• Torres Shire Council Mayor Vonda Malone with elders who returned to Cherbourg for the first time since taking refuge there during WWII. (NITV)Source: NITV
Seventy-five years ago, at the height of World War II, almost 200 people from the Torres Strait were evacuated to Cherbourg, where they formed a lasting bond with the local Aboriginal community.
By
Ella Archibald-Binge

20 Sep 2017 - 2:13 PM  UPDATED 20 Sep 2017 - 2:14 PM

Aunty Betty Foster can still remember the day soldiers came to her island home in the Torres Strait Islands. 

It was 1942, and around 185 people were forced to flee their homes to escape the threat of Japanese invasion, while some remained to fight. 

"We didn’t know what was happening as little children," says Aunty Betty, who was eight at the time.

"We were only allowed five minutes to put all our things together that we wanted to take... then rushed back into the big cars and taken down to the wharf to be put on the boat." 

She and the other islanders had never seen them before, and at first thought they were snakes.

She didn't know it then, but Aunty Betty and the others were to be taken on a harrowing journey by boat, train and truck to Cherbourg mission, more than 2500 kilometres south of Thursday Island. 

The islanders arrived to a completely foreign environment, crammed into the boys' dormitory, while the local Aboriginal boys were forced to camp by the creek. 

"They put us upstairs – one family to one room. It was hard for one family to share that one room," Aunty Betty recalls.

"We had a mattress on the floor, and pillows, and they gave us grey blankets which we called government blankets."

Their arrival was a surprise to the local Aboriginal community, who were living under strict government controls with little knowledge of the war. 

"If you lived here, there were no radios, no newspapers, no nothing, so that way we didn’t know a damn thing about what was going on outside this settlement," says Aunty Ruth Hegarty, then 13 and living in the girls' dormitory at Cherbourg.

Though conditions were tough, the Aboriginal community reached out to the visitors. 

Aunty Betty remembers being taught how to spear eels. She and the other islanders had never seen them before, and at first thought they were snakes.

"(The local Aboriginal people) were very welcoming," she says.

"They taught us everything... I learnt to walk out in the bush."

Now, 75 years on, Aunty Betty has returned to Cherbourg for the first time, as part of a commemorative event to mark the evacuation. 

"I do feel there’s a connection here, I do feel it. As soon as I stepped back here, I felt it straight away," says Aunty Betty, now almost 83. 

"I was crying. I still feel very teary, because it brought back a lot of memories." 

Recently a contingent of Torres Strait Islanders travelled to Cherbourg from Thursday Island and Cairns to commemorate the almost-forgotten historic event for the first time.

Through sharing culture and stories, the two communities celebrated an enduring bond. 

"Turning that negative history into something positive to relive and to pass on to the next generation, I think is a really good way to go forward.

Many descendants of the original Torres Strait families still live in Cherbourg, while others returned north. Sadly, some died in Cherbourg during an influenza outbreak. 

"It’s a special day, especially for the Torres Strait Islander people who were brought down here, and sad to say, I think some of them have passed away here," says Cherbourg Mayor Arnold Murray. 

Torres Shire Council Mayor Vonda Malone travelled to Cherbourg for the ceremony, and hopes it will become a yearly event. 

"I think some people may be ashamed of that history, the fact that we were under protectors and there were rations... and maybe that is why that history hasn’t been shared," she says.  

"Turning that negative history into something positive to relive and to pass on to the next generation, I think is a really good way to go forward.

"The positivity about this is the integration. We see today the cultural integration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and that bond that people need to know about." 

Follow Ella Archibald-Binge on Twitter

St Louis protests in pictures: We must address legacy of racism, says mayor
Protests exploded in the US city of St Louis last week after a white police officer was acquitted for the murder of a black man.