Sharing Stories of Service: Ernest Duncan

Ernest Duncan in his army uniform during his time in the Militia, Circa 1941.


Ernest Duncan had already achieved a great deal by the time he undertook compulsory military training in 1941, and by the end of the war not only had he served in the army, the navy and the air force, he had also gone on to work for the United Nations before returning to civilian life.

Born in Brisbane in 1914, Ernest graduated from the University of Queensland with a BA in 1939 and a degree in Law in 1942. It was while studying at university that he was encouraged by one of his professors to learn Japanese, as ‘the Japanese were going to become an important nation in the Southern Pacific in the future’. It became one of his greatest assets, both in his military service and beyond.

In March 1941 he enlisted in the Militia and was part of the 15th Battalion until his discharge in September 1942. He then turned his attention to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), enlisting a week after leaving the Army. However, after four months he requested a discharge and in January 1943 he was accepted into the RAAF and was commissioned as a pilot officer, posted to Administrative and Special Duties (A&SD), Intelligence.

Ernest joined a small team of officers in the Japanese Information Service (JIS) attached to RAAF Command, Brisbane, which was commanded by Pilot Officer Norman Tindale. In addition to him, the core personnel for the team were Ian Grimmond, Alan Sanderson and Walter Abraham. This team facilitated the collection and translation of data from maker’s plates from crashed or abandoned Japanese aircraft.

In December 1943 JIS became part of Allied Air Force Directorate of Intelligence (AIRIND) and relocated to the Pentagon, Washington DC. One challenge faced by those whose job it was to retrieve the plates was to get to the aircraft before it was stripped for souvenirs. Their research was used to help select targets for strategic long-range bombing missions across Japan.

In 1945 Ernest left the RAAF when he was offered a position in the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in China which he took up in 1946. UNRRA’s brief was to arrange for the provision of food, fuel, clothing, shelter and other basic necessities to the starving and displaced population of China, who had suffered under the Japanese occupation. During his time in China Ernest’s legal skills were also employed to represent Australian citizens who had fallen foul of the local authorities. While on this mission he wrote detailed letters to his mother in Brisbane, which are available online as part of the Ernest Duncan Collection at State Library of Queensland.

Ernest’s wedding photo 20 June 1947; certificates of vaccinations; certificate of identity and passport (issued in Washington DC on 13 December 1945).

In June 1947 Ernest married Valda Markham, who was also a member of UNRRA. They remained in Shanghai until the imminent communist takeover in 1948, before going first to New Zealand then on to Brisbane, where Ernest practised criminal law.

"The war allowed some people to reveal talents that peace time would not have needed. It is such a frightful part of history and one we should not forget lest we need those same talents for better purposes." Margot Duncan [daughter], 2019

To learn more about Ernest’s service you can explore his collection at, State Library of Queensland:

This year we will be featuring 15 stories of service personnel from WWI to present. We encourage you to share your stories of service with us. To learn more about this campaign and how you can contribute, visit our website.


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