September 14, 2017
A special ceremony was held at Cherbourg on Wednesday to mark the 75th anniversary of a little-known piece of Queensland’s war history.
In 1942 – at the height of the fears of Japanese invasion during World War II – a large group of Torres Strait Islander residents from Thursday, Horn and Hammond Islands were evacuated to Cherbourg.
Residents and guests, including Torres Shire Mayor Vonda Malone, gathered at Cherbourg’s war memorial to lay wreaths, acknowledge the shared ties between the two communities and remember Australia’s only all-Indigenous battalion, the Torres Strait Light Infantry.
After the ceremony, the focus shifted to The Ration Shed complex where there were performances of traditional dancing by both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups.
Compere Bevan Costello thanked Cherbourg Elder Aunty Ruth Hegarty, who was instrumental in organising the day.
Aunty Ruth began to research the Torres Strait connection to Cherbourg, and turned to the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships (DATSIP) for help.
DATSIP Director-General Clare O’Connor said 170 evacuees – men, women and children – left the Torres Strait on two ships.
“They thought they were heading to Cairns … but the authorities stopped them from disembarking,” she said.
They were then sent on to Townsville where a decision was made that they would go to Cherbourg.
The Islanders travelled in two trains and arrived in March 1942.
“They entered a community where there was acceptance,” Ms O’Connor said.
When the war ended some people went back to the Torres Strait.
“Some unfortunately did not make it back. There are Torres Strait Islanders in the Cherbourg cemetery today,” she said.
Ms O’Connor said much research had been done, and this would live on in The Ration Shed Museum.
She said beche de mer (trepang) and pearling had been important industries in the Torres Strait, using Japanese divers.
When the war came, some of these divers were interned while others were repatriated to Japan.
And some families with Japanese connections came to Cherbourg.
“I was a 13-year-old girl when the Japanese came here with the Torres Strait Islander women,” Aunty Ruth Hegarty said.
“We really got involved with the Japanese people when they were here at Cherbourg.”
The Japanese connection to the Torres Strait, and some Torres Strait families, was acknowledged at the 75th anniversary celebration with a special performance of Japanese drumming.