ANZAC Day media darling Kevin Jones relives the Tarakan invasion of WWII

WWII Veteran Kevin Jones

WWII Veteran Kevin Jones, 95, won hearts across WA and stole the show when his live #DrivewayDawnService media interview was interrupted by a well-wisher dropping a six-pack of beer at his feet. Without skipping a beat, Mr Jones thanked his neighbour and carried on with the interview. Today, on the eve of the 75th anniversary of VP Day (the end of hostilities in WWII) we have the honour of publishing Mr Jones’ personal recollection of the Invasion of Tarakan, of which he took part.

 

OF all the days in my life, the one that stands out as the most exciting and memorable was the 1st of May, 1945. On this day, I was part of the force that invaded Tarakan, a small island off the coast of Borneo, which was occupied by Japanese troops.

I had completed my training in September 1944 and was posted to a Victorian unit—2/2nd Pioneers. Being the only one from my training squad assigned to this unit, I was somewhat dubious of what to expect. I soon discovered it was a very experienced force that had fought in many battles. They had just returned from active service in New Guinea and were camped at a site a few miles out of Cairns in Queensland awaiting their next assignment.

It was in New Guinea that my elder brother had met his fate shortly after I had enlisted. Brian was not only my brother, he was my best mate, my mentor, and I had lived in his shadow. I was so devastated when I heard of his passing. I swore that if ever the opportunity presented I would do my best to avenge his loss.

I was welcomed into the unit by a great bunch of chaps. I was the baby of the team and was made to feel very comfortable. For the next few months I enjoyed the

Kevin Jones
Battle of Tarakan Veteran Kevin Jones, 95, shares his story. Photos: Ross Swanborough

more relaxed attitude compared to the strict discipline encountered in training units. The Allied forces had now invaded Normandy in France and in very quick time had fought their way to Berlin and brought the Germans to their knees, and thus ended the European conflict.

American forces invaded the Philippines and after several weeks of severe fighting, resumed control as MacArthur had promised. This was the first offensive attack on the Japanese and would pave the way for a path to Tokyo. Then, in early March 1945, we received word we would be going abroad. The married men were granted a week’s leave prior to leaving Australia and, though disappointed I could not have the same privilege, I was happy for them. I realised how much harder it was for the married men. They talked so much about their loved ones and would proudly display photographs of them around the tents. Some had not even met their new offspring.

On the 16th of March we boarded a Swedish vessel, “Vito”, at Cairns and sailed into the unknown. We had only been at sea for a short time before a cyclone approached unexpectedly and we headed back to the comparative safety of the shoreline and laid anchor for two days.

On the 28th of March, my 20th birthday, we landed at a little island called Morotai, which would be our base for future operations. The Americans had recently recaptured this island from the Japanese; it was midway between the Philippines and Borneo. I well remember that first day as the rain pelted down all day and into the night. It was impossible to properly erect my mosquito net so I just let mine flop over me as I attempted to sleep in a pool of water.

During our stay at Morotai, we were well treated by way of entertainment. There were thousands of Americans occupying the island and we were able to share many of their amenities, such as live concerts and movies. Many leading artists had volunteered their services for the war effort and among others I had the pleasure of seeing Bob Hope perform.

I had the narrowest escape of my life while at Morotai. We were unloading boxes of ammunition from a ship when suddenly the boat was almost lifted out of the water and we were all sent sprawling. By the time we picked ourselves up, we realised that a Japanese plane had come in undetected and dropped a string of bombs aimed at the ship.

We ran for our lives in case it struck again, and went to ground at a safe distance. Only then did the warning siren blare out and we chuckled. So much for the American radar system. It’s easy to laugh now, but if any one of those bombs had scored a direct hit on the ship laden with ammunition, I wouldn’t be writing this story.

Towards the end of April we were informed of impending action. I immediately wrote to my mother, as I was aware she was always anxious about my movements. All our letters were censored in those days for security reasons and I was unable to provide my details. I simply informed her we were on the move and if she watched the newspapers she would know where I was. This was the first offensive action by Australian troops in the Pacific war. She later posted some of the news clippings to me.

The next day we boarded ship, one of about 30 in the convoy. After five days at sea and the day before we would go into action, we were made aware of our destination and this news came from an unlikely source. One of the ship’s crew had picked up a message from a Tokyo radio station: “When the Australian forces land at Tarakan, they will be met with a sea of burning oil”.

I had never heard of Tarakan before, but would soon discover it was a little island off the coast of Borneo, famous only for its oil supplies. It contained a large airfield, which was well placed strategically; it would be a vital facility for ongoing missions. I was now agog with excitement and wonder at what lay ahead. I had prepared well for this event with all the training and was very proud of my fitness level. I had waited a long time and was looking forward to the challenge, but I was also apprehensive of what might happen.

Weighing on my mind was the look of anguish on my parents’ faces when they learnt of my brother’s death. I realised how anxious they would be. Also, as a 15-year-old, I had delivered many telegrams to the loved ones of troops who had been killed or wounded in action. I had seen their faces; I had heard their screams. I prayed I would return safely.

