They served their country, a country that refused them basic human rights, and then they were ignored and their contributions not given the respect deserved, but now the stories of Torres Strait Islander Diggers are becoming more widely known.
By
Aaron Smith

14 May 2018 - 2:15 PM  UPDATED 14 May 2018 - 2:16 PM

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following article contains images of deceased persons.

That Australia's Black Diggers gave everything, sometimes their lives, for a country that didn't give them the full rights and equalities extended to other citizens is starting to become well known, however there is another untold chapter of First Nation peoples' contribution to WWII.

It is the work of the US Army Small Ships Section, a rag-tag collection of Australian and New Zealand fishing trawlers, schooners, ketches, luggers, tug-boats, yachts and ferries that supported the Allied troops in the Pacific theatre of the war.

More than 3000 Australians aged between 15 and 80 years were employed by the Small Ships Section on civilian contracts. 

They worked alongside Allied servicemen and merchant seaman from all around the world, including a score of Torres Strait Islanders, as well as an unknown number of Papua New Guineans, who provided vital services for Allied Forces responding to the advance of the Imperial Japanese Army.

With Torres Strait's uncharted waters ribboned with reefs and sandbars, buffeted by strong tides, currents and seasonal winds - local knowledge from the 'Ailan' mariners ensured supplies reached the Allied troops and reconnaissance work could be successfully carried out.

There is not much on the public record concerning the US Army Small Ships Section and even less about the Indigenous men that served.

Today only around ten names of Torres Strait Islanders who served in the fleet are known, but without their unique knowledge of the treacherous Torres Strait sea country, in a time before GPS and often navigating at night by the stars, the effectiveness of the southern Pacific theatre of the war may have been compromised without the help of these 'Ailan' mariners. 

The family of Edgar Koikie Williams, who served with the Small Ships Section for three years, has been fighting another war for the last thirty years, that to get his service recognised and his service medals awarded.

Eldest son Edgar Koikie Williams Jnr only this month finally received his father's service medals after getting his honourable discharge papers in November last year, however it is something his father, who died in 1983, never lived to see.

“On ANZAC day he would sit in front of the radio and just cry, Mr Williams Jnr said.

“I asked if he ever tried to march and he said tried once in Cardwell in 1967 but was insulted, so he never tried again.”

Mr Williams also said his father claimed he never got paid for his work.

“In the late 1930s our father Edgar Koikie Williams was bonded or enslaved, to the Burns, Philp and Company Ltd. Shipping and Export, import merchants,” he said.

Burns Philp was an agent for the US Army during the war, who had the authority to assign seamen to the Small Ships Section.

While surviving records indicate that the US Army did pay Mr Williams Snr's wages, there may have been some administrative confusion between the US Army and Burns Philp, who may not have acted ethically and retained his pay.

While Mr Williams was contracted to the fleet, it was not the case for many PNG nationals who served as pilots without pay, official employment or recognition.

Mr Williams Jnr is still trying to work out what happened with is father's pay and it is hoped he can receive copies of his father's service records from the National Archives to shed light on the mystery.

“His form of bondage was to load, unload and pilot the merchant ships throughout the Torres Strait seas and New Guinea," Mr Williams Jnr said.

“Because of his intimate knowledge of the reefs and waters and his ability to speak the five different languages and his working knowledge of the customs and tribal boundaries, he became a very valued asset to the company.”

Mr Williams said because of his father's skills and local knowledge, he was recruited by the US Army.

“He was dressed in a khaki uniform and was informed that he was a Second Lieutenant and to maintain his function and duty as a pilot / interpreter for the next three years,” Mr Williams said.

It was common for the Small Ships mariners to be appointed ranks, because in the event of capture by the enemy, the rank of Second Lieutenant would have afforded better treatment as a prisoner.

Mr Williams said during his father's service he performed reconnaissance missions with the U.S. Merchant Marines, “one of which copped him a bullet wound to the buttocks.”

“There was also a close call with a Japanese destroyer, but they managed to sneak off without being attacked.”

Another of Edgar Koikie Williams Snr's sons, Barry Williams worked with his father as a boy after the war on cargo ships delivering goods throughout the Torres Strait.

