Mural puts a face to history

Merrylands East Public is ensuring the role of Aboriginal people in wartime is not overlooked. Dani Cooper reports.

A man standing in front of a mural. A man standing in front of a mural.
Image: Australian Navy veteran David Williams in front of the mural at Merrylands East Public School.

When you walk with David Williams through the quadrangle at Merrylands East Public School, you feel like you are in the presence of a rock star.

Students mob the 78-year-old who lives opposite the school, asking questions about his life or simply wanting a smile and a handshake.

His elevated status is not surprising given the Australian Navy veteran’s face now adorns the whole side of one of the school’s buildings.

Principal John Goh commissioned the mural this year to celebrate the military service of Mr Williams, who joined the Australian Navy in the Vietnam era rather than wait to be conscripted.

“It’s important for our students and community to recognise and preserve the history of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people who have served Australia,” Mr Goh said.

“Our community has a history of recognising those that served in World War One and Two, the Korean and Vietnam wars and other recent conflicts, but there aren’t too many monuments that depict Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ role (in that military history).

“David is literally a living legend.”

Mr Williams joined the Royal Australian Navy, aged 18, on 2 July 1965 and spent almost 30 years in the service, rising to the rank of chief operations engineer and chief petty officer. He also spent 16 years in the navy’s submarine corps.

During his military career, he served in Borneo and Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, while also being part of the rescue response to Cyclone Tracy in Darwin.

As a child he estimates he attended around 13 different schools in NSW and Queensland during a time when Aboriginal students faced discrimination in the education system.

The Bundjalung man was determined his two children would not experience the same disrupted education.

“I bought the house opposite the school because I knew I was going to be away a lot and it would be easy for my wife to get the kids to school,” he said.

It was the beginning of a long association with Merrylands East that continues to this day with regular school visits to talk with the children about his service.

“I’m not here to make waves, I just want to make sure that kids know the full story. Twenty-nine of my family have fought for the country, from the Light Horse to today.

“Every kid knows the story of Simpson and his donkey, but I want them to know there were Aboriginal people there alongside him.”

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