Anzac Day services will be held across far north Queensland tomorrow. Regular Anzac events have been held at Aurukun, on western Cape York Peninsula, for some time now – but this year they’re unveiling a memorial to indigenous men from the community who served in Australia’s defence during World War Two.
On September 13 1943, eleven men from the remote indigenous community enlisted and joined the Torres Strait Light Infantry. An Australian Water Transport Group vessel had visited Aurukun, Weipa and Mapoon, specifically to recruit Aboriginal men. Many of them had worked in the pearling lugger fleets that plied Torres Strait in those days. The military placed a high value on their knowledge of the remote Cape country & the challenging seas around Cape York.
Exact details of their military service are not known, but the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion played a vital role in protecting the maritime borders of far north Queensland and supporting the effort against Japanese forces in Papua New Guinea. It’s not well known that, after Darwin, Horn Island in the Torres Strait was the second-most attacked piece of Australian territory during WW2. In all, 870 men from Cape York & Torres Strait served with the Light Infantry.
The plaque lists the 11 men from Aurukun who joined up. They were:
Johnnie Lac Lac Ampeybegan
Billy Panjee Peinkyekka
The threat posed by Japanese forces to northern Australia back then was very real. The Royal Australian Air Force established a radar station at Wutan, at the Archer River mouth, in 1943. There were many stories told about a Japanese submarine attempting to get into the Archer River from the Gulf of Carpentaria. The western Cape then, as now, is sparsely populated, and military historians say Japan had considered the area as a place to get into Australia.
Listen to Linda Sivyer talk about the military service of the Aurukun men during World War 2.
Linda Sivyer works at Aurukun Shire Council and co-ordinates the Anzac Day ceremony at Aurukun. She’s lived there for 20 years and has extensively researched the history of the region.
Photos by Melanie Shaddock – teacher at Cape York Aboriginal Academy Aurukun campus