Torres Force Headquarters and Commander’s residence
Thursday Island Customs House
- North and Cape York
2 Victoria Parade, Thursday Island 4875
Waibene, or Thursday Island, is located in the Torres Strait and was once a gateway to the colony of Queensland. A two-storey masonry and stucco building was constructed here for the Australian Customs Department in 1938. Designed by the Commonwealth Department of Works, it replaced an earlier colonial customs house.
World War II was declared soon after the completion of the new customs house and in 1942, after Japan’s entry into the war, the Australian Army took control of it as the residence of the commander of Torres Force for the duration of the war. The building was returned to the Customs Department in 1946 when military control of Thursday Island ended. Since then the Customs House has been used continuously by the Australian Customs Service, although due to the need for increased office space it no longer provides residential accommodation.
Queensland police magistrate Henry Chester was appointed the sub-collector of customs for Torres Strait in 1877 and a timber customs house had been erected on Thursday Island by 1890. At the end of World War I the local Japanese-controlled pearling industry resumed activity with over 60 luggers working the pearl beds of the Torres Strait.
The importance of the port was acknowledged in 1938 when a new two-storey customs house was erected to replace the earlier building. The new customs house, overlooking the port, became one of the most prominent landmarks on the island. Built of brick and concrete and designed in the classical architectural style favoured by the Commonwealth Department of Works during the inter-war period, its ground floor served as a customs office while the second storey contained the sub-collectors residence.
In February 1941, ten months before Japan’s entry into the war, the federal government authorised the reinforcement of Thursday Island with some 160 militia troops of the 49th Battalion who had volunteered for tropical service. The personnel later became part of the Thursday Island Infantry Detachment. As early as December 1940 the Australian Army had suggested that Torres Strait Islanders should be recruited to allow the release of militia troops for garrison service in New Guinea. Government approval for the raising of a company of Torres Strait Islanders was given in May 1941. The Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion became the only indigenous army battalion in Australia’s military history. Torres Strait Islander troops were commanded by an officer of 49 Battalion and training for the first intake of 107 Islanders began in late 1941. Battalion headquarters were located on Thursday Island’s Milman Hill.
Initially the Islander recruits were deployed in the defence of a number of vital points including Milman battery, the water reservoir and power house on Thursday Island, Goods Island coastal battery and Horn Island airfield. After a second intake of recruits in 1942, the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion contained a full complement of 830 men, including 40 Cape York Aborigines and Torres Strait Malays. As operations of the Torres Strait Fortress were scaled down after November 1944, the men of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion took over more specialist roles such as the operation of the docks area, port maintenance, transport of supplies, small ship maintenance and marine piloting. When the Battalion was disbanded in 1946, the war became a period referred to as 'Army Time'.
Pearce, Howard (contributing author).
Reg Ball, Torres Strait Force 1942to 1945: The defence of Cape York, Torres Strait and Merauke in Dutch New Guinea, Australian Military History Publications, Sydney, 1996.
Vera Bradley. I Didn’t Know That: Cairns and districts Tully to Cape York, 1939–1946, Service personnel and civilians, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1995.
Robert Hall, The Black Diggers: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War, Aboriginal Studies Press Canberra, 1997.
Howard Pearce (Ed.). Heritage Trails of the Tropical North: A heritage tour guide to far north Queensland, Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2001.
Howard Pearce. WWII: NQ: A cultural heritage overview of significant places in the defence of north Queensland during World War II. Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane, 2009.
Vanessa Seekee, Horn Island 1939–1945: A record of the defence of Horn Island during World War Two, Vanessa and Arthur Liberty Seekee, Horn Island 2002.