War service

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Not many people know that we have fought in every war in which Australia has been engaged and often with great distinction.

Thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders served in Australian defence forces in World War I and World War II. Many more served in Vietnam and Korea, and then in the Somalia, Serbia, Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even though we were legally excluded from serving in the armed forces, Aboriginal men fought at Gallipoli and the Western Front in the First World War. Yet when they returned to Australia, almost all were denied rights given to other returned servicemen, which included the soldier-settlement schemes.

Female Army Cadets from remote Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory sing the Australian National Anthem on the ‘To Become A Leader In Your Community’ Indigenous army cadet camp. Photo © Department of Defence.

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At the War's Front.

'One Ailan Man': Torres Strait Islander Infantry.


From a population of a few thousand, nearly 1000 Torres Strait Islander recruits signed up to join Australia’s war effort between 1942 to 1945. This was despite it being the pearling season, when many island men normally worked on the boats.

Fearful of the Japanese advance, the army allowed the Islanders to enlist. They later became the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion.

The Islanders had maintained their traditional island identities; now, in joining the Australian army, they fought side by side with other Australians. In wartime, they saw themselves working together as ‘one ailan man’.

While the Torres Strait Islanders risked their lives defending Australia, they received only a third of the pay of other Australian soldiers. Frustrated at the discrimination and needing to take care of their families, in 1943 they decided to go on strike. The army agreed to raise the pay to two-thirds that of other army personnel. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Indigenous soldiers received their back pay.


Torres Strait Islander women living on remote islands beyond the front line of Australia’s north-eastern defences against Japanese aggression in 1942 were left in their communities to fend for themselves. All women and children living on the inner islands were evacuated south. Two women remember:

'When we were out fishing and the planes — twenty-five, thirty — came over, we dig a hole and lie down in the sand and cover ourselves with our dress and put sand over us.'

On Mabuiag Island the women witnessed fighting between Japanese and Allied planes overhead:

'We could see them like white birds everywhere on top, and we can see the smoke when they fired the guns.'

On Nagi the women, children and old people went a long way beyond the village, up the hill, and built houses with plaited mat walls and sheet iron or grass roofs, all camouflaged with branches and leaves. The old people found the disruption difficult. After one air alert a Nagi woman noted:

'Our grandmother was a short little lady and she used to run in between us. She could not keep up. She said, ‘Next time they come, leave me. Let that bomb fall on me.’

Source: E Osborne 1997, Torres Strait Islander women and the Pacific War, Aboriginal Studies Press, ACT.