• Eddie Albert and the artwork by his grandson, Tony Albert, 'Yininmadyemi' in Hyde Park, Sydney.
One Indigenous digger's service in World War II inspired generations of his family, writes Living Black's Laura Murphy-Oates.
Laura Murphy-Oates

Living Black
20 Apr 2015 - 3:53 PM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2015 - 9:14 PM

"It is confronting," says Tony Albert, sitting in his home in the inner west of Sydney. "I chose the bullet because it is a strong symbol of war, it is a symbol of life and of death. I also liked the idea the bullets could be metaphorical of people, soldiers standing, soldiers fallen."

Tony Albert, a contemporary artist whose controversial work recently won him such accolades as the Basil Sellers Art Prize, describes himself as a pacifist. This may come as a surprise considering his family's record in which, over the past two generations, accounts for more than 80 years of combined service for Australia in the armed forces.

Bullet sculpture for Indigenous diggers unveiled
A dramatic sculpture has been unveiled in Sydney's CBD as a tribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service men and women.

Tony Albert's latest artistic project, 'Yininmadyemi, thou didst let fall' is meant as both a "sign of respect" to Indigenous servicemen and a "reminder of the stark reality of war", he says. The four individual seven-metre tall steel and marble bullets, sitting next to three fallen shells, all on a large boomerang-shaped concrete base, is now installed as a permanent feature of Hyde Park in the Sydney CBD.

Tony says the public artwork, commissioned by the City of Sydney as part of it's Eora Journey program, is inspired by the armed service of his large Yidinji Girramy family. More specifically it is based on the harrowing stories of his grandfather Eddie Albert, serving in WWII.

"My grandfather's story … was such an incredible endeavour of survival, to almost cheat death in a way, you know, that is an incredible story," he says. "I've chosen the bullets as a metaphor for that story."

Eddie heads off to war

Tony's grandfather, Eddie Albert, signed up for the war in 1940 at the age of 29. Gordon Wallace, a childhood friend of Eddie's from the same area of far north Queensland, signed up on the same day and was put in the same battalion- the 2/15th.

"I would've seen him everyday," Gordon says. "We trained for a while in Brisbane in Redbank and then we were sent to Darwin in the NT to do garrison work. We were there for about 3 months and then we returned to Brisbane."

"With very little more training … on Christmas Day, 1940, we were on our way to Sydney to get on these boats that were taking us away over to the other side of the world."

Their battalion would travel from Australia to Sri Lanka, then up through the Red Sea to Egypt landing in the Suez Canal.

However Eddie would have a short-lived career in the Middle East. He was captured in Libya in April 1941.

Gordon Wallace says Eddie's capture came about when an enemy spy deceived the battalion. "There was a chap dressed in the uniform of the British provost and he directed them (the soldiers) into the desert," he says. "They checked this chap…and they found out he was a German spy so they shot him and there was no more troops directed into the desert."

More than 150 men had been sent into the desert, where an enemy trap awaited. After an hour's fighting they surrendered and were taken prisoners.

"A hell of a lot of them I knew because they came from Cairns and Eddie was one of them but there was quite a lot of others that I knew quite well," says Gordon. He would not see many of these men again.

Life as a prisoner on the run

Eddie was to spend the next four years of his life in prisoner of war camps in Libya, Italy, and Germany, but enemy forces would find it difficult to keep him captive. He spent much of this time as an escaped prisoner of war on the run in Italy, hiding in cemeteries at night and taking shelter with Italian farmers where he could.

"enemy forces would find it difficult to keep [Eddie Albert] captive."

Eddie's daughter Trish Albert has spent years trying to piece together this time in Eddie's life. Her book 'Unsung Hero' tells his story as part of a series of educational books about First Australians.

"We all remember him telling us that, that he had 500 or 1000 Lira on his head and he had seen that piece of paper one day when he walked in the village," she says.

One story of this time was to become folklore with the Albert family, passed down from Trish to her nephew Tony.

"He escaped a prisoner of war camp with 6 other Australian men - another Aboriginal man was included in the group as well - and they went over the border of Italy to Biella and a family took them in," he says.

"Unfortunately they were recaptured by Italian soldiers and sentenced to execution. So three of the men who my grandfather were with were shot in front of them."

Eddie was spared execution when a soldier intervened and ordered that he and four others be sent back to a prisoner of war camp.

After another year as a prisoner in Germany, the war was over and Eddie returned to Sydney on August 8, 1945.

The return

Tony says the fallen shells next to the standing bullets in 'Yininmadyemi' represent both the men that fell beside his grandfather but also the Indigenous men that returned only to be 'let down' by a government that refused to acknowledge their service.

"The fallen shells next to the standing bullets in 'Yininmadyemi' represent both the men that fell beside his grandfather but also the Indigenous men that returned only to be 'let down' by a government that refused to acknowledge their service."

Eddie Albert himself was not welcomed in his local RSL, right up to his death in 1979, but decided to march proudly each year in his local ANZAC parade.

Trish Albert says Eddie rarely spoke about his disappointment at his treatment after the war. It's a side of the story she hopes is hammered home to students around Australia through her book.

"When he returns home he has hopes that life is going to be better, society is going to treat him in a far better way," she says.

"But he comes back and it's disappointment again; the realisation that he is still going to be treated and seen as a second class citizen.

"it is important that we actually stop and learn about the past and learn the true stories the real stories."

"I would like students to be able to understand and connect with Eddie as a person and understand how the laws and policies over his lifetime affected him and … why it is important that we actually stop and learn about the past and learn the true stories the real stories."

Living Black's episode 'Unsung Hero' airs on SBS (Monday, April 20 at 5PM) and on NITV (Tuesday, April 21 at 9PM).