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John Singe On World War 2
World War II

In September 1939 Australia went to war. The war in Europe must have seemed far away for Charles Turner, government teacher on Saibai, until a German arrived by canoe from along the Papuan coast. Turner promptly arrested him with the aid of Island policemen. The German, without a radio, had not known about the war and was naturally surprised. Subsequently he was interned.

Back on Thursday Island many of the local white and mixed race men joined up and, in the following years, served in the Middle East, Europe and the Pacific. Bill Turnbull, who had been born and educated on Thursday Island, joined the RAAF.

Later in the war he participated in the Dambuster raids on Germany and was awarded the D.F.C. H Carse, a Torres Strait pearler, became Lieutenant Carse R.A.N.V.R. In 1943 he captained the commando raider 'Krait' in an attack on Singapore in which seven Japanese ships (totalling 65,000 tonnes) were sunk, and received a Mention in Dispatches for his services.

However, during the first years of war, things changed little in the Torres Strait. Some goods were now difficult to obtain and the shipment of shell was disrupted by wartime priorities and circumstances. Underlying the outward calm however was the strong apprehension that Japan would enter the war. Though the consequences of Japanese entry could not have been anticipated, most concern centred on the hundreds of Japanese who lived on Thursday Island and worked on the boats. Japanese had been working in the area for generations and many who had an intimate knowledge of the strait were now in Japan where they would be available to Japanese intelligence. At this time luggers searching for trochus sailed down the Great Barrier Reef as far south as Mackay. Since large areas of the reef were unmapped such local information provided by expatriate Japanese would be of considerable value.

In December 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and simultaneously invaded British Malaya, thereby involving Australia in the Pacific War. Few luggers had radios so in the days and weeks that followed, as the luggers came in to anchor, they were met by members of the Queensland Police Force and the Japanese members of their crews were interned. European managers of the companies which owned the luggers working out of Thursday Island were also there to meet them as they arrived and to supervise the sad job of arresting men who, through their sweat, had made Thursday Island the prosperous town it was. This was virtually the end of pearling till after the war. Other Japanese residents of Thursday Island had already been rounded up and placed under guard in a stockade at the site of what is now the Wongai basketball court. later they were sent to camps in southern Australia - from which few returned to Thursday Island.

On 23 January 1942 Rabaul fell and 2,000 Australians went into captivity. Then on 3 February Port Moresby was bombed. Six hundred European noncombatants had already been evacuated and now most natives decided to evacuate voluntarily, by going bush. The ill-prepared Australians found themselves with a serious labour shortage.

On 15 February Singapore fell and 17,000 Australian troops were captured. The allies, desperately fighting to contain the Japanese advance in the Dutch East Indies, staged American planes and allied shipping through Darwin. Hundreds of Dutch civilian refugees came south to Perth or through the Torres Strait to the east coast. Those on Thursday Island who saw the weeping women and haggard men, crowded together without possessions on their evacuation ships, could have had few doubts as to the fate which would shortly overtake themselves. Evacuation of European and mixed race noncombatants had already begun.

Darwin was subjected to a savage bombing attack on 19 February in which 240 people died. Eight ships were sunk in Darwin harbour, but this was obviously a back-up raid for the fighting in the Netherlands East Indies. With the fall of the Indies Darwin would be in the front line but its strategic importance would diminish since the Japanese army had already decided against invasion. The most crucial area strategically for Australia was New Guinea where the Japanese were advancing south, and obviously far north Queensland would play an integral part in the coming battle.

Airstrips at Iron Range, Jacky Jacky (an airstrip near Cape York named after Kennedy's companion) and Nurapai were already operational as ferrying stages for the short-range fighters and bombers of the U.S.A.A.F. However here the general lack of allied preparedness was to have immediate consequences.

In late April 1942 thirty-five Airocobras left Townsville to fly to the airfield on Nurapai, and from there to Port Moresby. At this stage of the war many American pilots were hastily trained and few were experienced in navigation which was difficult enough anyway in the cramped cockpit of a single-seater fighter. So it was arranged that the Airocobras were to follow a B17 bomber.

Very soon though the inexperience of the pilots led to difficulties in maintaining formation and this confusion increased when the aircraft hit heavy cloud. Radio transmissions were disrupted by atmospheric conditions near the tip of Cape York and many planes in the broken formation became lost. The planes had left Cairns about 1p.m. By 4.30 those which had not landed at Nurapai were running out of fuel and beginning to come down all over the top of Cape York Peninsula. Eleven crashed that day and another flight of six Airocobras all crashed the following day in the same area. One pilot was killed and others spent up to four days in the bush before being rescued by a launch from Nurapai. Most planes that reached Port Moresby were quickly outclassed and destroyed by superior planes of the Japanese air force. (Ten inexperienced American pilots had been shot down over Darwin during the raid on 19 February.)

Later some American bombers crashed off the end of Nurapai runway and were stripped by unofficial Australian divers before they could be salvaged. There is also a record of accidents at Iron Range with casualties among U.S.A.A.F. personnel.

