Children born of war: a neglected legacy of troops among civilians

After 70 years, Don Carter (back row, fourth from right, with his cousins Darryl Watson in front of him and Donald Carter jnr beside him) finally met his extended family at a reunion in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 2013. Margaret Carter, Author provided

New kinds of histories are raising alternative stories that temper the celebratory focus of conventional war histories. These are putting new emphasis on the costs of war in economic and human terms, and on the anti-war focus that emerges from civilian memories. However, the spotlight is seldom on the children born in wartime. Often the circumstances are such that they can never have a family to nurture them.

The “collateral damage” of war is often considered to be only the inadvertent killings of soldiers and civilians and the post-traumatic stress of military personnel, played out in their home societies in the aftermath of war. It is important that we do not overlook the widespread but seldom considered phenomenon of the children born of war. These children would not have been born but for the conflicts that caused the massive deployments of either occupying or allied troops, stationed in countries foreign to them.

These “occupations” result in various forms of sexual liaisons and intimacies, which range from marriage to rape, and the consequent birth of many children. Often the mothers are left in very difficult economic and social circumstances. The women and children often had to bear the stigma of their relationship with foreign men, even if these men were allies.

For example, it is estimated that as many as three million German troops were stationed in occupied France during the Second World War. The possibilities of sexual attraction, love relationships and the birth of children exist even with the enemy. Thousands of children were born as a result of this occupation.

More recently children have been born of the Indonesian invasions of East Timor and West Irian, for example. Children continue to be born of peacekeeping forces around the world.

Secret histories of children of war

Researchers across the world are studying this phenomenon – and the broken lives of the mothers and children who were left to their fates in post-war societies that were often hostile to them. While historians have been working with the children born of war in various parts of Europe for decades, and in New Zealand more recently, this work is just beginning in Australia.

The stories of three children who were left behind by US servicemen and later identified by Otago University researchers.

The threat to Australia during the War in the Pacific (1941-1944) led to more than 800,000 allied troops from the US being stationed in many cities and towns, including Townsville, Mt Isa, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. The need to build infrastructure to prepare for a possible invasion from the north also required troops in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin.

Further, as Dutch troops retreated from the Japanese invasion of Indonesia, they withdrew to Australia. Battalions of men from Indonesia and from Surinam in the Dutch West Indies were stationed in “Victory Camp” outside the NSW country town of Casino.

As a result, there are potentially thousands of children born from liaisons between Australian women and allied troops. This has been a secret history.

In these times the development of close relationships and intimacies in scenarios such as those of wartime seems to be expected and commonplace. However, at the time of the American military forces’ arrival in Australia they were told not to “fraternise”. Socially, sexual activity was frowned upon, especially outside of marriage.

However, in the exigencies of wartime many marriages occurred within a week of the arrival of the troops. Later, when the National Alliance of Australian Women president, Jessie Street, asked what could be done for the women engaged to or married to US military personnel, American officials told her that if your women want to get involved with our men, that is their problem.

Family reunions for whites only

A war bride scheme was eventually developed between the US and Australia. Approximately 12,000 Australian women travelled by ship to a new life in America. Many of these carried with them one or even two children.

This scheme provided for a family life for the children of white parents; the fate of the children of colour is much more complex. The children born of war in Australia were often caught in between the race segregation policies of the USA and Australia.

When Don Carter was born in Townsville in 1943 his Aboriginal mother and African American serviceman father were married. In spite of this, neither parent could travel to the home country of the other in order to form a family to raise young Don.

Australian Nancy Lankard went to live with her serviceman husband Ken in the US, but the war bride scheme excluded people of colour. AAP/Peter Mitchell

In Australia, American officials visited the home of each applicant to the war bride scheme to ascertain that they were more than 50% white. And this scheme was not open to the partners of African American personnel.

The men of African descent were not welcome in Australia as immigrants. There were several attempts to have the government approve a bypassing of the White Australia policy for the sake of a family life for these children.

Perhaps the most poignant is the case of the mother of Roberta Sykes. Rachel Patterson wrote letters to two prime ministers on behalf of her daughters and their father, Master Sergeant Robert Barkley. She enclosed photographs of her “presentable” daughters. The answer was always no.

Don Carter was raised by his mother’s sister’s family because his mother lived some distance away for the purposes of employment. He attempted to find his father some decades ago, only to be told by the US embassy that they could not help him. In November 2012, Don’s daughter Georgia located the Carter family in the USA. Unfortunately Don’s father had died only 18 months earlier.

Don’s cousin Darryl Watson and his daughter Lisa travelled to Australia especially to deliver to Don his father’s military file and personal belongings. Among these is a photograph of Don at about four years of age. Inscribed on the back is “To my darling Daddy”. Don was more than delighted to be able to meet and be included in his extended family at a Carter family reunion in the US in July 2013.

By helping children born of war to understand their origin and identity, solve some of the mystery and also lift the shame that surrounds the lives of many of them, their family history can be resolved and their well-being increased.


Dr Karen Hughes (Swinburne) and Dr Catriona Elder (University of Sydney) are co-researchers with Dr Victoria Grieves (University of Sydney) on the ARC project Children born of war: Australia and the War in the Pacific 1941-1944.