Among the 13,000 Australian prisoners of war forced to slave on the infamous Thailand–Burma “Death Railway” in World War II were 50 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. One of these – and one of the lucky POWs of any background to make it out alive – was John (“Jack”) Henry Huggins III. He returned to his home town of Ayr in Queensland, met and married the love of his life, Rita, had three children and was a popular and respected member of the community. Yet the physical and mental toll of his wartime experience was heavy and seven years into the marriage, Jack died of a massive heart attack. aged 38.
When he died, his children were too young to have many memories of him. Rita’s endless stories, however, kept him alive – his kindness, courage, work ethic, his deep love for them and their community. But she couldn’t tell them what Jack had been through in the war, for he refused to talk about it. In Jack of Hearts, his daughters, the prominent Bidjara/Birri Gubba Juru historian, reconciliation and treaty activist Jackie Huggins and early childhood educator Ngaire Jarro, create a loving portrait of their father that sits alongside Jackie and Rita’s co-authored memoir Auntie Rita. Reading it feels like sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the sisters yarn.
It’s a serious book based on many interviews, including with the children of other POWs, deep dives into historical records and travel to Changi and the sites of the Death Railway. It covers the treatment of Indigenous veterans more generally. Refused the land grants – and thus the chance to create generational wealth – given to non-Indigenous veterans, they were sometimes even denied service in pubs to share beers with men with whom they once shared trenches. They did, however, get the right to vote in 1962, five years before other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were finally, officially made citizens of their sovereign land.
Jack of Hearts draws attention to crucial yet underexamined aspects of Australian history and asks important questions. How did some Indigenous people, including Jack’s family, manage to live freely, independently and with dignity while others – such as Rita’s family – were still being massacred, having their children stolen or rounded up into missions “under the act”? And poignantly, why did so many Indigenous people like Jack choose to risk their lives in service of a nation that didn’t even recognise them as people, much less citizens?
Magabala Books, 224pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Jack of Hearts: QX11594, Jackie Huggins and Ngaire Jarro".
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