Meanwhile in 1941 the first Torres Strait unit of company strength was formed of men from all islands. It was officered by Queenslanders of the Australian army and designated the Torres Strait Infantry Company. The Torres Strait Employment Company and the Torres Strait Labour Company also came into existence. However in 1943 it was decided to amalgamate and expand the force. It became known as the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion as part of Torres Strait force. There were four companies A, B, C, and D. The men of A company were from Erub and Mer, B from Badu, Kubin and Mabuiag, C from Poruma, Masig and Iama and D from Saibai, Boigu and Dauan. They were mainly engaged in training, guard duties and work parties around Thursday Island.

On 14 March 1942 Nurapai, already on the alert after the attacks on Moresby, Broome and Darwin, was bombed for the first time. A Hudson and two other aircraft were damaged on the ground. Another attack was made on 29 April and again on the 30th when a B26 and two Wirraways were damaged and a soldier killed. Although there were few casualties in the first raids, the effect on the people was similar in some respects to the impact of bombing on Darwin's inhabitants.

The first raid on Nurapai was a great shock to those civilians who remained - mainly white men and mixed race. Arthur Filewood, who had worked on the Thursday Island wharves for over twenty years, ran from his modest bungalow in Hargreave Street to shelter under a nearby concrete culvert. Another European resident ran from his shop in Douglas Street to a slit trench dug in his back yard to find it already occupied by an Aborigine. The fellow had streaked across from where he was working two hundred metres away, in less time than it had taken the European to move twenty metres. The Nancy, a small Island cargo vessel, was moored at the Engineer's Jetty on Thursday Island. The raid caught its four Island crewmen near the Federal Hotel and they found shelter in a drain. However no bombs fell on Thursday Island in these or any other raids.

The Japanese bombers which made the attacks were all land-based planes requiring additional tanks to conserve sufficient fuel for the return trip. After the raids discarded silver belly tanks littered the channel between Thursday Island and Nurapai.

The night of the first raid and the days following saw the unofficial evacuation of many of those civilians who were still about. They simply threw stores aboard boats and left. One group crept out of harbour after dark on a nine-metre sailing ketch. Without authority for the move, they were afraid of being spotted and challenged in the dark. It says little for the alertness of the garrison at this time that they passed out of Port Kennedy without being detected. They eventually reached Cairns. Filewood escaped to Cairns on a lugger with some South Sea and mixed race people shortly afterwards.

A curious feature of the raids was the way the Japanese pilots, in their determination to bomb the airfield, totally ignored the numerous ships and small aircraft scattered about the anchorage. Many, tied up to wharves unloading at Thursday Island and Nurapai, were sitting targets. These shallow-draught wooden vessels could have easily been destroyed by machine gunning or near misses by bombs (as shown at Darwin). The loss of these boats, essential for free movement in this area, could have created difficulties for the allied forces, spread as they were across six islands and the two mainlands to north and south.

Subsequent air attacks on Nurapai were as follows:

12 June 1942 One Wirraway destroyed

7 July 1942 Slight damage, fires started

30 July 1942 Heavy damage to two Hudsons, three others slightly damaged

1 August 1942 Bombs fell three kilometres south of Nurapai

25 August 1942 Bombs fell between Muralug and Nurapai

18 June 1943 Bombs fell between Muralug and Nurapai

The inaccuracy shown by the Japanese in the last three raids was not a reflection on the declining abilities of Japanese aviators alone, but rather evidence of strengthened Allied defences.

A radar unit had been established at Long Beach on the north-western corner of Muralug, thus allowing ample time for fighter aircraft on Nurapai to scramble, employing tactics which were to be used repeatedly throughout the Pacific against the highly manoeuvrable Zeroes. By climbing above the attacking aircraft, slower allied fighters then used their diving speed to advantage against the Japanese planes which were still encumbered by auxiliary fuel tanks and full bomb loads. One Japanese plane crashed on the northern side of Keriri and at least one other is said to have fallen into the sea near Gialug.

The TSLI witnessed the various air attacks in their capacities as labourers, or in transport, or as guards. In the slit trenched on Nurapai, Island soldiers experienced their first bombing just as thousands of other Australian soldiers did in many other places during the war. During one raid Private Calorus Isua took great interest in the activities but his companion Private Isau slept through the whole event, thus acquiring a notorious and continuing reputation as a heavy sleeper.

Unhindered by these abortive raids a steady allied build-up was taking place in the Torres Strait. Blockhouses had been constructed on Thursday Island (near Tamwoy) mudflats, which are exposed at low tide, were festooned with pickets and barbed wire. Machine guns were set up. The TSLI trained hard in the scrub on Muralug. Six hundred negro troops of the American army camped at Cowal Creek, immediately establishing a close friendship with the Island soldiers.

The object of all this activity was to safeguard the supply lines to Papua and so the small transports passed constantly across the strait. Many luggers and their former crewmen were pressed into service in the waters they knew so well. Frank Narua, now resident in Daru PNG, worked as a crewman on sailing luggers between Thursday Island and Daru, an area which is mapped inaccurately in parts, or not at all. The journey generally took about three days. However the main shipping route from Port Moresby to Thursday Island lies across the Gulf of Papua past Bramble Cay. It was here that a tragedy, little known today, occurred.

