(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)
Eight Australian veterans are returning to the site in the South China Sea that marks the country’s largest and last major battle in the Second World War.
Hundreds of Australians died in the little-commemorated Borneo campaign.
Next week is the 70th anniversary of what historians say was a largely unnecessary battle.
Stefan Armbruster reports.
(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)
Gathered in Brisbane, some of the last veterans of a largely forgotten Second World War campaign.
Age has wearied them, but, for Patrick Curtis, memories of the war in Borneo remain as sharp as yesterday.
A veteran of Operation Oboe in Borneo in June 1945, he was part of the largest ever seaborne landing by Australian soldiers.
Now, eight Borneo veterans are returning to the old battlefields to mark the 70th anniversary of the landings.
“Yes, it’s going to be upsetting. (It) even upsets me now, thinking about it. They were prepared to lay their lives down for their country … Pardon me.”
90-year-old Patrick Curtis wipes away the tears.
Jan Curtis, his wife of almost 50 years, says this is one of the few times she has heard him talk about the war.
Serving as a telegraphist on the landing ship HMAS Westralia, he was one of more than 70,000 Australians involved.
“As they went along the beach, we could see them, and then they were strafed, a few times. You could see the people, the soldiers, being killed, with the Japanese planes coming in and going and strafing them and knocking them over. Yeah, that was … that was a sad point, that.”
Sailors like Patrick Curtis watched on helplessly from the Westralia.
The landings at Tarakan, Labaun and Balikpapan are considered textbook military operations.
But they are eclipsed by the Kokoda campaign in Papua New Guinea.
Australian National University historian Dr Peter Dean is the author of 1944-45: Victory in the Pacific, due out for release later this year.
“So this was not an operation that was at the tip of the spear,* in terms of defeating Japan. This was an operation that was very controversial even at the time, so … And in many respects, while tactically outstanding operations, they were operationally really not that important, and strategically they were quite questionable as well.”
In June 1945, the Japanese Imperial forces were on the retreat.
The Allies fought them back through the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines, leaving Borneo sidelined.
It was less than two months before the United States dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the war in the Pacific.
Peter Dean says the Borneo campaign was politically motivated.
“The main reason for them going ahead was our alliance, our coalition that was happening in the Second World War, and about ensuring that Australia was going to get a place at the peace table when those eventual peace negotiations came up with Japan.”
Fighting the desperate and isolated Japanese army was an ugly affair.
Dr Karl James is a senior historian at the Australian War Memorial.
“By this stage of the war, it’s a very gritty, nasty business. A lot of fighting is still being conducted in fairly close quarters. Yes, you have naval gunfight support, you have airstrikes, you have flamethrowers, but a lot of the work is still done … almost to the point of bayonets. It’s a very gritty business.”
The Australian 7th and 9th Divisions, including veterans of fighting the Germans and Italians in North Africa, were the main force.
Historian Karl James highlights the case of war hero lieutenant Tom “Diver” Derrick.
“The death of Derrick was a huge blow to the Australians fighting on Tarakan. This is a decorated soldier. He served in the Middle East. He’s at Tobruk. He’s at El Alamein. (He was) awarded the Victoria Cross in New Guinea. And a lot of people saw his death as an example of the pointlessness, of the futility, of the campaign. During the 1940s, he’s possibly our best known soldier during the Second World War.”
In all, 568 Australians were killed and about a thousand wounded.
They were serving under the commander of Allied forces in the Pacific, US General Douglas MacArthur, the focal point of historian Peter Dean’s research.
“He played a very duplicitous hand. He told the Australian government that it was being demanded by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US High Command. But he was also telling the US High Command that the Australian government was demanding this go ahead. And so, while there were concerns by both the US and Australian governments about this, it was really MacArthur who drove this ahead.”
General MacArthur fulfilled in Borneo what historian Karl James likens to a vanity project.
“It’s a little bit of a sideshow, the operations in Borneo. They really came about because of MacArthur’s personal desire to liberate parts of the Netherlands East Indies.”
For battle scarred veterans like Patrick Curtis, those debates are no longer a concern.
Returning to Borneo for the anniversary, he just wants to remember those who were lost 70 years ago on a faraway shore.
“About Borneo, I don’t know that there was anything outstanding that it would be remembered by.”
Historian Karl James says it is veterans like Patrick Curtis who are really the key to marking this anniversary.
“I think the most active form of commemoration is, really, commemoration through understanding. The generation who fought the Second World War are now very rapidly passing from us, so it’s really useful to talk to these veterans, to hear about their experiences, while we still can, because, in another 10 years or so, that generation will largely be gone.”