Australia's forgotten indigenous World War II veterans

Almost every able-bodied Indigenous man throughout Australia's Torres Strait Islands signed up to defend their countr...

Posted: Apr 25, 2018 6:08 AM
Updated: Apr 25, 2018 6:08 AM

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."

Sarpeye

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.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 43742

Reported Deaths: 1558
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hennepin13948793
Ramsey5397238
Dakota285297
Stearns257519
Anoka2510115
Nobles16986
Washington134441
Olmsted133620
Mower9942
Scott9534
Rice8988
Clay63238
Blue Earth6292
Kandiyohi6001
Wright5645
Carver5182
Todd4052
Sherburne3755
Lyon3642
Freeborn3160
Watonwan2730
Steele2661
Benton2503
St. Louis24916
Nicollet21513
Martin1805
Winona15615
Goodhue1468
Cottonwood1440
Le Sueur1421
Otter Tail1231
Crow Wing11912
Pine1150
Chisago1131
Dodge1050
McLeod1020
Pipestone975
Carlton960
Unassigned9440
Polk903
Isanti860
Murray860
Chippewa841
Douglas830
Waseca820
Itasca7912
Morrison701
Becker690
Meeker671
Faribault640
Beltrami620
Jackson590
Sibley592
Pennington550
Brown532
Wabasha460
Mille Lacs412
Swift391
Fillmore380
Renville373
Rock350
Yellow Medicine340
Lincoln330
Houston320
Grant311
Roseau290
Koochiching261
Redwood250
Wilkin233
Cass222
Norman210
Pope190
Big Stone180
Kanabec181
Wadena180
Aitkin170
Marshall170
Clearwater140
Mahnomen131
Hubbard120
Stevens110
Lake100
Traverse80
Lac qui Parle60
Red Lake50
Kittson20
Cook10
Lake of the Woods00

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 36437

Reported Deaths: 776
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Polk7803188
Woodbury338645
Black Hawk257660
Buena Vista174112
Johnson15438
Linn145684
Dallas145133
Scott117410
Marshall112519
Dubuque105423
Story8978
Pottawattamie85913
Wapello71731
Muscatine70945
Crawford6823
Sioux5190
Tama49329
Webster4485
Wright4081
Jasper37517
Louisa36813
Plymouth3645
Cerro Gordo3569
Warren3481
Dickinson3123
Washington2559
Hamilton2071
Boone1741
Clay1521
Clinton1471
Clarke1463
Allamakee1384
Mahaska12417
Shelby1240
Bremer1227
Carroll1211
Franklin1170
Poweshiek1148
Pocahontas1091
Des Moines1052
Emmet990
Cedar971
Hardin950
Henry943
Cherokee871
Marion870
Guthrie844
Floyd832
Benton811
Taylor810
Jones801
Monona780
Butler742
Jackson740
Osceola700
Sac690
Hancock672
Buchanan661
Calhoun662
Lyon650
Harrison640
Jefferson640
Iowa631
Fayette620
Humboldt621
Madison612
Kossuth580
Delaware571
Palo Alto550
Lee542
Mills540
Monroe547
Winneshiek532
Clayton513
Mitchell510
Grundy500
Union501
Winnebago490
Davis431
Unassigned390
Howard370
Lucas354
Chickasaw340
Greene310
Appanoose303
Worth300
Cass290
Ida240
Keokuk231
Page220
Van Buren211
Adair170
Audubon171
Montgomery172
Ringgold161
Decatur140
Fremont110
Wayne111
Adams80
Rochester
Clear
65° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 65°
Mason City
Clear
65° wxIcon
Hi: 83° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 65°
Albert Lea
Clear
66° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 66°
Feels Like: 66°
Austin
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 82° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 64°
Charles City
Overcast
61° wxIcon
Hi: 81° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 61°
Clouds continue to clear as a warming trend heads our way
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Community Events