History and Culture

Napranum / Weipa During Wartime - Geoff Wharton OAM, Historian.

Based on the address given at the Napranum War Memorial, 25 April 2017. © Copyright Geoff Wharton 2020.


I pay my respects to the Alngith People both past and present and a special acknowledgement to the late Mr Eddie John, who introduced me to the culture and history of this area over 47 years ago.

Today, 105 years ago, Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula on the first day of the ill-fated British campaign to defeat the Turkish Ottoman Empire.  The 25th of April is a day when communities all over Australia pause to respect the memory of their family members who served in wartime.  Here at Napranum (formerly the Weipa Mission), there are many people who have family connections to the men who served in the Australian Army and to the civilians who carried out rescues of Allied air crew during the Second World War.  This war memorial overlooks the site of the old waterfront village and Jessica Point, where 15 men enlisted for service in the 2nd Australian Water Transport Group, Royal Australian Engineers on 17 September 1943. A short time later, Roy George, who was working on Thursday Island, also enlisted in the Water Transport.

Weipa Mission Village, August 1936.  Photo courtesy N.F. Nelson Album negative number 333, Presbyterian Church of Queensland Archives.

One day in the early 1980s, I was yarning about Napranum history with Elders including Mrs Ina Hall, Mrs Joyce Charger, Mrs Jean George,Mr Ernest Hall and Mrs Joyce Hall.  They told me that during the Second World War there had been several rescues of American pilots and that a lot of the young men had served in the Army.  I was surprised to learn that there was no war memorial for the community and we discussed this as a possible future project.  The Napranum War Memorial is a tribute to the wonderful encouragement and support of these Elders for this research.

Around the same time, a fellow Weipa resident, John Foss, helped me make contact with Mrs Margaret Little on a cattle station near Miles.  Mrs Little was the only child of wartime Weipa missionaries, Jimmy and Betty Winn.  Margaret and her husband, Royce, shared their knowledge and photos,which,with the Elders’ stories created the basis for future research about Weipa’s wartime past.

Margaret Little (née Winn) with the P-47D Thunderbolt propeller at Weipa Airport,December 1986.  As a Volunteer Air Observer Corps member, Margaret was directly involved in reporting the forced-landing of two American Thunderbolt aircraft near Weipa in 1944.  Photo by the author.

Napranum War Memorial

The design of the Napranum War Memorial was initially developed in consultation with community Elders and the Council.  Where possible the design has combined local cultural elements including traditional language, with military tradition.  To an Australian soldier, the colour patch of their unit has a proud history extending back to the First World War, so we have included the colour patches of the Weipa soldiers’ units on the plaques.

The Napranum War Memorial looking west towards the old village site and the Embley River.
Photo by the author.

As you walk through the front entrance you will see six large iron stone boulders, with each one representing two of the main twelve tribes who came in from surrounding country to settle at Weipa Presbyterian Mission after it was established in 1898.

In the front centre is positioned a Curtiss Electric propeller from one of the two American P-47D Thunderbolt fighters which ran out of fuel and force-landed north of Duyfken Point in October 1944.  Weipa men including Ian Motton, Jimmy Winn and two others unidentified, paddled a dugout canoe over to Duyfken Point to go to the aid of the young American pilots.  Later the two planes were partially demolished to prevent access by the Japanese.

The propeller was transported to the Weipa Airport by Weipa Aero Club members, John Foss, Doug Walker, Greg Walker and Fred Wirrer in 1970.  There it remained until 2014, when it was moved to the former war memorial site with kind assistance from Rio Tinto Limited.

Proceeding forward, you will see a central column bearing a roll of honour plaque containing the names of three Weipa men who passed away on active service during the First and Second World Wars.  These men included Private Alfred Gostelow, who had joined the 9th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in 1915 but sadly passed away on the ship taking him to Egypt.  The men who tragically passed away while on active service during the Second World War were Benny George and Jimmy James. Benny and Jimmy’s Commonwealth War Graves are in the Thursday Island cemetery and they, as well as Alf Gostelow, also are recorded on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.

On the adjacent walls of the Napranum War Memorial are plaques which include the names of all the men who served during the First and Second World Wars, as well as the history of Napranum / Weipa, extending from the frontier wars of the 1880s and 1890s, up to the war with Japan in the 1940s.

Indigenous Service to the Nation

During the First World War, no Indigenous people were technically allowed to join the Army until the regulations were changed in 1917.  This was typical of the racial attitudes of governments in those days, but by the Second World War in the 1940s many more Indigenous men and women served.

A member of the early ‘stolen generation’, Albert Mackenzie, who was born at Burketown but raised at the Weipa Mission, was the first Indigenous man with Weipa connections to enlist in the Second World War.

Albert (QX2257) joined the Second AIF on 2 April 1940 and served in the Middle East as a medical orderly with the 2nd/4th Australian Convalescent Depot in the famous 9th Division.  Albert was discharged from the Army in November 1943 and later was awarded the Africa Star, the Defence Medal, the War Medal 1939-1945 and the Australia Service Medal 1939-1945.

