In late April 2023, Talei Elu and Tamati Smith spent time on Masig (Yorke Island). They interviewed members of Sarpeye – an almost all Torres Strait Islander army company – and documented the ANZAC Day service.
The northern coastline of Far North Queensland and the waters of the Torres Strait are dutifully guarded by the Sarpeye. The Sarpeye, an almost all Torres Strait Islander Australian Army company under the 51st Battalion, the Far North Queensland Regiment (51 FNQR), are entrusted with the protection of this region.
The Sarpeye come from and are based across the many inhabited islands of the Torres Strait. They hold an incredible knowledge of the ecosystem of their islands and waters, the surrounding reefs, wind, weather, tides and currents. This deep knowledge of place takes a lifetime to learn, and it is invaluable to the main task the Sarpeye undertake: the surveillance of the region.
It is late April, the Sarpeye are planning a trip to Masig (Yorke Island) to hold an ANZAC Day Dawn Service and a community commemorative event. The Sarpeye and their Officer in Command, Major Freeman, have been invited by the island's local Councillor Hilda Mosby.
Masig is a low-lying, coral cay island in the eastern reaches of Torres Strait. The island has a long and proud history with the Australian Army, dating back to World War II when almost every Torres Strait Islander male enlisted in Australia’s first and only Indigenous Battalion – the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion.
Nowadays, Masig is home to a Patrol of Sarpeye, each of them also fulfil civic duties in the community and for their local island council. In the lead-up to the most important day on the military calendar, the Sarpeye will skillfully traverse engaging with the two cultures they are bound by in order to accomplish a successful ANZAC Day.
Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2) Aaron Sebasio is the highest-ranking and longest-serving Sarpeye. Aaron is the Sarpeye Uncle, a role imbued with the responsibility to look after and out for the younger Sarpeye’s of the region. His role as Sarpeye Uncle is unique, and it is not one found in any other Australian Army unit but the 51 FNQR.
WO2 Sebasio, along with the Officer Commanding (OC), Major Freeman, and Company Sergeant Major (CSM), WO2 Rimmer, sail five hours northeast from Sarpeye Barracks on Thursday Island to Masig to attend the commemorative events. As the army vessel nears the coral cay island, the water lapping the boat changes hue from a deep blue-green to a bright almost white blue reflecting the white sand beneath. The visiting Sarpeye draw a small crowd to the wooden wharf. The eyes of young Masig children are fixed on the nearing vessel and watch on as the Sarpeye unload their bags and cargo for the days ahead.
The residents of Masig prepared the island for the upcoming Dawn Service and commemorative events. Each task to beautify the island had been assigned and carried out with care and dutiful consideration. The side pavements of the main thoroughfare had been attentively re-painted white by council staff, the gardens of the homes lining each street had been tended to and decorated by those living within, and the streets had been cleared of fallen foliage. The sand around civic buildings was patterned with the grooves of a rake, and any new footprint, boot print, or pawprint would be smoothed over and re-grooved within moments. The children of the island carefully crafted and painted plastic poppies to decorate the council monuments and gardens. The work to beautify the island continued throughout, and it would not cease till an hour before the Dawn Service would begin.
Back at the beachside barracks, the resident Sarpeye of Masig welcome their visitors. A Sarpeye takes a long pole with a hook affixed to the top and begins to scour coconut trees for fresh green coconuts to quench the thirst of his visiting servicemen. With a sturdy pull around a bunch, a few break free and land on the sand with a heavy thud. Corporal Goodwill Billy is a Masig Sarpeye. He has served as a reservist for 12 years, and as the islands Patrol Commander, he has naturally taken on the role of host for the visiting Sarpeye. Corporal Billy convenes a short discussion with WO2 Sebasio and CSM Rimmer to go through how the next few days will unfold and conversely, asks what is required of him.
Moments later, Corporal Billy takes time to prepare his boat. He and the other Sarpeye of Masig are to go fishing to provide for their visitors. Earlier that afternoon he had brought his visitors a mackerel, his wife’s best catch of the week, to feed his guests.
