The forgotten guerillas of Timor
- The Men who Came Out of the Ground
By Paul Clearly
Hachette, 182pp, $35
THE idea of the hero is a nebulous one. Some are accidental heroes, who act with courage on an impulse.
Others are created in the aftermath, in their -- or their mates' -- wishful memories; and some are addicted to the adrenalin of danger, for whom hero is an incidental accolade (for example, the bomb disposal expert in The Hurt Locker).
Some are the real thing: men and women who, in full possession of the facts and conscious that they may die or suffer a terrible torment or misfortune if they persevere, carry on regardless. Not once, but repeatedly. They never give up. Why?
No doubt self-preservation, and perhaps self-advancement, are factors. But a higher purpose motivates them: to avenge injustice, defend the weak, help the sick, save friends, thwart aggression, deliver a nation . . .
This book is about a small group of Australian men who were the real thing. The 2/2 Independent Company -- an early commando unit within Sparrow Force -- was sent to Portuguese Timor in 1941 to help defend the airfields. When Timor along with the entire Malayan barrier yielded to the Japanese, these 400 troops found themselves cut off in the mountains, without any radio link home and no hope of evacuation. They were given up for dead.
They could have surrendered. They were offered the chance: in a desperate bid to bring them in, the Japanese twice sent the Australian consul, David Ross, then under house arrest, into the mountains to obtain their surrender. The Japanese promised to grant full "PoW privileges", Ross told the men; if they refused, they would be branded common outlaws and executed when caught. Was there a distinction between PoW and outlaw, some surely wondered.
Without a moment's thought, the Australians refused. They were still a unit: "Australia was still fighting and so would we," Ross would tell the furious Japanese. So the men of the 2/2 stayed in the mountains. Trained as one of Australia's first special forces units, they embarked on a year-long guerilla war against an enemy that outnumbered them, at times, by more than 10 to one.
After a fitful start, these tough young farmers, miners and sportsmen found their inner guerillas. They built a radio, commandeered a pony train, established a field hospital and ingratiated themselves with the East Timorese people who acted as their eyes and ears, and whose affection for the Australians tended to be genuine.
Remember, this was a time -- 1942 -- when most British Commonwealth forces in Malaya and the Indonesian islands were either dead or languished, half-alive, in Japanese prison camps. Sparrow Force's men knew the likely result if they were caught: they had seen fellow soldiers shot, mutilated, tortured.
Paul Cleary tells this story in an arresting narrative voice unblemished by the lapse into histrionics that so often debases the history of war. Nor will he indulge in careless Australian triumphalism. The men of the 2/2 demonstrated human, not peculiarly Aussie, qualities of courage and resilience. It's about time we stopped slapping ourselves on the back as though we alone are endowed with some magical spirit. All nations, all armies, have their Gallipolis and Kokodas; all produce a bit of the right stuff in extreme circumstances. And here, simply, is another, largely unknown, Australian example.
The author sensibly allows personality and character to drive the story. We learn of the extraordinary Vincent Wilby, aged 20, from Bendigo. An orphan and veteran gamesman, he stole a team of ponies in the Timorese hills. Admonished at the time by his commanding officer, Wilby was later put in charge of the pony train down to the sea, where perilously moored vessels delivered stores and ammunition.
We meet Max Lyndon Loveless, 37, a radio technician from the ABC's Hobart station, an anxious, nervous man -- he had a breakdown on his relief -- who worked for weeks building a radio out of scraps from abandoned camps. This achievement alerted Darwin to the unit's existence and delivered supplies needed to sustain them.
There was the doctor, Rodger Dunkley, who maintained a hospital in enemy-controlled territory. He curbed malaria, set broken limbs, and staunched blood loss. And there were the soldiers, crack shots, great bushmen, who gloried in their savage, hairy appearance and whose individual courage reinforced the company's.
Cleary gives the facts and largely refrains from judgment. When the Japanese invaded, commander brigadier Veale divided Sparrow Force, attempted to escape and, in the panic, needlessly destroyed the radio. Back home, he was later promoted -- to a clerical job.
In Melbourne, true to form, general Thomas Blamey, Australia's most senior commander, apparently failed to grasp the point of the guerilla war in Timor and recommended the men be evacuated and the unit merged. General Douglas MacArthur overrode him.
These Australian guerillas locked up several thousand Japanese soldiers who might otherwise have been more usefully deployed in New Guinea. In this sense, the 2/2 Independent Company punched well above its weight.
This well-researched book tells a story about men whose achievement demands, yet has received so little of, our attention.
Paul Ham is the author of Kokoda, and Vietnam: The Australian Wa