Phillip Bowie
Torres Strait Islander
Leading Seaman Marine Technician
Royal Australian Navy
Navy Indigenous Elder to Navy Indigenous Development Program

Australian Service Medal 1945-75 with clasp FESR
National Medal
Australian Defence Medal


My father and grandfather are from Badu Island in the Torres Strait, and worked in the pearling industry, before moving to Thursday Island, where I was born. Because pearling was starting to finish up, by the 1960s there wasn’t much work available in the Torres Strait. I was still at high school then and worrying Mum by getting into a bit of strife. My Grandfather had served in the Torres Strait Light Infantry, and my Dad and my Uncle worked delivering water to Horn Island during WW2. So when the Royal Australian Navy came up looking to recruit Islanders to man ships in the Torres Strait, I applied to join up. I passed the test and in 1965, when I was 16, became one of the first Torres Strait Islanders to enlist in the RAN.

My friend Noel Bon and I were sent over to HMAS Leeuwin in Western Australia to complete our Year 10 schooling and train as junior recruits. It was a frightening experience for us, being in a very different culture, in a dormitory, a long way from home. We were only kids of 16, and the only Torres Strait Islanders. We were used to family-oriented life on the Island where everybody looked out for each other. But Noel and I had each other and our culture which kept us strong. And we both knew how to box, so that kept us out of a lot of trouble. For me, also, I’d been a champion high jumper at school even representing North Queensland, and sport and my competitive nature have always played a big part in my resilience. Then, after our training, we were posted to the aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne and toured Southeast Asia working with our allies the US, UK, NZ Navy, known as the Far East Strategic Reserve in South-East Asia, for eight months. On our return, we did our trade training at HMAS Cerberus in Melbourne where I qualified as Able Seaman Marine Technician, before being posted to Sydney to serve on HMAS Stalwart.

I was getting very homesick by this time because I’d joined up on the promise of serving in the Torres Strait. Eventually, I went to see the Navy Chaplain. After that I was transferred as a diesel engineer to HMAS Paluma, surveying the inner Great Barrier Reef and then to the patrol boat, HMAS Barbette patrolling between Cairns and Darwin intercepting Taiwanese vessels engaged in illegal fishing. In 1974, the Navy introduced elective discharge, and so because I was married by then, I left the RAN after 9 years’ service. After the Navy, I joined the civil aviation Fire Fighting service at Cairns Airport. I became an Owner Builder Hotel Manager on Horn Island in the Torres Strait for six years, before taking up a position as Program Manager with Queensland Health. In this role I worked for over 24 years with young Indigenous people to promote health, prevention and education on substance abuse. In the 50 years since I joined up, I’ve never missed an Anzac Day and in that time I’ve seen many other Torres Strait Islanders enlist, including my sister, Pam who joined the Navy, and my brother Don who has been a Warrant Officer in the Army for over 40 years.

The Navy gave me opportunities, and the skills and confidence to go on to control my destiny, achieve my goals and be a role model for my community. I did experience racism in the Navy especially during recruit training when we were just young kids, far from home. What gave me strength then was my culture, being with other Indigenous sailors, and knowing that I had a family who cared for me. So when, in 2022, I was appointed, along with Aunty Fran Visini, as the Navy’s first Indigenous Elders I saw a wonderful opportunity to share those same sources of strength and resilience with today’s young Indigenous recruits so they can have the same opportunities I had, serving and protecting community and Country. I am currently also working with the Navy Indigenous Development Program in Cairns as an Uncle supporting new recruits.

Other Serving Country images of Indigenous Elder of the Navy Phillip Bowie

June 2022