‘Last surviving Saibai warrior’ recalls WWII service in Australia’s only fully Indigenous military unit
Warusam, who traveled to Cairns in far north Queensland to enlist, says he thought of his family as he picked up the pen to sign.
“I am signing this form to defend my family, to defend my country, to keep Australia free,” he said. “All my comrades – Aborigines, Europeans, island boys – we broke bread with everyone, we are all brothers.
Battalion members originally received only one-third of the pay of white soldiers of equal rank. In response, some went on strike briefly in December 1943, and a few months later the military agreed to increase their pay to two-thirds that of white soldiers. They finally received the full salary arrears in 1986.
Warusam remembers doing all day exercises on Thursday Island and Hammond Island, and night walks around Horn Island.
When the Japanese bombed Horn Island one night, he remembers everyone running.
“Before a raid, they saw planes coming in. They told us not to fire any shots because they [the Japanese] maneuver this area to take pictures. They took these pictures, and then they sent planes, and that’s when you can use a machine gun or a rifle.
When the war ended in 1945, most of the battalion was demobilized. Warasum and his cousin were forced to stay on the Cape York Peninsula to assist the military with various tasks as part of the demobilization effort.
Six months later, he was also released and returned to Saibai Island, where he is today.
Saibai is Australia’s northernmost island, less than 4 kilometers from mainland Papua New Guinea. Warusam was among those who lined up to get vaccinated last week as part of a massive effort to immunize Torres Strait Islanders to guard against the threat of COVID-19 leakage from the other side of the border.
Warren Entsch, Liberal MP for Leichhardt in North Queensland, says Australians must recognize the sacrifices made by members of the battalion. He calls Warusam the “last surviving Saibai warrior.”
“The Torres Strait was the second most bombed place in Australia after Darwin. There were a number of people killed there, ”Entsch says. “When they called for recruits, these guys volunteered en masse. And that left most communities without able-bodied men. “
Their service had a profound impact on the lives of everyone in Torres Strait, he says, including introducing them to a Western diet, which brought diabetes, along with alcohol and cigarettes.
“People should know the sacrifice they made… they weren’t recognized as Australian citizens, weren’t able to vote, paid only a fraction of what non-island members were paid , and yet they held on. Mebai represents this group of about 880 soldiers.
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