Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion

Awati Mau, 97, is one of only two surviving members of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion. (Supplied: Australian Defence Force). Watch video.

Brendan Mounter and Mia Knight, Army honours largest ever First Nations battalion in 80-year WWII commemoration, ABC Far North, 19 March 2023

In the early 1940s, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people could not enter a pub, they were not paid a fair wage, and they were not counted in the Commonwealth census.

But when war was on the doorstep to Australia’s north, 880 Torres Strait Islanders signed up to protect the country against the Japanese forces, which had been gathering strength throughout the Pacific.

Their unit became known as the Torres Strait Light Infantry (TSLI) Battalion, the army’s first all-Indigenous battalion and the largest First Nations unit ever formed in Australia’s military history.

A special service and parade to commemorate 80 years since the TSLI’s establishment was held on Thursday Island on Friday.

It was an especially proud moment for 97-year-old Awati Mau, one of only two surviving members of the TSLI who led the parade before being seated beside chief of the Australian Army Lieutenant General Simon Stuart.

Members of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion on parade during World War II.(Supplied: Australian War Memorial [119169]).

Veteran’s face ‘lit up’

His daughter-in-law Moira Mau, one of about 50 family members ferried over from Bamaga for the event, said it was a joy to watch Mr Mau being honoured for his service.

“He was waving and saluting and blowing kisses … you could just see that he totally enjoyed the day,” she said.

“He’s getting really old and that’s the only thing he can really remember, is the army, so [the parade] took him back many, many, many years.”

She said his face “just lit up when he heard the Last Post play and the raising of the flags”.

“He was emotional too,” Ms Mau said.

Traditional dancers join the 51st Battalion’s Sarpeye Company soldiers at the 80th anniversary service. (Supplied: Australian Defence Force).

Lieutenant General Stuart said the fact that nearly every man of military age in the Torres Strait at the time volunteered to join the battalion to defend their homes was an incredible example of service.

“For a population of less than 4,000 people, more than 800 men from across the Torres Strait volunteered to serve in the Second World War,” he said.

“That’s an absolutely remarkable effort by an entire community.”

Members of the TSLI Battalion and officers at Rose Camp pictured on Thursday Island in the 1940s. (Supplied: State Library of Queensland).

He paid special tribute to the 36 soldiers killed in battle who made the ultimate sacrifice, and said the battalion’s efforts in defending the nation should never be forgotten.

“The role that they play at a critical choke point in Australia’s northern approaches was, I think, a seminal role in the defence of Australia,” Lieutenant General Stuart said.

“It’s a really key point of our national history that I think is really worth shining a light on, because it’s something we ought to be really, really proud of.”

Military city salutes TSLI

A service honouring the TSLI was also held at Townsville’s Jezzine Barracks Army Museum, together with an exhibition featuring original equipment used by the soldiers, a flag they made, and a list naming every soldier who served in the battalion.

Madeleine Philpot’s father, Private Sabau Dau, joined the army from Murray Island.(ABC North Queensland: Mia Knight).

Madeleine Philpot’s father, Private Sabau Dau, served in the TSLI from 1941 until 1946.

“As a young man, he went and joined the army from Murray Island, Torres Strait,” she said.

“[He] never spoke about it, kept it to himself.

“We were proud of him. We had his medals and my mother always pinned them on me every Anzac Day.”

Members of the TSLI Battalion and officers at Rose Camp on Thursday Island in the 1940s.(Supplied: State Library of Queensland)

The 72-year-old says she can now “die happy” after seeing the battalion recognised at an exhibit in Townsville.

“It was very emotional for me today when they opened that room up to see that,” Mrs Philpot said.

“If it wasn’t for our ancestors … we wouldn’t have the freedom that we have today.

“For many, many years, I’ve always wanted this battalion to get recognised.”

The exhibition will run until Anzac Day.

Battalion’s legacy lives on

There are currently more than 1,700 First Nations soldiers serving in the Australian Army, including those based on Thursday Island as part of the 51st Battalion’s Sarpeye Company.

“Almost every serving soldier today from the Torres Strait can trace their family history back to a soldier who served in the TSLI Battalion and they continue to share their knowledge of country to protect Australia’s borders across the north,” Lieutenant General Stuart said.

Corporal Billy serves in the 51st Battalion and is stationed on Thursday Island.(Supplied: Australian Defence Force)

Corporal Goodwill Billy from the 51st Battalion said Sarpye Company was following in the footsteps of the TSLI.

“They showed courage, determination. They made sacrifices in order to protect their families,” he said.

“We’re here, still carrying on [the TSLI legacy] and fighting for our people.

“The current role we do is border protection. We make sure the northern shores will always be protected.”

An all-important contribution

The army chief believes the contribution of First Nations servicemen and servicewomen has never been more important.

“We have a continual 24/7, 365-day operation called Operation Resolute right across the north of our country that the ADF [Australian Defence Force] contributes to,” Lieutenant General Stuart said.

“The contribution of our regional force surveillance units is key to protecting Australia’s northern borders and the understanding of country and waters that our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander soldiers bring is irreplaceable.”

A soldier pays tribute to the TSLI Battalion at a commemoration on Thursday Island. (Supplied).

Lieutenant General Stuart said the Torres Strait was of particular strategic importance for the region’s security.

“This is a choke point and a nexus between the Indian and Pacific oceans, so it really matters,” he said.

“It did in 1942 and it matters just as much today.”

Council of Australasian Museum Directors c/o Lynley Crosswell, Museums Victoria, GPO Box 666, Melbourne VIC 3001, © CAMD 2023
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