During their short stay Major Freeman, WO2 Sebasio and Corporal Billy visit the primary school to speak to the children of the island. The children excitedly sit down in front of their visitors, eyeing off the sports gear the Sarpeye have brought as gifts. The school teachers requested a lesson on the importance of having pride for uniform, of having respect for each other, and to speak to what that means to represent something bigger than oneself. Major Freeman draws on his experience wearing his army uniform, the respect he has for it, for others who wear it, and how it shapes his behaviour.
Meanwhile, back at barracks, the Sarpeye dedicate time to prepare and iron their uniforms for the upcoming service. Those wearing their ‘cams’ uniform for the service sew their name tags around a fold-out table. Those wearing their ‘polyesters’ polish their boots, press their creases, fold their Slouch Hats and affix the gold Australian Army Rising Sun to set the fold in place.
Separately, Private Jerry Dau, a young Saibai Islander man prepares his ‘Seven Gear’ – a cultural war dress that has as many accoutrements as the name implies. He unpacks the heavy black headdress, a grass wreath, pandanus leaf arm bands and feathered ankle bands, a pearl shell necklace and lastly, his weaponry. He takes it out from a case and lays it out carefully. He will be the only one wearing the Seven Gear for the Dawn Service.
Upon the right sleeve of the army ‘cams’ uniform is a Velcro badge. Soldiers are required to affix their battalion colours onto this sleeve. The other side is reserved for the Australian flag. Much like the cultural war dress that Jerry wears, every accoutrement on this uniform has meaning. It has purpose. From the battalion colours, pleats in the puggaree, seam of the sunrise, bar of the badges, lanyard on the sleeve, and fold of the Slouch Hat. In this culture, it takes a deep understanding of histories to know why an item is worn as such. To an untrained eye, it is uniform. To those who know it, it is a way of life. The Sarpeye take great pride in each of their uniforms, war dress included.
For the Sarpeye, each of these uniforms may look different, but in essence they are united in their goal. Their uniform identifies who they are, where they are from, and what they stand for. The uniform shows their values on their sleeves. It shows who they fight for, and who they protect.
It is dark in the town square. The rain muffles the instructions and conversations of council workers who are busily setting the chairs and marquees for the Dawn Service. Plastic poppies are placed around each of the two stone monuments and in the gardens that enclose them.
Back at the barracks, the Sarpeye enjoy a Gunfire Breakfast – a strong hot coffee. This is the greatest number of soldiers the Masig barracks has had to accommodate. Cups for the Gunfire Breakfast run out, and makeshift cups are cut from large water bottles to hold coffee.
Each Sarpeye is dressed, they inspect each other’s uniform, tighten the bands of their slouch hats, and secure their badges and pins. Private Dau is only dressed in half of his Seven Gear to avoid damaging the more delicate pieces before the service commences. He puts on his red lap-lap and his feathered ankle bands and joins the Sarpeye in the vehicle that takes the group to a small shelter on the edge of the town square. His fellow Sarpeye surround him for privacy as he dresses in the remainder of his Seven Gear. A Sarpeye holds his black feathered headdress while Jerry wraps the grass wreath around his neck. Two Sarpeye then help Jerry secure the heavy headdress in place.
Members of the island community start to gather solemnly in the town square, lit at first only by the streetlights on the main thoroughfare, before dawn breaks.
The catafalque party enter the enclosed garden that had been prepared for them in the days prior. They stand dutifully at their posts, facing outwards from two monuments that honour the men and women of Masig who served in wartime and in peacetime. The service begins with a prayer. Then the Country those men and women had served in defence of, is respectfully honoured and acknowledged. The Ode is recited, and then there is the playing of the Last Post followed by a reflective minute silence. Heads remained bowed, each taking the time to reflect on what this day and ceremony mean. The only noise that breaks the silence emanates from the quiet laughter of free and happy children twirling around their mother’s grip before being quieted with a mere gesture of bringing a finger to her lips.
