Curtiss P-40N-20 Leonard Waters: Aboriginal Airman

Built by:Michael Turner
Kit:1/48 AMT P-40N Warhawk (8798)
Kit Media:Plastic
Modifications and
Built ‘Out Of Box’
Unit:RAAF, 78 Sqn.
Location:Morotai, Netherlands East Indies, 1945
Pilot:W/O Leonard Waters

Area of Operations


The allied plan in the Pacific was to neutralise the main Japanese base of Rabaul on New Britain and
then invade the Philippines to provide bases from which to strike Japan in preparation for an
invasion. This plan would isolate and by-pass Japanese forces in the Netherlands East Indies
(Indonesia) and the Malay peninsula.

As part of this strategy, the US and Australian forces invaded the island of Morotai on the 15 th of
September 1944and mostly secured the island in two weeks. This provided airfields from which they
could support the liberation of the Philippines, which began on the 20 th of October and continued to
the Japanese total surrender on the 15 th of August.

With significant Japanese forces remaining nearby, the RAAF units, including P-40 and Spitfire
squadrons, were also employed in mopping up operations in the surrounding islands.
In July 1944 Len Waters became the only indigenous Australian to gain their pilot wings for service
with the RAAF in World War 2. He was posted to 78 SQN, operating from Noemfoor, Morotai and,
finally, Borneo in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) and flew 95 missions in his P-40N
Kittyhawk “Black Magic”. His last recorded flight was on the same day that the nuclear bomb was
dropped on Hiroshima.

Len was able to join the RAAF because in 1942, with the advance southward of Japanese forces, the
desperate need for recruits led to the relaxing of rules that excluded those who were not white
Australians or Europeans. It is telling that it was not until the successful 1967 referendum that
indigenous Australians were included in the national census and therefore officially considered
members of the Australian population. Nevertheless, Len himself stated that he did not face
discrimination in the squadron as “everyone browned up pretty well out in the tropics”.

After his discharge in 1946, Len wanted to continue flying and dreamed of setting up a regional
airline. However, he could not get financial backing nor a civilian pilot licence because of his
Aboriginality, so returned to his pre-war trade of sheep shearing.

Len died in 1993 at the age of 69. His funeral was held in St. George, Queensland, with many of his
former 78 SQN colleagues in attendance and a flyover by nine RAAF Hornets in his honour.
At the 2015 Australian International Airshow, the Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Geoff Brown
unveiled the ‘Worimi’ F/A-18A Hornet. It was commissioned by the Royal Australian Air Force to
demonstrate its appreciation for the past service and sacrifices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander people. Fittingly, it also carried Len’s name and his family were present at the service.

Finally, in October 2020, the Air Force opened the 5-story Len Waters Building at RAAF Williamtown,
again in the presence of his wife, Gladys, and family.

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