"One ilan man": the Torres Strait Light Infantry
The Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion brought pride and unity to a disadvantaged group of Australians, as they prepared to defend their homes from the Japanese
Far up a remote river in Dutch New Guinea, in December 1943, an Australian patrol ran into two boatloads of Japanese soldiers. In the skirmish that followed, the Australians drew upon a long tradition as warriors. They were unusual. At a time when Australian policy was that enlisting non-Europeans was neither necessary nor desirable, these men were Torres Strait Islanders. They were members of one of the very few racially-based units in Australian military history, the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion.
Inspection of Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, Thursday Island, 1945. 119170
The fourteen inhabited islands of the Torres Strait are home to a proud and diverse group of people. Their warrior ethos was essential to each island group's survival, since raiders from other islands sometimes threatened a community's very existence. Japan's entry into the Second World War changed everything. A common enemy threatened Australia and the Torres Strait lay in the path of any invasion from the north. For the first time the Islanders saw themselves as "one ilan [island] man". Joining the Australian Army, they prepared to draw on their own warlike past to defend their tropical home. For the Torres Strait Islanders, the Second World War gave birth to a unity they had never known before.
Officers of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, Thursday Island, 1945. Commanding Officer Major C.F.M. Godtschalk is third from right. 11*180.
Harold West, of the 17th Australian Field Company, remembered working with the Islanders:
The way they weighed into laboring jobs was an inspiration. They were big, happy, confident fellows, in no way acknowledging white supremacy and we for our part, did not claim any. We met as equals and got on famously. They were marvelous singers [and] also treated us to an occasional wild and energetic dance.
In May 1943 the unit became a battalion; the officers, under Major Jock Swain, remained white.
The battalion's activities were varied. The Pioneer Company gave assistance to the 17th Australian Field Company, which was stationed on Horn Island. Knowledge of local reefs and sandbars allowed the battalion to help the 2nd Australian Water Transport Unit, as well as the 22nd Australian Line Section who were laying an underwater cable, linking communications between the mainland, the Torres Strait and New Guinea. A small group volunteered for duty in the 4th Australian Marine Food Supply Platoon, utilizing their knowledge of the surrounding marine life to provide food for the thousands of troops in the area. The battalion's knowledge of the Torres Strait and its waters were invaluable to the Allied effort.
A squad of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion training in their company lines, Thursday Island, 1945. 119169.
Text © the Author
Vanessa Seekee is curator of the Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island, Queensland.