Now the big day had arrived. We were wakened at 3am and prepared to go ashore at first light. For the next couple of hours I witnessed the greatest display of fireworks I had ever seen and it was very real. Wave after wave of American bomber planes raided the island and rocket ships joined in. The noise was deafening and the darkness disappeared as all the oil derricks along the foreshore were set ablaze. It continued for about two hours and I wondered how any form of life could have survived on this little island. Suddenly, there was silence and we were given the order to go ashore. The ships could not proceed any further because of the tides, so we climbed down ropes on the side of the ship into little vessels called “ducks”. As we motored towards the shore, which took about 20 minutes, the only opposition we encountered were the few shells falling in the water around us.

We landed unopposed and made our way through the burning derricks. After regrouping, we marched a short distance inland and found a suitable spot to set up camp. I thought to myself, this would be nothing more than an exercise drill. How mistaken I was!

We spent the day making our site as comfortable as possible, digging toilets, preparing somewhere to eat and other conveniences. Last but not least, we set up our beds and mosquito nets. We had carried our stretchers and mosquito nets on top of our backpacks. The nets were an integral part of our equipment. Many times we had been lectured of the danger of contracting malaria. There was no known cure for it, but we took an Atebrin tablet each day, which would suppress the effects of it.

We had just settled into our beds when all hell broke loose.

The Japanese opened fire with their mortars aimed at the ships now anchored off the coast. The Americans returned fire with their heavy artillery and the noise was deafening. We were caught

in the crossfire, with some of the shells falling dangerously close.

Almost as one we quickly abandoned the safety of our mosquito nets and made for a nearby creek bed, which would provide some cover from the flying shrapnel. The shelling continued for

most of the night and there was nothing we could do but lie there and pray. When the shelling finally subsided, we climbed back into our beds, but not for long.

At first light we were informed that the Japanese troops had dug tunnels throughout the island and were relatively unaffected by the huge bombardment. American patrol boats continuously circled the island ensuring there was no escape route for the Japanese. They were left with only two choices—surrender or slug it out. Sadly, they chose the latter.

After brief instructions we took off on patrol, marching down the road in groups of 30, consisting of three lines of 10, with the middle group slightly ahead. The drill was to take turns to go to the front and I had just assumed the role of leading scout when I observed movement in the trunk of a tree. Instantly I fired a burst with my Owen sub-machine gun, a beautiful little weapon which would be my best friend for the next few weeks.

We surrounded the tree and when the man emerged in an agitated state he turned out to be an Indonesian wearing a Japanese cap. I felt so relieved I had not harmed him. Similar drills continued for three or four days before we encountered resistance. From then on, the fighting became very intense and the bloodshed was devastating. It took just over six weeks before the Japs finally succumbed.

American intelligence had estimated there were about 4000 Japanese on the island, but it eventuated there were about 10,000. Our force was only 4000 strong, but we had the huge advantage of overhead support of the US Air Force, albeit that many of their bombs were misdirected, causing havoc among our troops and resulting in many casualties.

At the end, we managed to take 22 prisoners from their total force; the remainder had perished. The official account of this battle disclosed our casualty rate to be approximately 42 percent, higher even than Gallipoli, which is listed at 39 percent.

With victory achieved at Tarakan, we returned to our base at Morotai to regroup for our next mission and the interlude was brief. On 1st July, we invaded the Borneo mainland at a place called Balikpapan. It turned out to be an anticlimax as the Japanese offered little resistance. Instead, they retreated into the mountains and we did not pursue them. This would now be our base for ongoing sorties.

For the next few weeks, as we consolidated our position, I was fortunate enough to be called upon for a change of duty. The major in charge of our unit had been assigned the task of directing all the naval craft in and out with the rise and fall of the tides, and he required a runner. I had been trained for this duty by completing a six-week intelligence course, which I had volunteered for while training in Northam.

I relished the task, as Major Kidd was a terrific guy and very easygoing. We camped on the beach and during this sojourn, I had the great honour of saluting General MacArthur as he came ashore one day. On a couple of occasions I was invited onto American ships and shared some of their goodies, such as hot chocolate. The crew was very hospitable and I savoured every moment.

As the next few weeks passed by, we contemplated where our next objective might be. It was still a long way to Tokyo, and the general estimate was that the war would linger on for another two years.

Suddenly we received news that the Americans had dropped an atomic bomb on Japanese territory. At the time I did not understand the significance of this.

On 6 August 1945, this first atomic bomb, “Little Boy”, obliterated Hiroshima, instantly killing 70,000 — another 70,000 died over the next five years. On August 9, “Fat Man” was dropped on Nagasaki, killing another 20,000.

When the second A-bomb was dropped and we received news that the Japanese had hoisted the white flag, it was music to my ears. It took a while to digest and my first feeling was one of great relief and then the celebration would begin. It was the 15th August and coincided with our beer day.

While overseas, the Red Cross provided us with two large size bottles of beer fortnightly and the timing was superb.

The most devastating war of all times, which lasted six years, had now come to an abrupt conclusion and the scenes that followed almost defied description. The troops began firing shots into the air and it continued incessantly all day. Together with the yelling and screaming, the noise was deafening. So much joy and happiness, and the feeling of relief was immense.

While there have been many ups and downs in my life, I must say the joys far outweigh the sorrows, and I thank God for granting me such a long and happy life. Of all the highlights in my life, nothing has ever impacted me like the day we invaded Tarakan. It was an unforgettable experience.

I have shed many tears for those who never came back from the war, especially my brother Brian. He was my hero. He was my inspiration.

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