Horn Island commemorates 75th anniversary of Japanese bombing raids

Posted March 14, 2017 13:57:51

One of Australia's most important but little known defence bases is marking 75 years since the beginning of an extensive Japanese bombing campaign during World War II.

Horn Island, in the Torres Strait, about 800 kilometres north of Cairns, was home to thousands of Allied troops during the war.

The island's air strip allowed Allied forces to attack targets in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Pacific and return to a home base on home soil in a single day.

As such, the island became a target for Japanese air raids and would become the second most attacked location in Australia, behind Darwin.

Vanessa Seekee, curator of the Torres Strait Heritage Museum on Horn Island, said about 500 bombs were dropped on the island over the course of the 18-month campaign.

"[The bombs] were concentrated largely around the airstrip and surrounds because they were aiming both for the airstrip and the aircraft and refuelling capabilities," she said.

"After the first air raid, there was a steady increase in the amount of military [personnel] in the area.

"By the end of 1942 there were 5,000 troops and airmen stationed on Horn Island, while TI [Thursday Island] was the headquarters for the Navy."

Formation of Australia's only Indigenous battalion

As well as drawing a large contingent of Allied troops from Australia and around the world, the bombing raids on Horn Island were the catalyst for many Torres Strait islanders to enlist in the defence forces.

The continual bombardment of the area eventually led to the formation Australia's first and only Indigenous battalion — the Torres Strait Light Infantry (TSLI).

"Some [Torres Strait islanders] had enlisted prior to the air raids; they'd gone to serve overseas or they were serving in the area," Ms Seekee said.

"But once the war came specifically to the area and the outer islands started to get air raids themselves, the men saw their islands were in danger.

"Just about every available man of eligible age served in the battalion; there were only about 10 men of eligible age still in the outer islands, everyone else had volunteered."

Memories live on

Over the course of the campaign, more than 150 military personnel lost their lives defending Horn Island and the surrounding area, and more than 80 civilians also died.

Ms Seekee said while the memory of those who fought and died protecting the region lived on in the minds of all Torres Strait islanders, people from outside the area were often unaware of Horn Island's importance during the war.

"Everyone in the Torres Strait has got a family member who served in the TSLI so they carry those memories proudly," she said.

"And there's more awareness in the area about what happened in WWII because it's been taught in the schools.

"We get a lot of visitors here that have no idea that Horn Island was such an important airbase … they've got no idea.

"It's sad that it's not as well known down south."

Topics:world-war-2, community-and-society, air-force, unrest-conflict-and-war, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, torres-strait-islands, japan, cairns-4870

Read more http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-14/horn-island-commemorates-75th-anniversary-of-japanese-bomb-raids/8352026