Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion 80th Anniversary address

17 March 2023

Can I begin by being very grateful for that very warm welcome to country, and by acknowledging the Kaurareg as the traditional custodians of the land and surrounding waters on which we gather this morning, and I pay my respects to Elders past, those of today, and those who will be leading the community in the future.

And because our Army has a long and proud history of Indigenous service, and because today marks one of the significant chapters in our service, I wish to acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women who have served in our Defence Force in times of peace and war.

It is truly an honour for me to be here on Waibene to celebrate the service of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, which was raised 80 years ago this month during the dark days of the Second World War.

It was our Army’s first and only Indigenous battalion, and it served proudly and with distinction throughout the Torres Strait and in what was then Dutch New Guinea against the forces of Imperial Japan.

The battalion was raised in the context of Japan’s sweeping victories across the Pacific; a time when a seemingly distant war had suddenly arrived on Australia’s doorstep.

An authoritarian regime neither aligned to our values nor the international rules based order threatened Australia’s security and prosperity.

And as a nation, we responded.

Like all wars, the Second World War was a truly national endeavour for Australia.

It touched all aspects of our society, our communities, our values and way of life.

And most importantly, its presence was felt here in the Torres Strait – its islands commanding our only maritime chokepoint at the intersection of the Pacific and the Indian oceans.

With Japanese aircraft repeatedly bombing the airfield on Horn Island, the threat of invasion was palpable right here in 1942.

The raising of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion in March 1943 demonstrated what Torres Strait Islanders have done for thousands of years – standing up to protect family, community and country.

This is a remarkable example that resonates and applies across our nation today.

In all, as we’ve heard, some 880 men from the small island communities volunteered for service in Australia’s Military Forces – coming together for the first time as “one Island man”, as one Torres Strait Islander soldier described it.

Among them were Mr Awati Mau and Mr Mebai Warusam, who enlisted in the Army in September 1942 at the age of 16 and 18 respectively.

That’s quite remarkable.

It is an honour and a remarkable day to be with them today as part of this ceremony, something that I’m sure you also share with me.

As two of the battalion’s veterans, I want to acknowledge them, and thank them for all they contributed to the life and society we all enjoy today.

It is astonishing that all but ten men of military age from across the Torres Strait volunteered to serve.

Just as important were the women they left behind, who supported family, endured hardship and made tremendous sacrifices.

We acknowledge the exemplar of service – service before self – that the people of the Torres Strait have provided us as a nation today.

Willingly and dutifully serving our nation, despite the obvious inequalities of the day.

Inequalities in pay and in the recognition of their service.

Indeed, it was not until the mid-1980s – four decades later – that the veterans of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion received their service medals and full pay to which they were entitled.

We acknowledge the significant impact that service had on the traditional way of life.

And we are committed to learning from this past.

We gather today to express our deep pride in their service and their sacrifice.

We are equally proud of the women and men of the Torres Strait communities who serve in our Army today.

The legacy of the Battalion lives on today through the service of the Sarpeye Warriors of Charlie Company, 51st Battalion, the Far North Queensland Regiment.

And reflecting the Torres Strait Island community’s strong response during the Second World War, they and all other Torres Strait Islanders serving in our Army today can trace a family connection to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion.

You, the women and men of the Torres Strait, continue to play an important role in the security of our nation.

We find ourselves today in challenging strategic circumstances that have an echo from the early 1940s.

Which is why today, Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians are on operations – combining sophisticated technology, an intimate knowledge of county, culture and language to be the eyes and ears of Australia’s north.

You are making a vital contribution to our national interests, and do so as trusted representatives of the communities and people of the Torres Strait.

You are contributing to our Army’s, our ADF’s and our nation’s ongoing history.

We are tremendously proud of you.

Today we celebrate and pay tribute to you – the people of the Torres Strait – and all members of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion for their service to our nation, and the ongoing example of service and the legacy they forged for our Army and our nation.

Lest we forget.