A veteran recalls two lives – one free of discrimination, another as a second-class citizen. But, says Len Ogilvie, he harbours no bitterness for how he was treated.
Mercedes College students learned a valuable lesson about dealing with hardships from a bloke who’s just about seen it all, and been subjected to acts of cruelty that would be unaccaptable these days.
On the first day back at school from the Anzac Day weekend, April 29, Aboriginal Korean War veteran Len Ogilvie regaled Mercedes College students with war tales that make the skin crawl and racial vilification experiences that defy belief.
This year at Mercedes a special emphasis was placed on the sacrifices of Aboriginal servicemen and women, whose dedication and patriotism have lacked proper recognition, according to the college.
Len, a Yamaji man and Korean War veteran in the 3rd Infantry Battalion, spoke of his war service and being injured. He described his terror when all night long he lay wounded, beside his dead mate. Shot in the legs, and feeling his blood draining away, he feared enemy napalm and friendly fire as he waited alone for rescue.
Len was many weeks recovering in a hospital in Japan, and returned to Australia where he continued his army service.
Len told The Record that while he finds it hard to forgive those who took him away from his family, it has not diminished his identity as an Australian.
He adds that, as an Anglican who used to serve as an altar boy at Mogumber settlement near Bindoon, belief in God helps him deal with the grief of losing mates on the battle field, knowing that one day he may see them again in heaven. Len has a special family connection to Mercedes College as his daughter, Cheryl is an ex-student and works as an Aboriginal liaison officer in Catholic education.
Military service is a strong family tradition in Len’s family and he was proud to tell the girls that his grandfather, John Ogilvie, served in the Australian Army in WWI and fought on the Western Front in France.
Len had six uncles in WWII, five in the army, one of whom was killed, and one in the air force. His brother Wally also served in WW2.
Len was born on Anzac Day in 1928, and joined the army in 1948 to have a better life after suffering from racial discrimination where Aborigines were not allowed on the streets after 6pm and were unable to eat in cafes, barred from associating with whites and suffered from many other barriers in work and accommodation.
He told the girls how he went to Mt Magnet to take up a job before the war and the policeman wanted to run him out of town and eventually allowed him to work on the proviso he was out of town before 6pm every evening and was forced to sleep in the bush.
It was this indignity that gave him the idea of a better life in the army where he said there was no discrimination. “We were all Australians; we fought for our country, we were proud to do it.” Len remembers his army days as if they were yesterday.
The girls asked him many questions about his life and his honesty and ability to relate well to others made his answers at times unexpected. He felt no bitterness even after fighting for his country, after which he came back to be faced once again with discrimination. Racial discrimination extended to being excluded from access to the war service farms others could get, and they could not drink in the pubs with their army mates.
But Len takes a Christian attitude towards it all.
“I am not bitter,” he told the students. “I’ve gotten over it, and while it was rough for a time you have to take it in your stride.”
He spoke of how he likes to catch up with his army mates and join in the reminiscing and war stories, but he finds the Anzac Day parades difficult because his war injuries make the standing around hard for him.
On April 24, a few days before speaking to the students, Len had joined his Korean War mates at a ceremony for Kapyong Day, when Korean veterans remember the decisive battle of Kapyong, where a Chinese infantry division of about 10,000 men was opposed by some 2000 men of the 27th Commonwealth Brigade, including the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment.
Len gave Anzac Day a human face for the girls. School officials said that his dignity, pride and gentle humour said more to the girls than any documentary.
Mercedes students were fascinated by Len’s testimony. Year 10 student Charlotte Pittman said the talk was “eye opening, as I didn’t know that Aboriginal servicemen and women were treated poorly when they returned from war”.
Another Year 10 student, Rebecca Doyle, said: “It was surprising to know about the injustices Aboriginal people suffered back then.”