Remembrance Day Tribute to all Veterans – Black and White

- November 11, 2014

Fiona Jose speaking at the Remembrance Day Ceremony in Cairns, 11 November 2014.

Fiona Jose speaking at the Remembrance Day ceremony in Cairns, 11 November 2014.

Fiona Jose, General Manager of Cape York Partnership, today paid tribute to all Australian men, women and families who made sacrifices in the name of freedom. She made special mention of the important role that women played, the involvement of Far North Queensland and the contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Her heartfelt speech, which recollects her own family wartime involvement, follows.

We are here today to remember the people who gave their lives in war, so later generations could enjoy lives free from tyranny.

Australians, black and white, were enthusiastic defenders of our country. More than 416,000 Australians enlisted in World War I, out of a population of not much more than four million. Sixty thousand lost their lives in that war, and 40 thousand in World War II.

Guarding the north was critical to the domestic war effort – northern Queensland had become a major defence flank after Japan’s incursion into the war in 1941. The 51st battalion was stationed full time to defend the coastline between Port Douglas and Gordonvale. In the face of the threat of invasion, the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion was formed in 1941 to defend the strategically important Torres Strait.

Victor Blanco showing his mates some Torres Strait Islander culture in England in August 1940.

Victor Blanco showing his mates some Torres Strait Islander culture in England in August 1940. Fiona Jose’s great uncle Victor Blanco was one of several Torres Strait Islanders who joined at the start of the war in September 1939 and later transferred to the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for service overseas.
Photo: John Paul Janke

My great grandfather, Thomas Corrie, and my great uncle, Victor Blanco, were two of many Torres Strait Islanders to join at the start of the war in 1939. Despite receiving less pay than other soldiers, the loyalty of my people to their country and nation was shown in the rate of enlistment: by 1944, every able-bodied male in the Torres Strait had joined up.

They were scary times: the Japanese bombed Horn Island, Townsville and Mossman during air attacks. At this time, Private P Jose, my uncle (my grandfather’s brother) enlisted in Mossman to the 17th Battalion AIF. My grandmother was evacuated from Hammond Island in the Torres Straits to Cairns.

Indigenous women in the north were relied upon to support isolated RAAF outposts, salvage aircraft and help build roads. Women, generally, excelled in the war effort, in spite of the government’s polite ‘no thank you’ when a female contribution was first suggested. But as the demand for more overseas fighting men escalated, the government relented and women flocked in large numbers into the workforce, to replace the men; into volunteer roles, and into the three armed services. All up, nearly 66,000 women served our country, including 3,000 in the highly successful Women’s Land Army, set up to help agricultural production.

TSI members of 17th Battalion Volunteer Defence Corps

Inspection 24 January 1944, Mossman, Queensland. Lieutenant A Morgan inspects Torres Strait Islander members of the 17th Battalion Volunteer Defence Corps: (left to right) Private D Pitt, Private P Jose, Private W Wong. Photographer: James Tait. Reproduced courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

It’s impossible to know how many Indigenous people enlisted in World War II, as Aboriginals were not allowed to declare their heritage on enlistment forms. Numbers were also restricted because of on-and-off-again government policies preventing Indigenous recruitment, but many cleverly sidestepped the colour bar and joined up. Some historians estimate the Indigenous war effort at around 3,000, with that number again working as labourers, salvaging wrecked aircraft, building roads and delivering supplies.

A welcome colour blindness infused the ranks … mate fighting alongside mate in defence of country was all that mattered. In recent years, there’s been a strong determination at armed services and government level to recognise the Indigenous contribution to Australia’s war efforts, overlooked by history.

Ten years ago an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island memorial was erected in bushland behind the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Displays have been upgraded, and a highly successful exhibition about Indigenous Australians at war, too dark for the light horse, has toured the country. So as we give thanks to those fallen and wounded in battle, we also pause to reflect on the present, and the legacy of their deaths: a country where all people can strive for equality of opportunity.

Internationally, there has been reconciliation between countries that opposed each other on the battle field. At home, we continue to make great progress towards true reconciliation and equality between our peoples.

Lest we forget.