By August 1942 Port Moresby had been severely and repeatedly bombed. General Morris ordered the evacuation of all remaining European and mixed race noncombatants. The Mamutu slipped from the wharf with some eighty distressed men, women and children aboard - only a handful of them Europeans. In spite of rough weather and reports of submarines, the voyage went ahead. In the harbour the apprehensive travellers saw the burnt-out hulk of the Macdui sunk by Japanese bombing in June.

The course to Daru caused the Mamutu to steer north of Bramble Cay, where on 6 August it was found by a Japanese submarine. Four shells were more than sufficient to sink such a small vessel, and survivors are supposed to have been machine gunned in the water. Only one man, a European engineer, escaped by shamming dead. Among those killed was Henry Matthews, an Australian Anglican priest from Port Moresby. He could have left earlier but had preferred to stay till the evacuation of the last noncombatants. With him was Leslie Gariadi, his Papuan assistant. The names of both these men appear in the Book of Modern Martyrs kept in St Paul's Cathedral, London.

The question arises as to what a submarine was doing so far north of the regular shipping lanes, in shallow water that would put it at a distinct disadvantage if attacked.

During the war crews of ships coming up from Cairns sometimes came to an isolated island to find the remains of a camp and other evidence of occupation which they supposed was made by the Japanese. And it has to be remembered that the Japanese had access to detailed information regarding the waters of north Queensland. It is perhaps surprising that they did not make more use of it than they did.

The assault through eastern New Guinea having stalled, the Japanese began reconnoitring the south-western approaches. The allies responded by sending a mixed Australian/American force to Merauke where an airstrip was quickly completed accommodating some fighter aircraft and Australian Dauntless dive bombers. Contact with the Japanese was sporadic with some minor sea battles between Japanese and Australian barges along that flat, swampy coast. The overextended Japanese were unable to maintain the effort and so this threat faded. But even as it did, servicemen were reminded of another danger when an Australian soldier was clubbed to death by savage tribesmen in the swamps. In July and August 1945 parties of the TSLI were sent to serve in this isolated outpost.

The strength of the TSLI was between 450 and 500, representing a considerable proportion of the total population of the islands and, as the weight of recruiting had not fallen equally on all islands, some islands were denuded of their young males. A visitor to Nahgi during the later part of the war found thirty-seven women and children and one old man. Every other male adult had volunteered or been conscripted into war service. Across the islands this was to have serious repercussions.

Over the years many Islanders had become used to new foods - rice, tinned meat, flour - and European-style clothing. Hurricane lanterns were in widespread use. As the war developed European staff were withdrawn and island trade boats pressed into war service. The people of the islands were left largely to their own devices. One observer, commenting on conditions at the time, said that many people on the islands left their houses and went to live in the bush for shelter. At night no lights were allowed and all cooking had to be done in the daytime.

Most Islanders were thrown almost entirely upon their own traditional food resources. The old sago trade with the coastal Papuans was revitalised but when it came time to hack new gardens out of the bush, catch dugong and turtle or shoot ducks, the young men were not there. For some families the war years were years of considerable hardship. At the end of the war twelve of their men did not return. Their names are shown in the Roll of Honour in the Australian War Memorial Canberra, with illness and accidents being recorded as the causes of death.

On Thursday Island, as in all towns under army conscription, widespread looting had occurred which discouraged the return of some evacuated civilians. Others had made a new life in the south. Many had married. Few of the Malays or Japanese returned. Before the war no Islanders had been permitted to reside there but afterwards, perhaps in recognition of their contribution to the war effort, the Department of Native Affairs * built a 'model' settlement at Tamwoy for Islanders, beginning the exodus from the Outer Islands and ultimately changing the destiny of a race. Thursday Island became the gateway to the south and by 1975 half of all Torres Strait Islanders would be living in the south.

The Torres Strait was never the same after World War II. An Islander serving in the TSLI was quoted as saying: 'The Army has been good for us coloured boys. In the Army we meet good white men. They talk with us. We are friends. Some white men are good. The Education Officer on TI helped us coloured boys a lot. We get any book we want in the Army. We treated like white men in the Army.'

Today when a couple of old TSLI men get together you may hear stories of bombs, or their friends the negroes, or Merauke, or how they first learned to drive a truck. And on Anzac Day the TSLI turn out in their numbers to march proudly from the Thursday Island post office to the small memorial park opposite the Torres Strait Hotel.

*The DNA in 1965 became the Department of Aboriginal and Island Affairs and then in 1975 the Department of Aboriginal and Islanders Advancement (both DAIA)
Keywords: army, Singe, John, Torres Strait, Torres Strait Islanders, Torres Strait Light infantry battalion, war, World War 2

Singe, John 1979, 'Torres Strait - People and History, World War 2', Chapter 7, University of Queensland Press.
Author: Sharp, Nonie
Source: Singe, John