Army marks anniversary of unique Indigenous unit

One of two surviving veterans of Australia’s only all-Indigenous military unit joined the Torres Strait Islands community and Australian Army members on Thursday Island on March 17 to mark the 80th anniversary of the unit’s formation.

CAPTION: An Australian Army soldier from Sarpeye Company, 51FNQR in traditional Torres Strait Islander clothing for the 80th anniversary ceremony. Story by Captain Jon Stewart. All photos by Leading Seaman Leo Baumgartner.

Formed in 1943, the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion was raised to defend Australia’s northern lands from the threat of Japanese invasion during World War 2.

The battalion, comprised of 880 men from across the Torres Strait Islands, initially performed a light infantry role, but soon expanded to conduct a wider range of support functions including engineering, transport, supply and signals.

Mr Awati Mau, 97, from Saibai Island, joined the battalion at age 16 and was attached to the Pioneer Company, undertaking construction and building tasks throughout the islands.

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CAPTION: Chief of Army Lieutenant General Simon Stuart with Regimental Sergeant Major – Army Warrant Officer Kim Felmingham, WW2 veteran Mr Awati Mau and members of Sarpeye Company, 51FNQR.

Chief of Army Lieutenant-General Simon Stuart and members of the modern-day 51st Battalion, the Far North Queensland Regiment (51FNQR), which traces its heritage back to the historic Torres Strait Islands unit, attended the anniversary event.

Today, Charlie (Sarpeye) Company, based on Thursday Island, provides a continuing presence for the Army throughout the nation’s northern-most island chain.

Lieutenant-General Stuart said the establishment of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion was an important event to recognise and commemorate 80 years on.

“The role performed by the Torres Strait Light Infantry during our nation’s largest conflict cannot be understated,” he said.

“Almost every man across the Torres Strait Islands volunteered to join the battalion during World War 2 to defend their homes and their nation.

“The example of service and dedication set by veterans like Mr Mau is an incredible legacy for today’s Australian Army. All current members of Sarpeye (Charlie) Company, 51st Battalion, The Far North Queensland Regiment, are descendants of Torres Strait Light Infantry soldiers, continuing the multi-generational history of service to the Army and Australia.”

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CAPTION: Members of the Torres Strait Island community march during the 80th anniversary parade.

Commemorations included an Army open day hosted by Charlie (Sarpeye) Company, a service and a parade through Thursday Island involving current Army personnel, Royal Australian Navy Cadets and a number of local community organisations.

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CAPTION: Commanding Officer 51st Battalion, FNQR, Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy Schieb lays a wreath at Thursday Island War Memorial.

Commanding Officer 51FNQR Lieutenant Colonel Jeremy Schieb said the legacy of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, and the members of the Torres Strait Islands community who served within it, provided unity of purpose in the defence of Australia during a time of war.

“51st Battalion, the Far North Queensland Regiment, is the proud continuation of this legacy,” Lieutenant Colonel Schieb said.

“The Sarpeyes are the Australian Army’s largest primarily Indigenous sub-unit, with more than 90 per cent of serving personnel originating in the Torres Strait Islands.

“Their local knowledge of the lands and waters of the Torres Strait and their deep connection to country provides an unparalleled capability to protect Australia’s northern borders in the same way their ancestors did during World War 2.”

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CAPTION: Australian Army soldiers from Sarpeye Company, 51FNQR during the ceremony at Thursday Island.


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2 thoughts on “Army marks anniversary of unique Indigenous unit

  • 26/03/2023 at 11:34 pm
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    I had the pleasure of looking after this gentleman for 7 weeks over Christmas and back here in Thursday island again looking after him. A very happy and funny guy

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  • 26/03/2023 at 6:26 pm
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    There were a number of Indigenous Servicemen who were just ‘one of the boys’ in Vietnam – and back in our ‘training days’ as well – with amazing TRACKING skills. One – a Sgt – I remember well when he showed us how to avoid an ‘ambush’ by instructors – as a joke on THEM. Another in Vietnam dug an elaborate ‘foxhole’ outside a tunnel complex, complete with ‘table mats’ – to have a joke at bhq’s expense – using tunnel ‘mats’ that belonged to the Viet Cong. I believe he was an Engineer.

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