensland Museum

When I was asked to say a few words at the opening of the new Anzac Legacy Gallery, I thought “yes, that would be great”…then they said three to four minutes and I thought that would be impossible. I could talk for an hour, but how could I fit so many incredible stories into four minutes?!

And there are literally hundreds of incredible stories. Stories about bravery under fire, quiet moments in war, about women who cared enough to devote months and even years of their lives to giving to others, of cruel internment, of men who stoically bore injuries and illness as an aftermath of war, and of those who never returned.


This gallery, however, is not just one of wartime one hundred years ago. It’s also about the Queensland we live in today, a Queensland where unexpected events are tied by filaments back to the First World War, where tea cosies, place names and even robots can be seen through the lens of time as having a link to the war.

But this war, and its link to Queensland, was not in sepia, or black and white, but affected and embroiled real people. And people are at the centre of the stories presented here, stories that we are privileged to be able to tell. These stories could not be told without the objects that were loaned and or donated to us by the descendants of the original owners of the special objects that make up the gallery.

I would like to thank all of you, from the bottom of my heart, for your involvement in the gallery – in ways both big and small. It may not seem much at times – a phone conversation about your grandparents, lending us a photograph, or coming in briefly to look at something donated years ago – but for me as one of the curators for the gallery, it meant an enormous amount, allowing us to get a more personal glimpse into the lives of the men and women we are telling these stories about.

Anzac Legacy Gallery.jpg

This would be a good point to acknowledge that this gallery is first and foremost a team effort. There were a large number of Curators and collection managers involved over the course of the project, as well as other colleagues in different roles who brought the project together. The project management team, Graphic Design, Exhibition Design, the Exhibition Services team, our amazing Conservation team, and last but by no means least the teams at Architectus and Romeo who brought the curatorial vision to life.

That’s one of the exciting things about doing an exhibition. You start out with a single idea – “let’s do a gallery about World War One and its impact in Queensland”. There’s the discovery phase where you look at the objects in the collection and reveal the stories about them; the hard graft stage where you write the stories, finalise the object selection, and choose photographs, and write some more; the creative phase where you work with designers to create a space that suits the gallery and case layouts that tell the stories to their best advantage; and then the final push to get objects conserved, to build and install cases, and polish the glass before opening day. As a curator, it’s pretty exciting seeing the objects and stories that have going around in your head for months or even years suddenly before you, in three dimensions and living colour.


The idea of living colour was particularly important to me as a way to connect in the gallery with the real life stories, and this was an objective for us ­– connecting with the people – the men and women who were part of the war, or lived with its aftermath, and those who have continued to impact Queensland today.

Women like Elsie Wright who by day helped her husband farm on their soldier settlement block after his return from the war, and by night embroidered to support their family. Men like Caleb Shang, a book-keeper from Cairns who was awarded the DCM, or Henry Dalziel, an apprentice in the Railways from Atherton, who was awarded the Victoria Cross.

ALG poppy ceiling.jpg

These stories are yours – the families of the men and women who’s lives we reveal a little of in this gallery. Thank you again for your donations, stories and photographs. Thank you for the privilege of a small glimpse into your family’s history. I hope you enjoy the gallery, and feel proud of the stories we are telling of your loved ones to the many, many people who visit Queensland Museum.

As you look around the exhibition we hope that you find a touch point – perhaps in a story, funny or poignant, or in the sheer size of the undertaking of war and the long impact of the war in Queensland; and that you leave with a new view of the Legacy of our Anzacs.

War Savings – Balancing the books of battle

Written by Judith Hickson , Social History Curator, Queensland Museum

The Cultures and Histories Program at the Queensland Museum frequently receives donations that, while seemingly ordinary, provide unexpected opportunities to uncover forgotten pieces of our history and at the same time offer us the chance to re-examine these from a recent and (hopefully) more enlightened perspective.

Continue reading War Savings – Balancing the books of battle