Thursday Island Re-Visited
When our team at Casey Australia Tours embarked on their latest adventure touring the pinnacle of Australia and Thursday Island, little did they know that they would be retracing steps and sharing a story soaked in history with their ninety-three-year-old passenger – Bertram Howard Wolsley Johnston.
As the team gathered their passengers in Cairns, they were in the capable hands of Greg and Choc, whose love of this Country and its amazing destinations are surpassed by no one. On the road in our luxury 4WD coach, the team travelled to Queensland’s beautiful Daintree Rainforest, with amazing scenery which seems to stay with you and becomes denser as the team moved north via Cooktown, Musgrave and Weipa.
As Greg, Choc and the passengers got to know each other and friendships developed, it was quite clear that one passenger, in particular, was on a special mission to revisit Thursday Island. Further details came about that he was Ordinary Seaman Howard serving in the Australian Navy from 1943 – 1944 during World War II on Thursday Island.
As this sprightly, energetic and enthusiastic war veteran boarded the boat which would take him to TI, he kept a keen eye out over the water and as we approached the wharf to disembark, he began pointing out sights remembered from a time long ago.
On the day of arrival on TI, the tour was delighted to find out that it was a very special day for all Islanders as it was the Anniversary of the founding of the Torres Strait Island Flag. As part of this celebration, there were representatives at the ceremony from the Australian Defence Forces – Army, Navy and Airforce.
Over lunch in a small café, Howard delighted some navy personnel regaling them in tales of his service and stories of his buddies. Before leaving the officers presented Howard with an embroidered naval cap and badge inscribed “HMAS Cairns – Commanding Loyalty, Honour, Honesty, Courage and Integrity”, to say he was overwhelmed with this small token is an understatement.
At dinner later that night, Howard stood up and shared some of his memories with the team and other passengers. It became an emotional time for us all and something that they shall never forget, words from Howard:
I was just seventeen when I joined the navy and I still remember clearly the message that was delivered to me. You are on guard, report to the Captain immediately.
The Captain’s words to me were short. You’re on draft for Thursday Island, you’ll like it up there. It was 1943 when I set off from Melbourne to Sydney, on to Brisbane, Townsville and then by plane to Horn Island. Thursday Island played an important role in the war.
Civilians had been evacuated and the Island was an administrative centre and a fuel depot for Australian ships to refuel. My first job was to clean up the mess tents.
I then worked with the divers who were searching for mines and it was my job to work the compression unit. It was an ideal target for Japanese bombers but no bombs were dropped. It was said that a Japanese Princess was buried on the island along with many Japanese pearl divers and it was believed that was the reason it wasn’t bombed.
I remember a thick rope being tangled around the propeller of the ship and so I volunteered to dive down and remove it. Complete with the diving suit, helmet and a lead-weighted belt I managed to successfully free the propeller.
On our departure from Thursday Island, our wonderful host, Choc, stood next to Howard. He was emotional saying goodbye, but his face all alight said it all. He was standing tall wearing his new Navy recruiting cap watching TI disappear on the horizon.
The team her at Casey Australia Tours are honoured to have assisted Howard in achieving his dream of returning to the Island and to where he served our Country proudly.