Navy joins Shoalhaven in honouring the life of Private Ernest Licey

This article has photo gallery Published on Ms Dallas McMaugh (author), POIS Lee-Anne Cooper (photographer)

Location(s): Nowra General Cemetery, NSW

Topic(s): Naval Heritage and History

Executive Officer HMAS Albatross, Commander David Hutchinson, RAN, walks with Mr Keith Payne, VC, during a re-dedication ceremony for Private Ernest Licey at Nowra General Cemetery.  (photo: POIS Lee-Anne Cooper)
Executive Officer HMAS Albatross, Commander David Hutchinson, RAN, walks with Mr Keith Payne, VC, during a re-dedication ceremony for Private Ernest Licey at Nowra General Cemetery.

Indigenous Elders from the Yuin Nation and the Wreck Bay Community were joined by veterans, members of the Shoalhaven Community and personnel from HMAS Albatross at the Nowra Cemetery in late March, to honour the Shoalhaven’s only Indigenous ANZAC soldier: Private Ernest Licey.

While the local RSL gave Ernest Licey a full military funeral service after his death in 1957, he was buried without a headstone or an official grave plot.

Upon discovering Private Licey’s unmarked grave at the cemetery, historian Robyn Florance joined forces with local ex-servicemen and the members of the Keith Payne VC Veterans Group to ensure Ernest Licey had a more fitting resting place.

Rick Meehan OAM, Chairman of the Keith Payne VC Veterans Group, said there was 149 Australian ANZACs from the First World War buried in in the Nowra General Cemetery.

“Ernest is the only Indigenous soldier,” he said.

“To serve your country and then be buried without a headstone is a terrible injustice that needed to be corrected.

“While it took 62 years to correct the wrongdoing of the past, his grave is now fitting of a returned ANZAC, with a full grave plot and Commonwealth War Grave headstone.

“It’s extremely important to give due honour and respect to all veterans that served their country in a time of war,” Mr Meehan said.

“Now he lays at rest with full respect and acknowledgment of his service to his country.” 

Mr Meehan said Private Licey had served his country at Bullecourt, Somme and Mont St Quentin.

“Ernest tried several times to join, even changing his name to get in, and he finally got into the Army to serve.

“It shouldn’t matter what colour your skin is, because in war a bullet certainly does not discriminate,” he said.

Born in 1895, Ernest Licey grew up in Ulladulla and is remembered for his fishing, cricket and horsemanship skills.

He served with the 17th Battalion AIF on the Western Front from 1916, before returning home in 1919. 

He received the 1914-1918 War Medal and 1914-1919 Victory Medal in recognition of his service.

On his return to Australia, Ernest Licey returned to live in the Wreck Bay community, where he died in 1957.

Chief Petty Officer Tina Elliott of the Royal Australian Navy Directorate of Diversity and Inclusion said that as an Indigenous woman serving in Defence, she found it a moving and meaningful occasion.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have played significant roles in Australian military history for more than a century, and many of the Indigenous community who attended the ceremony were ex-military.

“Talking to them, and the Elders, you got a real sense of their pride in their service.

“The rededication included a traditional Welcome to Country by Wreck Bay Elder Uncle Tom Moore and I think the service was made even more poignant by the inclusion of both Indigenous and Military ceremonial rituals,” Chief Petty Officer Elliott said.