The Timorese who saved Diggers

Keith Hayes

Keith Hayes, far right, with other veterans and Timorese children. Source: The Australian

AT the roadside spot where the four Australians had been shot and bayoneted in an execution line-up, Private Keith Hayes, 21, began to stir.

Miraculously, despite having suffered serious wounds to his throat and upper back, he was still very much alive. When Hayes regained consciousness he looked up and saw some Timorese boys who then carried him to the home of Donnabella Martins, a middle-aged woman who had no children of her own.

Martins cleaned Hayes's wounds and applied a traditional mudpack to prevent them becoming infected.

Martins helped Hayes even though she was terrified that the Japanese might discover him in her Dili home. It was possible they might have noticed that one of the four men in the execution line-up was missing. If Martins heard a dog bark, she would wrap Hayes in a straw mat and hide him in the small house. Realising it was too dangerous for Hayes to stay in their house during the day, Martins hid him in scrub near her home each morning, and then brought back him back at night, where she continued to treat his wounds.

With the use of his limited Tetum, Timor's main indigenous language, Hayes told Martins that he wanted to return immediately to his unit, but Martins insisted that he stay longer.

Hayes was still seriously wounded and could not be moved, but in any case the area was crawling with enemy.

After a week Martins and her family decided to brave the enemy and return Hayes to his company. They wrapped him up in a rug, put him on a hardy Timor pony, and then three Timorese guides led him along windy mountain tracks, dodging Japanese sentries as they headed west out of Dili across the Comoro River and then up into the mountains above Tibar.

The sparsely wooded terrain offered little protection from the enemy, but they safely reached an Australian outpost at Mal Hau under the command of Corporal Ray Parry, near the headquarters of B Platoon. Parry sent for Alan Luby, one of the unit's five medical orderlies, who saw the bayonet and bullet wounds in Hayes's neck and upper shoulders. Remarkably, none of the deep wounds had hit a main artery.

Luby saw that Martins had applied compressed mud packs and banana leaves to the wounds. He was amazed that Hayes had survived. Indeed, it was an amazing sight, and it was a miracle that the Timorese were able to return him to his unit.

The Timorese who risked their lives to return Hayes to his company asked for nothing in return. After delivering him to the Australians they promptly made their way back down the mountain. The care given to Hayes was the most remarkable act of assistance by the Timorese to the beleaguered Australian troops so far, and it was to be followed by an outpouring of support from the local population in the days and weeks after the Japanese invasion.

Martins had had no children of her own, but in nursing Hayes back from near death she gained an adoptive son. And Hayes came to regard Martins as though she were his mother, and he treated her so for the rest of her life.

To survive this war the Australians needed more people like Martins and the men who returned Hayes to safety.

Remarkably, they found many more like them.

The factors underpinning the support of the Timorese population at large were not complex: the respectful and disciplined conduct of the Australians towards people and property generally, and the women especially, won the hearts of the locals. The stern warning on the treatment of women given to the company by senior officers and consul David Ross back in December 1941 turned out to be sage advice indeed.

This followed an incident on Christmas Day 1941, when most of the company were confined to the hot and muddy Dili airfield a week after landing in the colony. The company commander, Major Spence, had ordered all the men to stay at the airfield that day, where they ate tinned bully beef and dry biscuits, but by the evening nearly the entire company had drifted into the town. Spence sent a patrol to retrieve his men, and some were found in brothels that usually served the Portuguese garrison.

A handful of the older men in the unit were downright reprobates - heavy drinkers and womanisers - who were intent on setting a bad example.

This incident prompted the senior officers and Ross to lay down a tough line on relations with local women. Ross, who had lived in the colony for a year, warned them that the support of the local people would soon be lost if the men preyed on the women - they were off limits.

BY late December patrols had pushed up towards the coffee growing mountains towards Ermera, west of Dili, and Aileu, directly south. As they rose above the town the air became cooler and the timber on the hills straighter and taller; they had ventured into the temperate climate of the island where enormous bataiwood trees, which grew more than 40m tall, shaded arabica coffee plants below.

