It was an overdue acknowledgement of a long fight for recognition, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association said.
“I can almost guarantee that many of them have never ever marched before for various reasons,” secretary Garth O’Connell said.
He said was a “very special and poignant moment” for many families of Indigenous veterans who have long since died.
Veteran Uncle Harry Allie – who joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1966 – was one who marched in Canberra.
“We’re very proud and it’s very fulfilling for us,” he said.
“It’s something that we’ve been trying to make aware to the wider public that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women served.”
O’Connell said, despite the Defence Force having equal pay and conditions, man ‘black diggers’ suffered terribly when they arrived home.
“The sad thing was, for the very first time for these men and women, they actually got – for the very first time in their lives – equality in their conditions, the opportunity to travel,” he said.
“Then they have to go back to being just another ‘blackfella’ back in their communities.
“Having had a taste of equality and then you’ve got to go back to what you were before the war.”
In some cases, Indigenous veterans had their wages stolen, while others died and were never given a proper service grave, the ABC reports.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association is trying to change that.
“We’ve had many times non-Aboriginal veterans say: ‘Hey, I knew of a blackfella back in the day back in Vietnam and Korea’,” O’Connell said.
“We can then look up that name and then today with our networks in the community, then try and track down that fella’s family.
“We’ve helped quite a few families around the country get the due respect and recognition which was actually given to many of their non-Aboriginal mates.”
Decades after World War II ended, Gunner Percy Suey was still in khaki, still wearing his old army coat around Moree in northern New South Wales and still holding tight to his war medals in a tobacco tin.
“It was always khaki, my dad never got out of that colour,” his daughter Linda Boney said.
“Even when he bought day-to-day clothes – his trousers and shirts –— they were all khaki.
Gunner Suey put his age up four years to be accepted into the Australian Imperial Force, and enlisted in 1941.
Less than a year later, he was reported missing in action, taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, and forced to work on the construction of the Burma railway.
“Many of his mates in prison with him remembered him as a hero, because he would often and escape and bring them food,” Boney said.
On one escape attempt, he was hit on the head with a butt of a bayonet by a Japanese soldier and badly injured before he was medically discharged in 1945.
He arrived home to Moree a traumatised man.
“It was very hard for Aboriginal returned soldiers in those days,” Boney said.
“If you can imagine my dad coming home, serving three years in a Malaysian prison, and his children aren’t allowed to go in the Moree swimming pool.”
The family were not allowed in the RSL and were never offered assistance from Legacy.
“A lot of people don’t talk about it because they think that it’s not a story that people like to hear, but every opportunity I have to tell, it’s really about what life we had to live,” Boney said.
Researchers may never know exactly how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women served during wartime.
Up until the 1990s, there was no Indigenous identification process in the Defence Force.
Records and photographs show Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander diggers served in an Australian uniform as far back as federation.
They have gone on to enlist in every battle from the Boer War to current conflicts.
At least 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers served during World War One, and as many as 8000 may have signed up during World War Two. - ABC