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Waters, Leonard Victor (Len) (1924–1993)

by Samuel Furphy

This article was published online in 2017

Len Waters, 1940s

Len Waters, 1940s

Courier Mail

Leonard Victor Waters (1924–1993), shearer and airman, was born on 20 June 1924 at Euraba Aboriginal Mission near Boomi, New South Wales, fourth of eleven children of New South Wales-born parents Donald Waters, labourer, and his wife Grace Vera, née Bennet. Educated at the Toomelah Aboriginal settlement and at Nindigully State School, Queensland (1936–38), Len left to work with his father on a ring barking team before training as a shearer. A Gamilaraay man, he had a family history of war service, his grandfather having served in the Australian Imperial Force during World War I. Inspired by the pioneering era of flight, Len enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 24 August 1942 and trained as an aircraft mechanic. At the time he stood 5 feet 11 inches (180 cm) tall, weighed 10 stone 10 pounds (68 kg), and had a dark complexion, brown eyes, and dark brown hair. His younger brother Jim joined the army, later volunteering as a ‘guinea pig’ for a trial of anti-malaria drugs.

Concerned that his limited education would frustrate his ambition to fly, Waters studied hard to compensate. He applied for a transfer to aircrew in June 1943. An RAAF interviewer described him as ‘a bit rough’ in manners and appearance but concluded that he ‘appears keen’ (NAA A9301). In December he commenced training at No. 1 Initial Training School, Somers, Victoria, where he finished fourth in a class of forty-eight. He learnt to fly in Tiger Moths and Wirraways, before gaining his wings and the rank of sergeant on 1 July 1944. Posted to Mildura for operational training in Kittyhawk fighters, he later recalled the thrill of his first take off: ‘you feel the surge of power when you open the throttle’ (Hall 1995, 163).

On 14 November 1944 Waters joined No. 78 Squadron on the island of Noemfoor, Netherlands New Guinea (Indonesia). The next month the squadron relocated to Morotai, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), where he was allocated a Kittyhawk that the previous pilot had named ‘Black Magic.’ He found the coincidence amusing and retained the name. In January 1945 he was promoted to flight sergeant, his commanding officer reporting that he had adapted quickly to operational flying and was a ‘good solid type, popular with his fellow pilots’ (NAA A9301). On 18 July he moved with his squadron to Tarakan, Borneo, where he was reunited with his brother.

During nine months active service Waters flew a total of ninety-five sorties, mostly ground attacks. On one mission over Celebes (Sulawesi), his plane was struck by a shell that did not detonate but embedded behind the cockpit near a fuel tank. When returning to base he alerted ground staff to the danger, later recalling that it was ‘the smoothest landing I’ve ever made’ (Hall 1995, 167). A keen sportsman, he enjoyed cricket, football, tennis, and billiards, and won the all-services middleweight boxing title while on Morotai. Returning to Australia on 27 August 1945, he was based in Brisbane at RAAF Sandgate until being discharged on 18 January 1946 with the rank of temporary warrant officer.

On 16 February at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, St George, Waters married Gladys May Saunders, a seventeen-year-old waitress. He worked briefly as a mechanic and road worker, then travelled widely as a shearer. Although he had aspired to start a regional airline serving south-west Queensland, he could not secure the necessary finance. Not having experienced any discrimination in the RAAF, he later recalled that once he took off the uniform he was ‘just another blackfella’ (Versace 2002, 24). During the 1956 shearers’ strike he moved his family to Inala, Brisbane, where he was employed as a meat worker and a truck driver before returning to shearing.

Waters was involved in a car accident in 1972, receiving injuries that caused epilepsy and limited his ability to work. His hobbies included singing, emu egg carving, and woodworking. Although at times he struggled with alcoholism, he drank orange juice when he attended RAAF reunions. Survived by his wife and six children, he died of pneumonia on 24 August 1993 at Cunnamulla and was buried in the cemetery at St George. Long recognised as Australia’s first Aboriginal fighter pilot, he featured on a stamp commissioned by Australia Post in 1995. He is also commemorated by Len Waters Street, Ngunnawal, Canberra; Leonard Waters Park, Boggabilla, New South Wales; and Len Waters Plains, Inala, Brisbane.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Hall, Robert A. Fighters from the Fringe: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders Recall the Second World War. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1995
  • National Archives of Australia. A9301, 78144
  • Orchard, Kim. ‘Len Waters Aboriginal Fighter Pilot.’ 2008. Accessed 2 March 2016. http://leonardwatersaboriginalfighterpilot.blogspot.com.au. Copy held on ADB file
  • Stephens, Alan, and Jeff Isaacs. High Fliers: Leaders of the Royal Australian Air Force. Canberra: AGPS Press, 1996
  • Versace, Chris. ‘Memorable Fight For Flight.' Queensland Times, 4 December 2002, 24
  • Waters, Gladys. Interview by Allison Cadzow, 8 July 2014. Video recording. ‘Serving Our Country’ project. http://ourmobserved.anu.edu.au/yarn-ups/yarn-participants/gladys-waters. Copy held on ADB file
  • Waters, Len. Unpublished memoir, n.d. Copy held on ADB file

Additional Resources

Citation details

Samuel Furphy, 'Waters, Leonard Victor (Len) (1924–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/waters-leonard-victor-len-24662/text33318, published online 2017, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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