The untold love story of nation’s only Indigenous WWII fighter pilot

Leonard Waters met Gladys Saunders, a driver for the United States Army in Townsville, in 1946. Their untold love story offers a glimpse into wartime in Far North Queensland and will be displayed by the Queensland Museum in the lead up to ANZAC day.

Apr 12, 2021, updated Apr 12, 2021
Len Waters and Gladys Saunders. (Image: Queensland Museum)

Len Waters and Gladys Saunders. (Image: Queensland Museum)

Cultural warning:  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains images and accounts of people who have passed away.

Len Waters is celebrated as Australia’s only recognised Indigenous fighter pilot during World War II. During his service he made history flying a total of 95 sorties from bases in New Guinea and the former Dutch East Indies.

Gladys Saunders was a driver for the United States Army in Townsville, altering her age in order to join the ranks of the Women’s National Emergency Legion (WNEL) at the age of 14.

Saunders and Waters met in 1946 at the end of the war, bonding over shared experiences of overcoming exclusion to serve their country, and beginning a relationship which resulted in 46 years of marriage.

Curtiss P40 N-15 ‘Kittyhawk’ aircraft, ‘Black Magic’, (HU-E) Famous for its association with Len Waters, the aircraft known as ‘Black Magic’ was initially named by Flight Lieutenant Denis Russell Baker, DFC, 78 Squadron, RAAF. (Image: Queensland Museum)

The Queensland Museum is honouring their love story in the lead up to ANZAC day with the display, Len and Gladys.

Chief Executive of the Queensland Museum, Dr. Jim Thompson, said he was thrilled to celebrate the contribution Gladys had made to the wartime effort.

“Many Australians know the story of Len Waters, but many don’t know that his wife Gladys as a 14-year-old signed up to work as a Women’s National Emergency League driver for the United States Army in Townsville,” he said.

“As part of the display, Gladys has donated a few of Len’s wartime items to the State Collection, including his uniform and has also loaned the museum his medals.”

Inspired by aviators such as Bert Hinkler, Charles Kingsford Smith, and Amy Johnson, Len Waters realised his childhood dream by becoming a pilot in 1944.

He was documented saying ‘there was so much history being made… I made a silent vow to one day take to the skies myself.  Little did I imagine that it would take a world war to realise my ambition.”

Waters’ achievements received little acknowledgement at the time, and he reported that following the war he was seen as ‘just another black fella’. He died in 1993.

Gladys applied to the Women’s National Emergency Legion at the age of 14, having doctored her information. She said she experienced backlash at her ambitions, being told by a friend at the time, ‘they wouldn’t take the likes of you’.

Gladys Saunders, civilian ID card. (Image: Queensland Museum)

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In 2019, Gladys donated Len’s uniform and diary in order to commemorate the achievements of her late husband, and has since worked with the Queensland Museum to document their remarkable love story during wartime in Far North Queensland.

Minister for the Arts Leeanne Enoch acknowledged the importance of Gladys’ donation.

“Our State Collection is greatly enriched with this donation, ensuring Len and Gladys’ story endures for future generations,” she said.

“The Queensland Government supports the Queensland Museum to tell important Queensland stories and make them available through their collections.

“This display will enlighten visitors about the overall contribution our First Nations peoples made during the Second World War.”

One in 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people contributed to Australian World War Two efforts as service people or civilian labourers.

Julia Waters, the daughter of Gladys and Len, who works at Queensland Museum, said she was looking forward to seeing their achievements on display.

“I am absolutely thrilled when the curatorial team at Queensland Museum suggested we do a display to share my parent’s story,” Ms Waters said.

“It’s not often you are able to walk into work and see your parents and their achievements on show for everyone to see – I am very proud.”

Len and Gladys will be on display on Level 2, Queensland Museum until 27 May 2021. For more information, visit the Queensland Museum’s website.

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