I rise today to speak on a significant anniversary that has been largely overlooked this week. Yesterday marked 70 years since the Japanese bombed Horn Island, in the Torres Strait, during their attempted invasion in World War II. I wish to speak on the vital role of the Torres Strait in the defence of the nation against these Japanese attacks.
The air raids at that time on other centres, including Darwin, Broome, Port Hedland and Townsville, have been widely remembered, but Horn Island barely rates a mention in articles about World War II. The first raid occurred at approximately 11.25 am on 14 March 1942.
Horn Island at the time was a key operational air base for American and Australian forces pushing forward to Papua New Guinea. But the island was vulnerable and undermanned. Twelve Japanese Betty bombers and eight Zero fighters in formation were spotted heading to the Torres Strait by coast watchers in southern Papua New Guinea. The coast watchers radioed RAAF on Thursday Island to alert them, so troops on the island received a warning of the impending attack.
The Betty bombers are reported to have dropped 78 60-kilo bombs on the island and the Zeros strafed the airfield. Forces on Horn Island could only respond with seven US Kittyhawks yet they still managed to repel the attack and no-one on the ground was killed.
Second Lieutenant AT House of the 7th Pursuit Squadron brought down a Japanese Zero. He saw another Zero targeting his commanding officer, Captain Bob Morrissey. Second Lieutenant House’s guns jammed so he deliberately drove his right wing tip into the Zero’s cockpit, bringing it down and saving his squadron leader’s life. Somehow, Second Lieutenant House managed to land his damaged plane at about 300 kilometres an hour.
This was the first of eight Japanese air raids on Horn Island over the next 16 months, making it the second most attacked place in Australia, after Darwin. In that time about 500 bombs were dropped on the airfield and about 156 lives were lost.
There are still about 36 bomb craters on the island. By the end of 1942, about 5,000 troops were stationed on Horn Island, with an additional 2,000 on Thursday Island. From December 1941 to December 1942, 10,000 Allied aircraft landed on Horn Island.
Another military service provided in this area was the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, which comprised about 830 local Torres Strait Islanders-virtually the entire population of adult males in the region. This battalion was one of the least recognised military groups in Australia. Only about 10 years ago, I and a local historian, Vanessa Seekee, were successful in getting members of this group star medals to acknowledge their vital service. Vanessa Seekee and I are continuing to campaign on this. There are other veterans who have served in that region and we are desperately trying to get official recognition for their service in this zone, so at least they can get that recognition and some entitlement before they pass away.
There were 97 Japanese air raids reported in that Northern Australian region during World War II. As a point of interest aside from the Horn Island bombings, and this is a little known fact, on 31 July 1942 Mossman, just north of Port Douglas and north of Cairns, was bombed by Japanese Sub-Lieutenant Mizukura. He was thinking he was attacking Cairns. Mizukura dropped eight bombs on a farmhouse north of Mossman. A young child, 2½-year-old Carmel Zullo, was in the house asleep at the time.
While she did receive some shrapnel wounds, fortunately they were not life threatening. She has the interesting distinction of being the only one who was actually bombed in our region at that time. I am sure not many people are aware of that. So I think when we remember the significance of people in Australia’s defence against the Japanese in World War II we should not underestimate the services of the people of the Torres Strait and the sacrifices that they made in defending our nation.