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Second World War

Lag Meta Aus: Home in the Torres Strait

Caution: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Second World War

Our first line of defence

With Japan’s entry into the Second World War in 1941, the western Pacific became an active front. The airstrip on Ngurapai (Horn Island) was the closest base in Australia to the front lines of Japanese-occupied New Guinea. In proportion to population, no community in Australia contributed more to the Second World War effort.

An aeroplane headdress modelled on a British Mitchell Carrier plane, circa WWII. The metal headpiece is painted in red, white and blue stripes, with black adhesive tape wrapped around the outer band. On top of the metal headpiece, is a painted wooden model of a British Carrier Plane, possibly made of balsa wood, supported by metal struts under the wings. The aeroplane is painted green with markings in blue, red, white and yellow. The wings each feature a target or bullseye design, and two propellers.
British carrier plane dance headdress, 2005, by Solomon Ahmat, Badu, metal, wood, paint. National Museum of Australia. Collection record

By the end of 1942 there were 5000 Australian and American troops stationed mostly at the main air base at Ngurapai (Horn Island), but also on Waibene (Thursday Island), Goods Island, Entrance Island and Badu, and Jack Jacky airstrip and Mutee Heads on Cape York. More than 500 Japanese bombs were dropped on the Ngurapai airstrip alone.

Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion

In 1943 over 700 Islanders, almost the entire male population of the Torres Strait, were recruited into the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, the only Indigenous infantry battalion in Australian Army history. Other Islander units were created for water transport and coastal artillery. The Islander men were highly respected for their local knowledge and work ethos. In proportion to population, no community in Australia contributed more to the Second World War effort.

Foundations for political activism

The one-on-one interaction with white soldiers and officers during the war helped to make Islanders aware of the injustices of their own circumstances, laying the foundations for political activism from the 1940s onwards.

The men in the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion were initially paid one-third the wage of their white counterparts, which led to a two-day strike in December 1943 by three of the battalion's Islander companies. This prompted the army to raise pay rates to two-thirds of the non-Indigenous soldier's wage. In the 1980s the Islander soldiers received full back-pay for their war service.