Men who came out of the ground

Source:Stateline NT
Published:Friday, August 13, 2010 9:28 AEST
Expires:Thursday, November 11, 2010 9:28 AEST

Author Paul Cleary has written about a group of World War II Australian troops who performed hit and run raids against the Japanese force in East Timor.

LAETITIA LEMKE, PRESENTER: They've been described as Australia's first commandos. In 1942 a small group of specially trained Australian troops launched daring hit and run raids on a vastly superior Japanese force in East Timor. Now these men and their exploits are the focus of a book called, The Men Who Came Out of the Ground. Genevieve Hussey spoke with the book's author, Paul Cleary.

(Script from old newsreel): The men of Timor pinned down a big Japanese army. They fight the Japs in a hit-and-run warfare, they're really rattling the much more numerous enemy ...

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY, REPORTER: When the Japanese invaded East Timor in 1942, a small force of Australian defenders - specially trained commandos - were hopelessly outnumbered. They retreated to the mountains and from there over the next twelve months they waged an effective and deadly guerilla campaign against the Japanese.

PAUL CLEARY, AUTHOR: They were the first men that Australia had trained in guerilla warfare, our first commandos. And so they were specially selected, initially by a British mission that came out here because they wanted to train these men to drop behind enemy lines in France and Europe.

GENEVIEVE HUSSY, Reporter: How tough a battle did these men face - they were enormously outnumbered by the Japanese?

PAUL CLEARY: Absolutely. I mean, initially in this Company, the Independent Company, there are about 270 men, about 5000 Japanese. The main force in DutchTimor, which was a conventional force, they were quickly overwhelmed within three days, they were rounded up and captured. But these guys took to the hills and they practised exactly what they were trained to do - and that was to do behind enemy lines, hit and runs, short, sharp encounters, and they continued doing that throughout 1942.

(Script from old newsreel): Warily, scouting parties close in on the doomed village. The Japs have no idea of the hot time coming to them. And here it comes ...

PAUL CLEARY: They were really the forerunner of the SAS, these men. And initially they had a lot of support from the Timorese people who shielded them, fed them, protected them, and so they were able to operate very effectively. But after about five months the Japanese got so sick and tired of their men being picked off by these commandos that they launched an all-out offensive. And they really launched scorched earth warfare in Timor.

GENEVIEVE HUSSY: How important was the support of the local Timorese? Your book's called, The Men Who Came out of the Ground - what does that mean?

PAUL CLEARY: That's what the Japanese used to say about our men, that they would just come out of nowhere, because they were so well protected by the Timorese. They'd appear out of nowhere, or often the Japanese wouldn't even see them. Some Japanese fighting the Australians said, I've been fighting them all year and I've never seen an Australian soldier. They would just come out of nowhere, attack them quickly and then, as the Japanese said, it's like they would disappear back into the ground. So they would just melt into the hills and it was of course the Timorese population generally, but specifically I should mention these young boys - many of them as young as 12 who served side-by-side the Australians, providing information, yodelling communication from, the mountain tops, providing food, and also carrying their heavy gear, so making them a vastly more mobile and effective fighting force than what the Japanese were.

(Script from old newsreel): A raid on a Japanese-held native village is planned. The natives round the Australians' territory are friendly and loyal ...

PAUL CLEARY: The Australians were really good at being very friendly and really treating the people with respect - and these were people who really hadn't been treated as human beings by the Portuguese for 300 years, they'd been treated as natives, as black people. But these guys from the bush really struck up a good relationship with them, really won their hearts, and especially were well behaved towards the women. Because they were operating in small numbers up in the mountains, they got a very strong lecture early on: that to win over the people they had to behave themselves and not, you know, molest the women.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: When they were first there they were pretty much cut off from the outside world. The story of how they regained contact is pretty amazing, and Darwin played a part in that.

PAUL CLEARY: I mean it's one of the most incredible stories. The Brigadier from the conventional force that was routed in three days, he told them to destroy their radio. So these signallers - actually, a radio technician from Hobart by the name of Max Lovelace actually rebuilt this radio from scratch. And they basically got spare parts from the smashed radio set, they got parts from a receiver, and over a period of 10 weeks, which actually really led to this guy, Max Lovelace, having a nervous breakdown because they were under so much pressure to do this. No one in Australia, by the way, bothered to find out. I mean, Darwin had been bombed, Australia was in a complete state of chaos, um, so they were given up for dead, basically, or captured.

(Script from old newsreel): Their story of re-contact with civilisation is one of the epics of the war. With a few odds and ends, signallers began to build a radio transmitter. They scrounged for everything, going time and again through the Jap lines to do it. And after many heartbreaking failures, they got a signal through to Darwin ...

PAUL CLEARY: It was absolutely fantastic at the time for Australia, because at this moment we've just lost 23,000 men in Asia and they suddenly discover that we've got one group of guys who are still fighting, still hitting the Japanese. This is a few months after losing HMAS Sydney, so it was an absolute huge morale booster for Australia at that time. It was so important that they sent their best cameraman, Damien Parer, to Timor to capture all the action and, as you'll see on your program, you've got all that amazing footage.

(Script from old newsreel): No pen is better equipped to express the tough, taut, magnificent men of Timor ...

PAUL CLEARY: They succeeded in tying up thousands of enemy troops at the time that the Japanese were fighting their way down the Kakoda Track. I mean, these Japanese troops in Timor could well have been in Kakoda. That's a mark of a successful guerilla war, to be able to tie up enemy troops.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: And, ongoing bonds - do you believe the battle forged some kind of ongoing bonds between Australia and Timor?

PAUL CLEARY: The men actually of this company at the age of 89, which is their average, have been for the past 20 years, since Timor has been opened up again, have been sending back supplies, sending back farm tools and seeds and things like this, and so they've really continued that contact, and they've really been repaying the debt that they believe they owe the Timorese.


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