Finding Private Stephen: Tony Abbott honours Torres Strait war veterans

Tony Abbott tours Green Hill Fort on Thursday Island with Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen Tony Abbott and Palm Stephen during a medal presentation for veterans on Thursday Island. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

His parents called him Palm because he was born on Palm Sunday. He was the little brother who didn’t want to miss out who became a forgotten veteran of World War Two.

He is also the powerful face of the war story that passed most Australians completely by; one that helped shape the modern identity of the people of the Torres Strait.

When Henly, Jerry, Sereako and Arthur, his four older brothers, enlisted in the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion to fight the Japanese, Palm decided to join them, even though he was not yet 15.

“I was going to school and I was feeling sorry for my other brothers and thinking to myself, ‘I am big enough to use a rifle.'” Palm “Bill” Stephen, now 86, said on Tuesday.

Although he was big for a boy of his age, the enlistment application was rejected, so Palm tweaked his name and address, claimed he had no birth certificate and applied again, this time successfully.

War records show that Bill Stevens from Steppens Island enlisted in April 1944, a month after Palm Stephen from Stephen Island turned 15. He served for two years on Horn Island.

They also show that outside of Darwin, Horn Island was the most bombed and the most savagely attacked part of Australia, with eight air raids in 1942 dropping 500 bombs and killing 156 people.

Mr Stephen told his story at an extraordinary remembrance service on Thursday Island on Tuesday, where young Torres Strait islanders were presented with a ceremonial bow and arrow to represent their taking over responsibility for the future defence of their community and country.

There was also a stirring rendition of the national anthem by a frail man with a powerful voice, 86-year-old Seaman Dan.

On the second of five days in the area, Prime Minister Tony Abbott pointed out at a service that more than 1100 men of the Torres Strait volunteered to serve in that conflict.

“If volunteering to serve is the ultimate mark of commitment to country and patriotism, no part of Australia has been more patriotically Australian than the Torres Strait and its citizens,” he said.

“At a time when we hardly acknowledged Indigenous Australians, Indigenous Australians acknowledged us … At a time when Indigenous people were not even counted in the census, Australia could count on Indigenous people.”

That Mr Stephen was honoured was the product of what Mr Abbott called some “marvellous sleuthing detective work” by the local member, Warren Entsch, a longstanding advocate of Torres Strait war veterans.

After noticing that there were six Stephens, including two cousins of the brothers, mentioned in the war records, he saw that there was a seventh named Bill Stevens, but no Palm.

“It didn’t make sense because I knew there were no ‘Stevens’ in the Torres Strait. Then I looked where he came from and I knew Steppens Island didn’t exit.”

After the recognition was finalised a few weeks back, arrangements were made for Mr Stephen to make a two-day trip from Broome with a grandson to join two of the other surviving veterans, Mabai Warasum and Bamia Mast.

He said that his only surviving brother, Jerry, was 102 and not strong enough to make the trip from Cairns.

“I just wanna give a little speech about me and my brothers,” he said at the start, adding the trip was worth it to be with old mates and have breakfast with Mr Abbott and Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin.

“We were proud to do our bit for our country,” was his parting line.

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