The extraordinary story of Australia’s first Indigenous fighter pilot Len Waters is told in a new book to be released on July 2.
Waters, a Gamilaraay man who was born at the Euraba Aboriginal Mission near Boomi in New South Wales, was 18 when he joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1942.
Two years later he joined the No. 78 Squadron and served in what is now Indonesia, flying a Kittyhawk named Black Magicfor much of his service, dive-bombing Japanese strangleholds in the region and carrying out a total of 95 missions in his nine months of service.
Waters died in 1993 aged 69.
The story of his life has been told by former journalist and author Peter Rees in The Missing Man, which is published by Allen & Unwin, (RRP $32.99)a and available from all good book stores.
In this extract from the book, Waters has just been matched with his new plane. It is 1945.
To this point, Waters had flown nine different Kitty-hawks in 78 Squadron and had yet to call one his own. It was an obvious choice: Kittyhawk A-29-575 HU-E, with Black Magic emblazoned on its cowl, went to him and would remain his for the rest of the war. The ground staff derived much amusement from the allocation, and Waters likewise thought it fitting.
He took Black Magic for a 45-minute test flight on 20 January and immediately felt at home. Recalling the eerie coincidence later in life, Waters commented: ‘Was that fate or what?! What an omen—and I’m not a believer.’ Waters clearly felt an affinity with Black Magic from the start. Although he was ‘not a believer’, superstition was common among pilots in war—from lucky charms or mascots to peeing on the rear wheel before a mission. Pilots have even been known to put their chewed gum on the wing to tilt the scales of luck in their favour.
Leading Aircraftman Arnie Nunn, a member of the ground crew of No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit, saw the bond that soon developed between Waters and his Kittyhawk: “I used to walk around it with Lenny. He reckoned it was a great plane—he loved it.’
Next day, January 21, Waters climbed into Black Magic’s cockpit to undertake the first operation in his new fighter. He was among 19 Kittyhawks that left to bomb and strafe building yards on Tahoelandang Island, but, failing to locate the target because of the weather, they returned to base.
Being the wet season, this was not an uncommon occurrence owing to low cloud.
On January 24, Dick Sudlow led another 11 Kittyhawks, including Waters in Black Magic, to bomb and strafe a bivouac to the east of Kaoe No. 1 airstrip in the Halmaheras.
Waters wrote in his logbook, ‘Bags of A/A, 4 kites holed.’ A day later, 19 Kittyhawks set out on a mission to Tomohon, on the northern tip of the Celebes, targeting Japanese officers’ quarters.
The weather was so bad that a nearby alternative target at Manado was attacked instead. They met with heavy ack-ack. Despite this, Waters recorded in his logbook, ‘Good bombing.’ But there was much more to that brief entry. Waters was among those who bombed three bridges in the area. Up to that point, Manado had been an important Japanese coastal base in the Celebes. Neutralising it was a high priority.
Waters would later recall that the Japanese “were still very well armed over the Celebes Islands.” So strong were the enemy defences that during the raid, ‘I nearly bought it’. He later declared what happened:
It was fairly hot there, because we were pushing the Japs back all the time and, of course, they were still resisting. We had raided this place before. It was a little bay, a depot, like a base. It had motor torpedo boats and barges and that sort of thing and we dive-bombed and then we had to go down and strafe afterwards.
Waters was leading the fight at the time. He described how, having dropped his bombs at 3000ft, he began to pull out of the dive in order to come back around to strafe. ‘[But] I felt this clunk underneath me and thought, “I’ve got a hit there somewhere.”’ By this time, the pilots knew the type of anti-aircraft fire the Japanese were using, and he believed it to be a Japanese type of ‘pom-pom’—a 37-mm shell:
I knew it was pretty close to where I was sitting because I felt the jar and I was hoping, praying that it wasn’t a high-explosive shell—I thought that it is a two-hour flight from the Celebes to Morotai and I could almost hear the thing ticking behind my skull because one in five is a high-explosive shell . . . I felt this slug . . . lodged between my armour plating behind the nape of my neck and the 75-gallon high- octane fuel tank in the fuselage.
It was a long flight back. When coming in to land on arrival at Morotai, Waters alerted the other pilots in the flight as well as the ground crew:
I told the others to land and clear the strip, because I didn’t like what had happened to me. I came in on my own and I just taxied to the end of the strip and the armourers came over, and I said to them, ‘There is something underneath here.’ Luckily, underneath the belly of a Kittyhawk is fabric, between the armour plating and the 75-gallon fuel tank.
Now, if it had landed six or eight inches one way or the other, I wouldn’t be here talking about it today. The armourers looked up inside, ripped it open and it was there—it was a live 37-mm shell. Incidentally, it was a high-explosive shell. I tell you, it’s the smoothest landing I’ve ever made. I guarantee I could land it on eggs because I didn’t want to jar out what was there.