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National Observer Home > No. 41 - Winter 1999 > Book Review

Tarakan: an Australian Tragedy

by Peter Stanley

Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1997, pp. 212 with appendices, endnotes and index.

There is happily an increasing interest today in Australian operations in the Second World War. During that War Australian participation was intense, from fields ranging from Greece and North Africa to South East Asia.

Peter Stanley's account of the Battle of Tarakan, in which 240 Australians died in this island off the north-east coast of Borneo, is well-written and scholarly, and may be recommended with confidence. The author, who is Senior Historian at the Australian War Memorial, has researched carefully an operation which has never received the attention that it deserves.

Tarakan remained in May 1945 in Japanese hands. The Japanese garrison numbered 2200, and when on 1st May the 26th Australian Brigade Group launched an assault, for the purpose especially of gaining control of the island's airstrip, they were bitterly opposed, with in the end some 1,500 Japanese dying as against 240 Australian deaths.

Apart from its airstrip, Tarakan's significance lay in its oil. It had been captured by the Japanese in January 1942, when in fierce fighting their invasion force of 20,000 had killed more than one half of the Dutch garrison. The inhabitants of the island were, as was usual under Japanese rule, treated brutally, and Javanese men were brought in as labourers and women as forced prostitutes. Subsequently numbers of Japanese troops decreased, and in May 1945 the 2200 remaining included the 445th Independent Mixed Battalion and the Naval Garrison Force. The Japanese expected an Allied invasion, and they had dug in and prepared themselves in pillboxes, bunkers and other defensive positions. Fighting moved inland, where the Australians encountered mines and booby traps, and well-positioned snipers who were able to cause substantial casualties.

The intensity of the Japanese defence is illustrated by Japanese hugging shells who hurled themselves at Australian tanks. Japanese counter-attacks took place repeatedly, and although they were beaten off, this was at the cost of many Australian dead. The dogged Japanese defence necessitated air support for the Australians, and the use of napalm was particularly successful. But the Australian advance suffered a remorseless toll.

Although many more Japanese than Australians were killed, the difficult jungle conditions and constant deaths and casualties caused extreme stress and loss of morale. Many Australians suffered psychological or psychiatric disturbances of such seriousness that they could not continue.

Eventually, in mid-June, the Japanese headquarters were taken, but many Japanese escaped, and mopping-up operations continued for several months, again with many casualties amongst the Australians. Over several subsequent months the last emaciated survivors of the Japanese emerged to surrender.

The appropriateness of the Australian intervention in Tarakan has been a matter of controversy. In particular, it has been put forward by a number of Australian commentators that this intervention was unnecessary or inappropriate, since it turned out in fact that the airstrip on Tarakan was not able to be used and Tarakan could easily have been by-passed on the general drive northwards towards Japan.

So Peter Stanley says, "Australian historians have generally looked askance on MacArthur's use of Australian forces in Borneo. The prevailing view derives from a widespread and vigorously nationalistic interpretation of Australian military history embodying a peculiarly Australian understanding of the nature of military alliances." He adds that "modern Australian nationalism has turned Australia's military past to a use which does not entirely accord with the historical reality or the evidence of it".

Significantly he observes of Australian participation in the Borneo campaigns, "They were intended to support landings in Java which did not occur because MacArthur was directed to prepare for the invasion of Japan, because the United States Joint Chiefs imposed the Brunei Bay landings, and because the war ended in August 1945 rather than continuing into 1946. Only in hindsight, then, can the Borneo operations be regarded as futile or unjustifiable: in the context of the strategic realities of the Pacific war and the wartime alliance, they are better regarded as justifiable."

The author reaches this conclusion although, "measured against the ostensible object of the operation the seizure of an airstrip to prosecute further operations Oboe One [the name of the Tarakan venture] must be judged, as Odgers bluntly puts it, 'a failure'." He adds, "If anyone bears responsibility for Tarakan, then, it is MacArthur (for understandable and justifiable reasons) and the Joint Chiefs (for reprehensible ones)." (The author notes that the United States Joint Chiefs had themselves "imposed the Brunei Bay landings".)

This analysis appears to be in substance correct. Australia was an ally of the United States (and was in fact saved by the United States from Japanese occupation). Hence it was appropriate that Australia, which took a lesser part in the drive towards Japan, should assist the United States in Borneo operations, including that in Tarakan for obtaining a strategic airstrip, even although as events turned out that airstrip was in a condition in which it could not be used.

In retrospect it is doubtless true that Tarakan could have been by-passed, but reasonable military objectives at the time indicated otherwise.

None of these considerations detracts from an appreciation of the courageous and tenacious campaign of the Australian forces in Tarakan. In appalling conditions they persevered against an intransigent and desperate enemy, bearing heavy casualties but maintaining the highest military traditions. It is to the credit of Peter Stanley that he has delineated these matters so well, and his book will be both of professional interest to historians, and also of personal interest to Australians who take pride in the courageous acts of their countrymen.

I.C.F. Spry

National Observer No. 41 - Winter 1999