As the patrols went up and down the punishing landscape, the soldiers began to make a good impression on the local population. The men were friendly and engaging and, unlike the colonials, treated the people with respect and were particularly courteous to the women. The advice of Ross was heeded. When the Timorese met Australians on a road or track they would stop and bow their heads - the Australians would reach out and grasp the hand of the diminutive Timorese and give it a firm shake.

As the Australians grew more comfortable with their surroundings they soon joked and skylarked their way through local settlements along the hills.

They were making an effort to learn the local language, which was eschewed by the Portuguese. Corporal Kevin Curran, a first-grade Hawthorn footballer, employed a novel technique for breaking the ice with the locals. Curran would pull back his ears with both hands so his false teeth would emerge from his mouth, then drop into his hands. The villagers would yell and laugh and come from all around to see Curran's magic.

After the Japanese invasion the 2/2 Company divided into small, semi-autonomous units of 10 men or fewer so that they could secure an adequate food supply. After shunning their presence on the island, the Timorese welcomed the Australians into their villages where they were offered lodgings, often with the village chief.

As the Timorese were at ease with the Australians, it didn't take long for liaisons to flourish.

In a couple of instances some officers formed close relationships with Portuguese girls and women who were the daughters of plantation owners. One Portuguese girl with whom a senior officer became deeply infatuated was the attractive Brendalina da Silva, who became a partisan in the conflict. She was eventually put on a wanted list by the Japanese because of the support she gave to the Australians. Later in 1942, da Silva was evacuated to Australia with several hundred Portuguese citizens.

Other liaisons involved Australians and Timorese girls in the villages, but by and large they involved consenting adults or teenagers.

While as many as 5 per cent of the Australians are believed to have had consenting sexual relations with local women, there were few instances in which they abused their power and privilege. And on the rare occasion when men attempted to harass women, they sometimes found that their mates were quick to stand in their way. On one occasion, a would-be rapist came within inches of a burst of Bren gun fire.

Corporal Jack Maley was manning an observation post above East Timor's Same valley in late 1942 when he and his mate Tom Foster spotted a distressed girl being chased by an Australian soldier. They were situated about 800m or more from the girl and her pursuer became immediately alarmed.

At 32, Maley was one of the older men in the 2/2 Company, and the tall, square-jawed farmer from the fringe of the wheat belt east of Geraldton in Western Australia was a gentleman through and through.

The soldier from Maley's A Platoon was too far away to be apprehended, nor would he hear Maley if he tried to call out, so Maley exercised the only option he had available.

Armed with a powerful Bren machinegun mounted on a bipod, Maley swung the gun towards the soldier and fired a burst of carefully aimed rounds right over his head.

From the extreme range any ordinary soldier might well have missed and hit the pursuing soldier by accident, but the powerfully built Maley was one of the best marksmen in the 2/2 Company. The bullets passed right over the head of the miscreant, close enough to stop him dead in his tracks. The chase was over.

In saving the girl Maley had ignored an instruction not to open fire in the valley at that time, and he later had to explain his actions to his commanding officer, David Dexter.

By comparison, the conduct of the Japanese could not have been worse.

Shortly after arriving in the colony the Japanese rounded up young girls, many of them as young as 12, and forced them to work in as many as 15 comfort stations around the country. This policy was often aided by village chiefs, who were acting under duress and often found their palatial huts turned into comfort stations.

The Portuguese governor, de Carvalho, who feared that Portuguese women would be targeted by the Japanese, also supplied Timorese women to the Japanese. De Carvalho ordered prostitutes who had fled Dili to be brought back so they could serve the Japanese. He called this a lesser of two evils.

Edited extract from The Men Who Came out of the Ground, by Paul Cleary. Published by Hachette Australia. Available now.


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