The service ends and the community breaks for a short morning tea before the commencement of the march. Members of the community quietly shuffle into the hall. The planks of wood on the main steps at the entry are worn from the consistent procession of soles in and out. The morning tea is blessed, and the solemnity recedes. There is an invitation to sing a local language hymn, which is taken up enthusiastically. The hymn fills the hall. An older woman’s voice rises above the rest and a subtle harmony from a younger male accompanies her in chorus. The Sarpeye are invited to dish out their breakfast first with the Elders, while other community members await their turn to be called to the table.
Despite his seniority in rank, and in a break from military tradition, the Major chooses to be led in the march by the young Sarpeye Warrior Private Dau. It is a powerful decision, one that shows his understanding and deep respect for the cultural traditions his Sarpeye are also bound by. Jerry marks time. He has his bow at his side and his arrow pointed defiantly up to the sky, his headdress of samu (cassowary) feathers bounces with each step as he leads his fellow Sarpeye and members of the Masig community down the paved thoroughfare to the beat of a drum.
Families stand out on their balconies and some stand on the freshly painted white pavements to watch the procession. The Sarpeye move in unison, a pace apart. A community banner is held high behind those who serve and have served. Behind the banner, a contingent of the island families and children, excitedly keeping up pace behind the Sarpeye. When the procession reaches the community square the Major announces instructions to halt, then to fall out, the catafalque party marches back into the positions they stood during the Dawn Service for the remainder of the ceremony and speeches.
This is Major Freeman’s third visit to the island, and it will be his last. His next posting will take him far from the islands of the Torres Strait. During the time between drills and discussions to prepare for this day, he has taken time to reflect. He reflects on his experiences and presence here, on the day and his past, on culture and Country, and on the region’s history and of the Sarpeye who serve.
Major Freeman rises to speak.
“We meet here today, not to celebrate battle or glorify war, but to remember those who have served our country during conflict and crisis, and importantly, those who are no longer with us as a result of their service.”
“So, as we have come to understand the ANZAC spirit is of self-sacrifice, ultimately due to our love of family, community and Country, we must also therefore believe that the story of protection of Country in the Torres Strait is a symbol of our spirit and character.”
“Protection of Country is not something that is restricted to military forces, but rather a community with a shared threat, who are seeking safety for family and Country.” The Major continues, “This is why the warriors of the Torres Strait fought, this is why the ANZACs at Gallipoli fought, and this is why as a community, we must remain united into the future.”
Island dignitaries enter the enclosed garden to lay wreaths crafted from fresh-cut foliage from the island. Father Ned Mosby and Johnny Morris lay their wreaths and bow their heads to the monuments. Councillor Hilda Mosby and others follow quietly in the same ritual. The last to lay a wreath is Corporal Goodwill Billy’s son, who proudly wears his father’s medals that weigh down the right side of this bright red shirt.
The commemorative events end and the Sarpeye help the community to pack down the tables and chairs strewn throughout the hall, and fold down the marquees in the town square. In amongst this work there are both brief and deep conversations. There is laughter, and squeals of children in the hall, and every so often a jubilant and familiar proclamation “praise the lord” from Father Ned when he hears something that brings him joy – an indication of a deep reservoir of faith in God and a happy appreciation for life.
The tidying up is complete, members of the community walk to their homes, and the Sarpeye travel back to the beachside barracks. They reflect, rest and ready themselves to depart Masig the very next day. It had been a successful service and trip. There was the forging of new bonds, and the fortification of old ones, in the planned events, in the unexpected moments, and in the moments in between. The strength of the Sarpeye shone through. Their commitment to culture and the protection of Country ever-present, revealing itself in almost every action, interaction and word spoken.
Before leaving the island, Major Freeman picks a young coconut to plant. He chooses to plant it in the corner of the barracks nearest to the entrance. The young coconut represents his contributions to, and his ambitions for the Sarpeye. It will take root in the shallow ground and draw strength from the richness of the island before its roots can go deeper, giving it the strength and good base for it to grow to new heights.