Almost every able-bodied Indigenous man throughout Australia’s Torres Strait Islands signed up to defend their country against the threat of invasion during World War II, despite not being recognized as citizens.
The country’s first and only all Indigenous army unit, the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, was formed in 1943 as the Japanese Imperial army menaced Australia’s northern coastline.
Approximately 880 recruits enlisted, from an estimated able-bodied male Indigenous population of 890, across the Torres Strait island chain – an Australian sea territory between the northern tip of the state of Queensland, and southern Papua New Guinea.
Speaking on the 75th anniversary of the battalion’s founding in March, Australia’s Chief of Army Lt. Gen. Angus Campbell said it was possibly the highest rate of voluntarism in the whole country, per capita, during the WWII.
At the time, there were only around 4,000 people dotted across the island chain, although exact figures are hazy as indigenous people weren’t included in the census at the time. In comparison, Australia’s population stood at over seven million.
Now, only three of the original members of that unit survive. Campbell said it was important to honor their sacrifice.
“There is no other part of this country that served at such a great rate, we owe an extraordinary debt of gratitude and acknowledgment to these men and what they gave for their country,” he said during the event held on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait on March 17 this year.
Australia’s forgotten ‘diggers’
Every April 25, Australia commemorates the sacrifices of its military servicemen and women on Anzac Day, including the Indigenous Australians who have fought in every conflict since the Boer War.
Originally created to honor the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought during the doomed Gallipoli campaign in World War I, it has become a day of remembrance for all Australian troops, or “diggers” as they are known.
Australia’s “black diggers,” or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers, fought the same wars but not for the same privileges.
They earned less than half the pay of white diggers, were rarely awarded senior ranks or service medals, war pensions or land grants that other soldiers received. They were often denied access to local Returned Servicemen Leagues (RSL) – social clubs for veterans.
After lobbying in the 1980s, members of the battalion were repaid their outstanding earnings from decades earlier, according to local politician Warren Entsch. In 2001, they finally received service medals.
“As a nation we haven’t always shown respect to our First Peoples, but we are getting better,” said Darren Chester, Minister for Veterans Affairs during the March event on Thursday Island.
“We need to share your stories. It concerns me greatly that as a young student growing up that I had no idea of this battalion,” he said.
Torres Strait vs Japan
On March 14, 1942, the Torres Strait was thrust into the war after Japan carried out a bombing raid on Horn Island, a speck of land just off the northern tip of the Australian mainland.
Local historian Vanessa Seekee, who has studied the battalion’s history, said Horn Island was the base for Australia’s most northerly airstrip, which was vital for the Allied forces in the Asia Pacific theater.
“Horn Island was bombed eight times between 1942 and 1943, making it the second most attacked Australian territory during the war,” she said.
There were dogfights between Japanese Zeros and Australian Kittyhawks in the skies above the Torres Strait during WWII, and Japanese submarines lurked in its seas.
All this created the impetus for the men of the Torres Strait to enlist to fight for their homes.
The TSLIB were first trained as infantrymen, but the Australian army soon realized the versatility of the ‘Island Diggers,’ and they soon also took on the roles of shipwrights, boot makers, carpenters, plumbers, signalers and gunners.
“We did night time maneuvers, scout, messenger, break away man, learn how to bayonet dummies, really good training that time for one year, then we were transferred to Hammond Island,” Mebai Warusam, one of the last surviving members, told CNN.
Warusam, who is now in his 90s and lives at home in Saibai, in the northerly reaches of Australia’s Torres Strait territory, said his memories of the war are slowly slipping away.
“Some things I remember, but memory starting to go now,” he said.
But one thing Warusam does remember is how difficult losing almost every able-bodied man in the Torres Strait was for the island chain’s women.
Fred Gela, son of Lance Corporal Solomon Gela, one of the first men to sign up for the battalion, said the sacrifice of the Torres Strait women should be remembered as well.
“When we pay tribute to these men we must also pay tribute to all women, all mothers because at that time, their strength, their unity and their leadership,” he said. “They selflessly made that commitment.”
The memory of the war endures in the Torres Strait, some 70 years after peace was declared and the men of the islands were allowed to return home.
A group of traditional island dancers still perform the Airplane dance, Seekee said, after it was first staged in 1944 for Australian Army General Thomas Blamey to commemorate the bombing of Horn Island.
“Dancing is a way to pass down stories, to ensure future generations know the contribution of the Torres Strait Islanders in WWII,” she said.
Some of the dancers representing the Japanese Zeros squat, acting out the low-flying fighter planes. Those depicting the high-flying bombers stand at the back.
The TSLIB was disbanded in 1946, but their legacy endures in the region. Thursday Island is home to the barracks of Charlie Company of the 51st Battalion of the Far North Queensland Regiment, which is made up of a high number of Indigenous diggers from Cape York and the Torres Strait.
On the morning of the unit’s 75th anniversary commemoration, the Australian army’s Campbell formally renamed the barracks the Sarpeye Barracks.
“Sarpeye… is a local shortening of the expression ‘sharp eyes,’” he said. “The [TSLIB] company are known and have been known for decades, since the war, for being the members undertaking surveillance and reconnaissance with sharp eyes and sharp ears.”
Campbell said the regiment took strength from the traditional owners of the land, who had lived on the Torres Strait for generations. “We [all] serve one purpose, defense of this great country,” he said.