Francis Hayes (deceased)
Ngalakan Man, Katherine, Northern Territory
Retired Private
8th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment
Royal Australian Infantry Corps
Australian Army

Australian Service Medal – South East Asia
Australian Defence Medal
Anniversary of National Service 1951-72 Medal

I was born in Darwin. My father is a Luritja Man from Alice Springs, but my family came to Katherine, and I’ve lived here practically all my life. I know every inch of this Country. I’m a traditional man, a Lore man, in the Aboriginal cultural way, passed down from my father and grandfather, and which I pass on to my son and his son. After school, I worked on cattle stations, but I wanted to join the Army ever since talking with a good mate, Arthur Butler, who’d served in Malaya and Vietnam. Luckily, in 1967 I got a letter calling me up for National Service. Dad signed the papers, but Mum said, ‘Like bloody hell, you’re not going over there to get killed!’ So I forged her signature, and it was accepted.

On the plane, I found my good mate Mick Markham from Pine Creek and two other blokes I knew. So there we were, four young Aboriginal men from the Territory, all off to do our National Service! It was months of hard training. In the infantry, you’ve got to know every inch of your rifle from top to bottom, take it all apart and put it all back together again – blindfolded!

They sent me over to Malaysia to Delta Company, 8th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, to help in the Communist Insurgency. We did a lot of jungle patrols and clashed with Communist rebels. When a race riot erupted in 1968, we were ordered to protect the Australian Embassy. People went berserk, 150 were killed. You heard shots being fired; it sent a chill through your bones. I still feel it, still see and hear it today. We went through some hard times that I have bottled up inside, but then it comes back to haunt me. But otherwise, the Army was for me, and I learned a lot.

I came home after my two years and when Mum saw me, was she happy! ‘I could kill you though for tricking me!’ she said. Dad was away, but my brothers and sisters were there, we all hugged and kissed and cried. It was so good to be back.

I’d have liked to stay in the Army, but I couldn’t do that to Mum. I’ve drawn on what I learned in the Army ever since, though, working all over the Top End, from Kununurra to Borroloola, as Aboriginal hostel manager,  field officer for Northern Land Council, senior ranger and Aboriginal Liaison Officer for National Parks, and project manager for Jawoyn Association. Now, I’m a cultural advisor with men’s health and justice programs for youth and the long grass mob. I talk to them about my army experience and a lot of them find it a big help. I’m on the Katherine RSL committee, and I never miss Anzac Day. I do it all for our people, and for our men and women who’ve served and sacrificed in the Defence force, and those who never came back. I never forget that I was lucky and came home.

I had a couple of heart attacks in 2001. I’ve applied to the Department of Veterans Affairs for my army pension, but I’ve been knocked back 3 times; I don’t fit the criteria, apparently. Eventually, I gave up the battle and just try to get by on the old age pension. I’ve been married twice and I have four beautiful children, and now grandchildren.

I never experienced racism in the Army. Our section of nine blokes were closer than brothers. We were all prepared to die for each other. They were top mates, and I never forgot them, even though I hadn’t seen them for 40 years. Then Tommy Lyons tracked me down here in Katherine. All the blokes in the battalion have been trying to find you, he said. We meet up every year on the Gold Coast, and you’re the only one not there, so we’ve chucked in for your airfare. We’ll give you four weeks to get your arse over there.

So I flew over and met up with Tommy, and he said, ‘Are you ready, brother?’ Well, I was nervous as hell, but when I walked in, all my old mates were there, from all those years ago. They all stood up when I came in, and when I saw their faces, I broke down. It was just too much for me. All these blokes I’d served with, one by one, came up and hugged me and held me. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.