75th Anniversary of the Battle of Ambon

As we nearer to ANZAC Day may I make a plea – please remember the bravery and courage of the men who fought and died at the battle of Ambon and those who were captured and tried to live through the horrors of the most brutal POW camps of WW2. We all have knowledge of Tobruk, El Alamein, the Battle of the Coral Sea, the downfall of Singapore, the plight of the HMAS Sydney but Ambon does not instantly fly to mind yet the island’s story is a special one, one that needs our thoughts and commemoration on this year, of the 75th anniversary.

Have you ever heard of Ambon? Do you know where it is? What occurred to make it such a debacle and what occurred during the years 1942 to1945 following the battle – what horrors were added to archival material through transcripts of 1946 Ambon War Crimes Trials?

Ambon is a tiny island in the Maluku Group, nearer to New Guinea than Java. In the war years it was part of the Dutch East Indies and strategically placed with a wide protected harbour and an airport. In 1941 the Australian Government sent Gull Force (2/21st battalion of 1100 men) to defend Ambon combining with a Dutch force who had established a base there. These Australians were tradesmen, mainly Victorians and had very little training in jungle war fare. The island was hot, humid and covered with thick jungle. The men had very little chance of defending as they had little backup and they were poorly equipped but they had in their minds that they were defending Australia and were the last line before Darwin and the coast.

It was a doomed case from the beginning. 20,000 battle hardened Japanese invaded the island on the 3rd February 1942 and the Australian and Dutch soldiers were captured. 300 Australians who defended the Laha Airport were massacred. Hands were bound with wire and the men were executed – bayoneted, clubbed or beheaded. Others were herded into a camp named Tan Touy. It is reported that 2,600 men entered Tan Touy being joined in 1943 by British POW from Borneo. The camp was the scene of shocking brutality. In some reports 75% of men perished others say 77%. Starvation, cruelty and denial of elementary medical aid was common.

In 1946 a War Crimes Court was set up in Ambon and 93 Japanese were tried. 36 Japanese were found guilty and 57 acquitted.

My name is Carole O’Neill and I have just returned from Ambon where I attended the ceremony marking 75 years since the Battle of Ambon. I was the only Australian at this ceremony.

Ambon War Cemetery; The story

Ambon Cemetery was not fully established for a length of time as during post war, the Indonesians were fighting their own battle for independence consequently access was denied to all overseas powers, it was not until the sixties when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) gained permission to complete the cemetery and lay all to rest in the very beautiful site found today. The mammoth task of construction was completed 50 years ago this year. Major Keith Proctor MBE a works officer for the CWGC was sent to the remote island to complete this logistic challenge under great difficulties as described in letters that took months to reach Australia.

He mentioned “a basic diet, the heat and humidity of the equator, little contact with home, no contact with the outside world other than cables, only one other English speaking individual and the non-arrival of supplies and materials which meant longer in the task and a craving for luxuries like milk and butter. Living conditions were certainly uncomfortable. In December 1964, Major Proctor was forced by armed soldiers to leave Ambon and there followed years of negotiation and political discussion between Australian, British, Dutch and Indonesian governments. It wasn’t until 1967 the work on Ambon could commence again still with many hardships.” Once again due to the remoteness, this meant months away from family and a comfortable life style. There weren’t hotels or accommodation places so an Indonesian hut that he built himself became home. It was for this work Major Proctor was awarded the MBE. Major Proctor was my father.

In December CWGC invited me to attend and speak at the Commemoration Service held in Ambon. In the heat of the morning I was joined by CWGC staff, representatives of British High Commission staff and many islanders from schools, churches and the community. The service will be treasured not only as a remembrance of my father but of the many men who are laid to rest here from Australia, Britain, Holland and one from the USA.

The Memorial also commemorates over 450 Australian soldiers and airmen who died in the region of Celebes and Molucca Islands who have no known grave.

I was stunned by the beauty of the gardens and the memorial and over whelmed by the kindness of the Indonesians. The Cross of Sacrifice stands no more as in 1998 it was destroyed by extremists but the stone of memorial survives. Around this memorial stone we of many faiths remembered those lives who were given in sacrifice.

Lest we forget