The Weipa Mission band in 1913.  Albert Mackenzie is standing in the centre of the back row.  Photograph courtesy of the Brown Family Album, Cape York Collection, Hibberd Library, Weipa.

Last September, Albert’s great-niece, Aunty Mary Ann Coconut, attended the Last Post Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to lay a wreath at the Pool of Reflection in his memory.  By kind courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, a video of this ceremony, held on 13 September 2019, may viewed by clicking on this link:


The video length is 20 minutes and the introductory address commences at the 4 minutes mark.  The Australian War Memorial notes that ‘Commencing at approximately 4.55 pm AEST, the Memorial farewells visitors with its moving Last Post Ceremony in the Commemorative Courtyard.  Each night the ceremony shares the story behind one of the names on the Roll of Honour’.  The ceremony on 13 September 2019 honoured the memory of Flight Sergeant Arthur Jenkins of 467 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

In 1943, there was concern by the Allied commanders that the Japanese could attempt to attack northern Australia through Torres Strait or the Gulf of Carpentaria.  Army and Air Force defences and operations were expanded in southern Dutch New Guinea, Torres Strait and northern Cape York Peninsula.  Greatly increased sea traffic required skilled navigators who knew the local waters.

Many men from Weipa, Aurukun and Mapoon had worked on the bêche-de-mer and pearl-shelling luggers during the 1920s and 1930s, so they were asked to help the Army by joining the 14th Australian Water Transport Operating Company (later renamed 14th Australian Small Ship Company) of the 2nd Australian Water Transport Group, based at Thursday Island.

The following February, Army headquarters was considering the possibility of reducing the number of Aboriginal men employed in the 2nd Australian Water Transport Group.  This brought a strong objection from a highly respected veteran of the defence of Tobruk and Commander of 4th Australian Division, Major-General John Murray DSO and Bar, MC (NX365), who wrote:

These are extremely tricky waters, abounding in reefs and shoals.  Detailed local knowledge is essential.  Navigation knowledge and standard of the white personnel here of 2 Aust Water Tpt Gp is insufficient for safe navigation.  It is essential that Islanders and Aboriginal men be employed.  Water transport is the life blood of this area and even now it is difficult to successfully carry it on.

14th Australian Water Transport Operating Company vessels under the command of Captain George Cecil Bardell (VX130443) had a wide area of Torres Strait and Cape York Peninsula coastal waters to traverse.  There were coastal observation posts manned by the Volunteer Defence Corps at Boigu Island, Dauan Island, Deliverance Island, Stephens Island and Yam Island in Torres Strait, as well as on mainland Cape York at Cape Grenville, False Orford Ness and Vrilya Point.

Following a reorganisation of Army units at Thursday Island in March 1945, the Weipa men were posted from 2nd Australian Water Transport Group to form a Water Transport platoon of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion on Thursday Island.  By the end of March 1946, most of the Weipa men had been discharged from the Army and returned home to their families.  The last man to be discharged was Frank Motton on 5 June 1946.

The nominal roll of the Weipa men includes:

Joseph Andoran (Q272375); Alfred Brodie (Q272367); Andrew Charcoal (Q272365); Peter Chrissy (Q272368); Ralph Cocoanut (Q272388); Stanley Cocoanut (Q272369); Robert Day (Q272387); Tictic Dick (Q272390); Benny George (Q272370); Roy George (Q267711); Willie George (Q272366); Samuel Harry (Q272374); Jimmy James (Q272364); Lawrence Matthew (Q272373); Frank Motton (Q272372) and Joe Ned (Q272371).  All of the Weipa men were awarded the Defence Medal, the War Medal 1939-1945 and the Australia Service Medal 1939-1945.

Weipa Mission veterans dressed in their wartime uniforms provided a guard of honour for the Australian Prime Minister, Hon. Robert Menzies, when he visited the mission on 10 June 1958.  Photograph courtesy of the Winn Family Album, Cape York Collection, Hibberd Library, Weipa.

Weipa Presbyterian Mission During Wartime

In wartime, life was always hard for the mission residents, with constant food and clothing shortages caused by rationing and low availability of shipping.  Families lived in a state of tension, as Weipa was within bombing range of Japanese float planes.  Past Elders remembered at least one occasion when an aircraft with the large red circle of the Japanese on the fuselage flew on reconnaissance along the Embley River.  Slit trenches were dug near the dormitories and school, ready for everyone to dive into during an attack.  Aboriginal people and missionaries were killed and wounded during bombing raids on Milingimbi (NT)and Drysdale River (WA), so this was no idle threat.  Weipa was fortunate to escape such attacks.

Map of the Weipa area during the Second World War, courtesy Michael Coots.

Travel to Thursday Island on any of the mission boats such as the J.G. Ward or the Morning Star was dangerous, because in February 1942 a large Japanese submarine, the I-122, had released contact sea mines to destroy Allied shipping in the Western approaches to Torres Strait.  At least 18 of these mines floated down along the Gulf coast, one of which had to be destroyed by the Royal Australian Navy at Triluck Creek near Weipa.

