Warusam, who travelled to Cairns in Far North Queensland to enlist, says he thought about family as he picked up the pen to sign.

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“I sign this form to defend my family, to defend my country, to keep Australia free,” he says. “All my comrades – Aborigines, Europeans, Islander boys – we broke bread with everyone, we’re all brothers.”

The members of the battalion originally received only one-third the pay of white soldiers of equal rank. In response, some briefly went on strike in December 1943 and a few months later the Army agreed to increase their pay to two-thirds that of white soldiers. They finally received full back pay in 1986.

Warusam recalls doing drills all day on Thursday Island and Hammond Island, and night marches around Horn Island.

When the Japanese bombed Horn Island one night, he remembers everyone running.

“Before one raid they saw planes coming. They told us don’t fire any shots because they [the Japanese] manoeuvre this area to take photos. They took those photos and then they send planes, and then that’s the time you can use machine gun or rifle.”

Warusam with his wife Rona, 93, and great-grandchild Masterson Waia aged 5 months old at their home on Saibai Island.

Warusam with his wife Rona, 93, and great-grandchild Masterson Waia aged 5 months old at their home on Saibai Island.Credit:Kate Geraghty

When the war ended in 1945, most of the battalion was discharged. Warasum and his cousin were made to stay on in the Cape York Peninsula to assist the army with various tasks in the demobilisation effort.

Six months later, he was also discharged and returned to Saibai Island, where he remains today.

Saibai is Australia’s most northerly island, less than 4 kilometres from the Papua New Guinea mainland. Warusam was among those who lined up to be vaccinated last week amid a mammoth effort to immunise Torres Strait Islanders to guard against the threat of COVID-19 leaking from across the border.

Warren Entsch, Liberal member for Leichhardt in north Queensland, says Australians need to recognise the sacrifice members of the battalion made. He calls Warusam the “last surviving Saibai warrior”.

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“The Torres Strait was the second most bombed place in Australia after Darwin. There was a number of people killed there,” Entsch says. “When they called for recruits, these guys volunteered en masse. And it left most of the communities without able-bodied men.”

Their service had a profound impact on the lives of all Torres Strait people, he says, including introducing them to a Western diet, which brought diabetes, as well as alcohol and cigarettes.

“People should know the sacrifice they made … they weren’t recognised as Australian citizens, weren’t able to vote, paid a fraction of what the non-Islander members were paid, and yet they stuck it out. Mebai represents that group of 880-odd soldiers.”

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