Title: Australia Remembers Len Waters: Boundless and Born to Fly

Author: Catherine Bauer

Publisher: Big Sky Publishing

Publication date: September 1, 2021

Genre: Historical non-fiction narrative

Themes: First Nations Australians, family, Aboriginal culture, Australian military history, Royal Australian Air Force, discrimination, racism, Australian government policy, courage, heroism, perseverance, service to country.

Additional notable information: Teachers’ Notes can be downloaded from Big Sky Publishing.

This review is part of a Books on Tour campaign.

Australia Remembers Len Waters: Boundless and Born to Fly is a compelling historical  non-fiction narrative which masterfully tells the story of Len Waters, Australia’s first First Nations fighter pilot who served in WWII. While this story follows Len’s journey and career as a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) pilot, it is also a story of courage and tenacity in the face of adversity. Through sheer determination Len Waters defied the odds throughout his life, he had an indomitable spirit that was repeatedly threatened by Australian government policies, racism and injustice.

The layout of this book which is brimming with historical information and engaging stories is exceptional, as it is easy to navigate via the contents page, glossary and index and the information is presented in an accessible way. It is visually appealing with a combination of varied visual sources, offering multiple perspectives and including evocative artworks, primary sources, such a photos and posters as well as maps. There are also curious questions peppered throughout the book, these have been designed to inspire readers to engage with and reflect on the information in order to connect with Len’s story and apply it to their own context. The book also contains boxes titled ‘Did you know?’ These include concise information about subjects including Aboriginal culture, government policy, the economic climate, WWII, the Royal Australian Air Force, planes, pilots and flying. In addition to this, fascinating sections titled ‘Fast Facts’ have been included. All of these elements bring Len’s story to life.  

Len Waters was born in 1924 on a mission and it was evident in his early years that he was fascinated with flying. He would spend his days by the riverbank observing the wedge-tailed eagles, learning all he could about flying from his first flying teachers, the Toomelah Elders and studying their boomerangs. A trip to the general store was an opportunity to scan the newspapers and magazines about planes and flying records being set. When he was older he would make model aeroplanes with the wood from the grocery boxes. He had a scientific approach as he would fly them by the riverbank and observe each models performance, revising his designs and studying the effect of his modifications.  

Len was raised by his devoted parents, Don and Grace Waters in small Australian towns. They were proud of their Kamilaroi culture and determined for their eleven children to learn about cultural practices, ceremonies, land management, fishing, hunting, arts and crafts as well as fire making skills. They firmly believed the Kamilaroi culture could coexist with modern learning. Grace’s visionary approach to education saw her children enrolled in correspondence lessons so they could home-school prior to going to the single teacher local school. First Nation Australians were only given the opportunity to receive education up to Year 5. Despite Len being recognised as one of the most intelligent students the teacher had ever taught, his family decided that he would be unable to continue his education as he needed to work to help support his family.

In 1939 when WWII broke out, Len was 15 years old. He had to wait until he was old enough to enlist. Together with his older brother Jim, they signed up – his brother signed up for the army and Len enlisted in the RAAF.  Len wrote on his enlistment forms that he was of ‘pure European descent’ because First Nations men were excluded from military service.  At 18 years old Len started at the lowest rank and joined the RAAF’s ground staff crew as an Aircraftman. Len worked diligently and excelled in all of his tests and training. He was exhibiting all of the qualities needed to become a pilot, he showed courage, initiative, determination, commitment, was focussed and also showed mental strength and endurance. He worked his way through the ranks, against the odds with his limited education and the discriminatory laws that existed at the time resulting in unequal treatment for Len and First Nations Australians.  However, for all that worked against him, he had strong family values, an attitude of thinking big that was encouraged by his parents, strong role models in the Elders who taught him much and the fact that he was unwavering and deeply driven to succeed in his goals. His tenacity and steadfast ways saw him awarded his pilot’s wings in July 1944. He graduated in the top four of his class and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant by the age of 19. Coupled with his accomplishments Len was a deeply respected member of his flying team.

While at the training base Len was not discriminated against, he was treated as an equal. However, it quickly became apparent that life off the base was still grossly unjust and he did not have the same rights as non-Indigenous Australians, despite achieving elite fighter pilot status and serving his country. As Len said, he “returned to being a black fella” and with that came discriminatory practices such as curfews, bans from attending the local pool and being forbidden to sit next to a non-Indigenous person at a cinema.

This book contains fourteen chapters spanning Len’s life and the last chapter, Chapter 14, is full of activities covering a wide range of learning areas including English, History, Art, Science and Technologies.

 A poignant quote from Len that captures his positive and determined outlook on life completes the book, “The sky’s the limit. And dreams can come true. You just have to believe in yourself, be honest, have pride, have dignity, integrity and be accountable. And it’ll all pay off”.

Len is a testament to what persistence, a strong belief in your worth and courage can achieve. His inspiring story deftly demonstrates that one can soar, despite obstacles and injustices.

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