“Dad would tell us how the muffled the engines so they could sneak around at night undetected by the Japanese, he said the worst thing was dropping anchor as it made a hell of a noise and made them sitting ducks.”

“I remember working on the cargo ships which did a lot of work at night, Dad would be right out on the bow pointing left and right directing which way to go.

“They never had radar or GPS then, he did it all from local knowledge, he could smell the reef and knew where the sandbars were.”

Mr Williams Snr wasn't the only Islander mariner in the fleet to get injured in action. Torres Shire councillor John Abednego, whose father, First Mate Kamuel Abednego from the island of Moa, was also shot while serving.

“Dad got shot in the shoulder by the Japanese in PNG, he had to be shipped back to the Torres Strait because of the injury,” Cr Abednego said.

Daniel O'Brien, secretary of US Army Small Ships Association (NSW), whose grandfather served Small Ships Section said: “I believe that there were at least 20 Torres Strait Islander men employed during November 1944."

Mr O'Brien said one of the Veteran mariners, now deceased, told him that he recalled two Small Ships Section vessels with full crews from Torres Strait and another full crew employed by Australian Army Water Transport.

“The total number of Small Ships Veterans from any country or region is unknown to us."

“US Service Records may only be searched by name and date of birth; hence the importance of finding the descendants,” O'Brien said.

Mr O'Brien said he was unaware of any Aboriginal mariners that served other than two teenage youths, Tiger and Farry that served briefly on a passage from PNG to Townsville.

Veteran Jim Gadd remembers Farry and Tiger fondly.

“I was one of only two crew members of Coweambah at Milne Bay, and we had to move the coal from the stern bunker up to the front,” Mr Gadd said.

“It was pretty stiff work having to fill the bunker for the stoke hole, and we had no chance steering the ship and moving the coal up too.

"So these two fellas were there, Tiger and Farry – and I don't know how they came to be there, but they wanted to get to Sydney, so they went to office and signed up to work their way down, shoveling coal - so that's how they got their trip, they got as far as Townsville with us.”

Mr Gadd remembers running out of food and going hunting with Farry on the coast of Cape York, where Farry caught a goat that fed everyone.

Mr O'Brien said he has been trying to trace Tiger and Farry to get their story about working for US Army Small Ships Section, but the trail has gone cold without their surnames and only a blurry photograph as evidence.

“I am hoping we can find a family member, apply for discharge and prove they were members,” he said.

There is little on the public record of these Indigenous mariners that served and all that remains is a handful of faded sepia photographs and brief mention of them in a book compiled by veterans Bill Lunney (deceased) and Frank Finch, 91, Vice-President of the Small Ships Association.

Finch has enjoyed a life-long affection for the Torres Strait, after his ship broke down on route to Port Moresby in 1943.

“I and another fellow drew the short straw so we had to row 20 miles south to the Island of Darnley (in the Torres Strait) to get help.”

There he was cared for by Torres Strait Islander Coastwatcher George Mye, who later went on to be a prominent leader in the region and champion of the 1960's 'Border No Change' movement that resulted in the formation of the Torres Strait Treaty which was ratified in 1985.

Finch and Mye became lifelong friends as Finch continued to come the Torres Strait working on cargo ships in the merchant navy, and he also befriended other Islanders during his travels.

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Finch still sings the songs he learned on Darnley Island and can remember the dances, and a traditional Island sarong, or lava lava, given to him by Mye is still a treasured family heirloom.

“They have all past on now my friends from the Torres Strait, but I would like to go back one last time before I cross over the bar,” he said

Finch said he keeps pictures of Islander friend’s grave markers.

The only Torres Strait Islander woman known to serve the US Army was Matilda Sailor, who was based in Cairns.

Her daughter Bertha Natanielu said: “Mum served for US Army doing laundry, as well as working in mechanics - she knew how to change oil on the jeeps, she used to talk a lot about those times, they even did dancing shows to entertain the troops, hulu and the can-can.”

“Mum said she remembers all the Torres Strait boys on the boats when they came into port, a lot of them were her uncles and when she got married in Cairns they all came along to wedding.”