When a large RAAF Empire flying boat visited Weipa in 1940, the pilot, Flight Lieutenant C.R. (Bob) Gurney, gave the missionaries advice on howto build an airstrip.  From June 1941 to early 1942, the men, women and children of Weipa mission worked with axes, shovels and bare hands to clear the forest and used draught horses and a hand-operated winch to remove the tree stumps.  This great community effort was rewarded with the arrival of the first aircraft, which landed on 30 October 1942.  It was a Tiger Moth biplane from Number 33 Squadron, RAAF and flown by Flight Sergeant Selwyn Sidney Cleary.

The first aircraft to land at Weipa airstrip, RAAF 33 Squadron Tiger Moth A17-593,30 October 1942.  Photograph courtesy of the Winn Family Album, Cape YorkCollection, Hibberd Library, Weipa.

After the Tiger Moth landed, a special song was composed by Ndrra'ngith Elder, Monty Motton.  The song: Mala Mokwimboi nggoro chiy ey celebrated the arrival of that first little aeroplane and has been sung in the community since that time.

Rescues of Allied Air Crew

As mentioned earlier, during the Second World War civilian members of Cape York Peninsula communities rescued and assisted Allied air crew in distress.  Men like Hector Billy, Ralph Cocoanut, Jimmy James and IanMotton, who sailed a small dinghy across Albatross Bay to Duyfken Point, then walked up the coast to save four members of a United States Army Air Force Flying Fortress bomber from the 93rd Bombardment Squadron, which crashed south of Pennefather River in September 1942.  They also assisted an RAAF Catalina crew from number 11 Squadron with men from Mapoon to find another four survivors.

One member of the American crew, navigator Lieutenant William Francis Meenagh from New York, remains missing-in-action.  Already a veteran of the Philippines campaign, William Meenagh had been awarded the United States Silver Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross.  The Mapoon and Weipa men spent many weeks searching the bushland, but tragically could not find Lieutenant Meenagh.

In 2014, the former United States Ambassador in Canberra, His Excellency John Berry, addressed a letter to the Mayor and the people of Napranum:

On behalf of the people of the United States, please accept our most heartfelt appreciation for the assistance the Napranum community provided on those fateful days in September 1942 and again in October 1944.  I am eternally grateful for their bravery and selflessness.  Because of them, our men made it home.
These heroic acts will be remembered forever as part of our shared history.  These memories are greater than one person’s story:  They reinforce our nations’ bonds of friendship, which have been forged in battle and have grown only deeper and stronger over time.

The United States national flag flies at the Napranum War Memorial every Anzac Day in recognition of those bonds between this community and the people of the United States.

Weipa Presbyterian Mission ex-servicemen wearing their medals awarded for service during the Second World War.
Back row, from left: Willie George, Peter Chrissy, Robert Day, Frank Motton, Joe Ned, Lawrence Matthew, Joseph Andoran.
Front row, from left: Ralph Cocoanut, Samuel Harry, Roy George, Tic Tic Dick, Stanley Cocoanut.
Photo courtesy of Frances McCoy and the Little family.  The photographer probably was Jimmy Winn, about April 1962.


The proud tradition of defence service by Napranum community members was reawakened in the 1980s, when several residents joined the newly established 51st Battalion, The Far North Queensland Regiment, in its role as a regional force surveillance unit.  Napranum people have continued that involvement to the present day and excellent support has been provided by the Battalion’s Bravo Company staff for Anzac Day services in the community since 2014.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Napranum Elders and families, Councillors and Council staff for their ongoing support for Anzac Day services and recognise with warm appreciation Ray Starr and his team for their excellent work in making this memorial a very special place for the community.

The Napranum War Memorial was sponsored by the Central Sub-regional Trust of the Western Cape Trust and by the ‘Works for Queensland’Program of the Department of Local Government and Planning.  Assistance was also generously provided by the ANZAC Day Commemorative Committee (Qld.) Inc.; My Pathway; Napranum Justice Group; Napranum Men’s Group; Napranum PCYC; Napranum Rangers; Rio Tinto Limited and the Western Cape College.  Grateful acknowledgement to the Bardell, Gostelow, Little and Woodley families, Aunty Mary Ann Coconut, Australian War Memorial, Canberra; the Cape York Collection, Hibberd Library, Weipa; cartographer Michael Coots; the Community and Personal Histories Unit, Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships; the National Archives of Australia, aviation historian Bob Piper; Presbyterian Church of Queensland Archives, Brisbane; Queensland State Archives; the Queensland Museum; linguist Dr Bruce Sommer and the State Library of Queensland for provision of historical images and information.

A more extensive list of acknowledgements and a detailed history are contained in: Wharton, Geoff.  Napranum / Weipa during wartime: a history from the 1880s to the Second World War.  Napranum: Napranum Aboriginal Shire Council, 2017.

                            Nang runggyach – Lest We Forget.