About two decades ago, Vanessa Seekee left her hometown of Brisbane, heading north in search of adventure. Her plan was “to live somewhere remote”. Most would consider travelling to Cape York, North Queensland’s uppermost tip of Australia, to be taking the search as far as it could go.
Vanessa caught a boat and kept right on going. She lived on Thursday Island for about 18 months, but it had shops and facilities, like a big country town. Not remote enough for Vanessa: she moved across the small strait to the larger but wilder Horn Island, finding work as a teacher.
Horn Island is pretty big, about 53 square kilometres, compared to the better-known but smaller 3.5 square kilometre Thursday Island, a 15-minute ferry ride away. Vanessa met Liberty, a local Torres Strait Islander, and the two fell in love, with each other and exploring. Vanessa was excited when they discovered an obviously man-made trench in the jungle. Later, they found crashed planes. At one point, they stumbled across a machine gun pit, and then found long-abandoned underground rooms. Vanessa began to realise that Horn Island held some kind of dark secret, not immediately obvious to the daytrippers who arrived on the ferry, enjoyed the fishing and headed back to civilisation.
“There was so much evidence that there had been a lot of people here at one point,” Vanessa said. “But nobody could tell me anything about it and I couldn’t find a book that referred to it. I thought it was sad that nobody could know about these people and what they did.”
Years of research and hard work later, Vanessa speaks to RoyalAuto from the private museum that she and Liberty, now her husband, set up to honour Horn Island’s little-known role in the Second World War. This small patch of scrub lurking just north-west of Cape York and roughly 140km south of Papua New Guinea turned out to be home to more than 5000 people at the height of World War II, mostly involved in fighting the advancing Japanese forces.
It holds the dubious honour of being the second-most bombed area in Australia, after Darwin.
Vanessa’s original curiosity about the abandoned slit trenches and other hidden treasures led her to contact a war veteran who told her stories and gave her the phone numbers for five other veterans. Introduction led to introduction, to the extent she and Liberty found themselves running daily tours and then organising reunions of war veterans, decades after the fighting stopped. This is on top of establishing the Torres Strait Heritage Museum, celebrating the war history, the island’s pearl farming history, its fishing, Islander heritage and other highlights.
“The reunions have been fantastic, for them and for their families,” Vanessa said. “We call it ‘In Their Steps’ and it does offer a chance to understand what these people went through. One guy turned up whose dad had died quite young and he found his father’s name on a plaque that had been organised and erected by one of the veterans. Then he found his father’s picture in the museum, and it’s also in my book. That was a good one: families find unexpected things here.”
Along the way, Vanessa was schooled in how little she knew, despite her extensive explorations of the island. “I would be so excited because I had found one gun pit and these old veterans would turn up, with their walking sticks, and look at me and say, ‘Where’s the rest of it?’
“They knew where everything was, having lived through the war. They’d walked these areas in daytime and in rain, during air raids, and at night.”
Vanessa sighs when asked why Horn Island’s extensive military past isn’t better known. “People always ask me that,” she laughs. “I say well, I’ve written books, and a thesis, run daily tours, created a website and set up a museum.” She fought hard for official back-dated recognition of the Indigenous men killed in action on the island, and she and Liberty have travelled Australia and the world, interviewing veterans who served on Horn Island, gathering their stories while they could.
Two flights a day (100 minutes flying from Cairns) arrive on the island, or there is the ferry from nearby Thursday Island for four-wheel drivers or other top-end adventurers visiting Horn Island to fish or take aerial tours, learn the history of pearl farming or enjoy crayfish, which remain the biggest industry. Crashed Japanese planes can be found in the waters off the island, along with the older wreck of the RMS Quetta, a Royal Mail steamship that sank in 1890, drowning 134 of its 292 passengers – one of the worst maritime disasters in Australian history. Horn Island is not boring.
Roughly 700 people live there, and Vanessa said the remote aspect of it remains the island’s beauty and curse. Shopping is difficult and a packet of Tim Tams can cost upwards of $10, once you add freight to the expense, but Vanessa knows she lives in a rare and precious hidden treasure.
Every day, she leads tours of the war sites and seeks to impart wider lessons from the island’s history.
When the war began, Horn Island had a population of roughly 4000, and the majority were Torres Strait Islanders. As the Japanese forces crept closer to Australia, an Act of Parliament was rushed through allowing Islanders to enlist in the Australian armed forces – keeping in mind that, like mainland Indigenous Australians, they did not at that time enjoy voting rights or many other basic rights under Australian law.
They were not recognised on the Australian census, or even considered Australian citizens.
Regardless, as soon as that Act cleared Canberra, 1145 Horn Island locals enlisted as volunteers.
“My understanding is that it was the highest rate of enlistment per population in Australian history,” Vanessa said.
Almost 900 of the volunteers were mobilised into the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion, and were joined by non-Indigenous Australian soldiers sent to this small island unexpectedly on the front line of defending Australia’s landmass.
“What strikes me is that Horn Island was where Indigenous and non- Indigenous people worked side-by-side, for a common good,” Vanessa said.
“Whether it was packing a cake or digging a trench, everybody was doing something and they worked together, as equals.”
She added that often, at the reunions, veterans would land on the island and be more interested in tracking down their old Islander Battalion mates than seeing the sights.
“Even now, between the Islanders and the settlers, there is no animosity up here,” she said.
“Reconciliation has been happening here since before anybody knew what that word was.”
Sometimes, to see the way forward, you need to study the past, and explore beyond the boundaries of the everyday world.
RACV Cruises & Tours saves you 5% on its 11-day Cooktown and Cape York Adventure, which includes a day on Horn Island. Price is $7215 per person inclusive of RACV member 5% discount. Plus, book by 15 December 2015 and receive an Air Credit of $1200 per couple. Get full details from racv.com.au or call 1300 850 884.
Visit the Australian War Memorial at awm.gov.au for more information on Australia’s role in WWII