Timor 1942

“Speak to your Uncle Jack,” Alf added as he left to go to his weekly Sunday School visit (code for the two-up game some seven kilometres from Kalgoorlie) on Sunday afternoon. His slightly curtish reply was in response to my query as to what he did in in World War Two. I found out later than he was unable to join the armed forces because the army misdiagnosed a prevalence of sugar in his kidney as diabetes. I should be thankful for this small mercy. Here I am, enjoying the fact that medical science made an error and gave Dad a chance at a normal life untainted by the dark malevolence that engulfed the world.

His cryptic comment opened up the door to Uncle Jack’s world. He was a tall man, being 187 centimetres and muscular. I thought his fitness and strength was due to the woodchopping he did with my father. Far from it. He was a slow speaker who was given the nickname Dave because of the radio show “Dad and Dave from Snake Gully” (1937) which was popular at the time. Dave spoke very slowly, hence my uncle’s epithet.

Uncle Jack’s exterior disarmed people. He was a bit like the detective Colombo of the TV series of the same name. People let their guard down, thinking the slow speech reflected an equally sedate mind. But he possessed a keen and discerning intelligence.  I visited him in the St John of God’s hospital in Kalgoorlie just before he died and the memory is indelibly etched on my mind. He lay on the bed, ankles swollen from arthritis, wincing from the pain that cancer delivers and said in a barely audible voice, “the woods are burning.” It perplexed me. I thought about that comment for years and it was only after reading a Henry Lawson story that it made sense. In the story, the main character’s life is endangered by a bush fire encroaching onto his mining claim. Uncle Jack could see the danger. His life was in peril.

His muscularity, I later found out, was due the training regime involved in being the heavyweight boxing champion of the Murchison. His wife, on many occasions, said that he feared no man. When he joined the army in 1941, he volunteered for a secret unit which later became the 2nd/2nd Independent Company. The commanding officer interviewing my uncle commented that he was possible too old for the specialised unit. He was 32 at the time. His response was interesting. In his slow but measured voice, he replied, “With respect, sir, if you would care to step into the boxing ring outside, we’ll see who is too old.” The Captain merely said, “That will be all Private Sheehan.”

When my uncle exited the tent, the Captain placed a tick next to his name.

He was sent to Timor before the Japanese attacked on 19 February, 1942. Prior to the invasion, the Australian force of 300 men was decimated by the effects of malaria. Their camp was close to swamps surrounding the airport. Fortunately, the commanding officers decided that they should regroup and set up their camp in the mountains outside of Dili, the capital. The absence of mosquitos and regular doses of quinine brought them back to a semblance of a fighting force. On the night of 19 February, 1942, the Japanese invasion force attacked Dili. Many of the soldiers heard the explosions but assumed that the thunder of a tropical storm was the culprit.

A truck descending into capital the next morning was ambushed by a Japanese patrol and all but one, a diminutive Keith Hayes, were killed or shot before a firing squad. His story of survival will be told in a future blog.

The Australian soldiers were incensed by the actions of the Japanese patrol and wanted the score sheet altered in their favour. Enter Uncle Jack and three other men.

Uncle Jack, Doc Wheatley, Corporal Bill Taylor and Andy Smeaton decided to set an ambush at a place at the foot of Bo Hak Mountain. They arrived at the location the night before the ambush was to occur. They set up camp at a large village three hundred metres above the road. They knew a truck came along the road at eight every morning. They slept fitfully with each taking turns at guarding the compound.

They had surveyed the geography surrounding the road and decided that Doc Wheatley, an crack shot would be positioned above the road with his sniper’s rifle. He was credited with shooting sixty Japanese in his year long campaign in Timor. He was especially good at hitting moving targets. He acquired this prowess while shooting kangaroos in the Murchison. A disease had spread through the kangaroos in the area and it rendered their meat and skins unusable. The sick kangaroos lay under trees convalescing while the healthy ones bounded around until they collided with a lead .303 from Doc Wheatley’s gun.

Bill Taylor’s Bren gun was positioned on a wall overlooking the road. Uncle Jack and Andy Smeaton had Thompson machine guns with magazines of 50 rounds. Only the strongest of the troops were given access to the Tommy guns ( yes, the same ones used by Al Capone and his henchmen in America in the 1930s). Thompson machine guns had a tendency to shoot upwards and to the left when fired. Only the strongest could nullify this idiosyncratic behaviour. Uncle Jack was right handed and so he was positioned on the right hand side of a tree some thirty metres from the road and Andy left handedness complemented the juggernaut behind the tree.

The stage was set. It was 8 p.m. A truck rumbled around the corner and Uncle Jack fired a salvo into the truck’s radiator. Steam and water gushed from the puncture. Panicked Japanese troops poured from the truck and to the Australians dismay, from the other six trucks they had not anticipated greeting. The ambushers had become the ambushed.

Uncle Jack zoned in a Japanese soldier heading for a thicket of trees and fired a burst of .45 calibre shells across his midriff. The soldier momentarily stopped, frozen and gradually the top half of his body fell away from his lower half. Uncle Jack was transfixed by this ghastly image. He stopped firing, despite energetic urgings from Andy. He yelled, “for Christ’s sake, pull ya finger out.” A period of three to five seconds elapsed until Uncle Jack threw off his paralysis and began firing. He would often muse on that terrible moment even through to the latter stages of his life. So much for hardened men inured to the trauma of nightmarish, private thoughts in their post war lives.

Scott’s Bren jammed but eventually he changed its port and finished his second magazine of 28 rounds. Wheatley was busy picking off stragglers. His sniper’s rifle only held 5 rounds but he had an ample supply of rounds ready for easy insertion. He was downing fleeing soldiers running beside a picket fence. He was slotting in bullets in the gaps. He claimed to have shot as many as ten of the enemy.

Uncle Jack escaped with Andy, dodging bullets as they escaped through the dense undergrowth. They eventually found their creados (young Timorese who befriended and helped the Australians). They were loyal, with a keen knowledge of the trails to elude the Japanese. Their help was invaluable in surviving a full year on the island.

Doc Wheatley’s escape was cut off by mortars so he ran blindly to the edge of a ravine. Japanese bullets peppered the trees and leaves guarding his escape. He decided that the 45 degree angle slope was a far better option than the Japanese bullets whistling past his ears. He jumped, tumbled head over heels to the bottom, destroying the sight on his rifle, until he reached the bottom. He scrambled to his feet and ran through head-high kunai grass to safety.

In their year long stay on the island, the Australians had to contend with an initial 3000 Japanese invasion force which eventually ballooned to 15000. They employed guerrilla tactics to keep the Japanese at bay.  They lost only 40 of their own but they managed to kill 1500 of the enemy. Their exploits became the formative lessons for SAS troops in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a story that deserves the accolades meted out to troops involved in Gallipoli, Kokoda and Long Tan.

Uncle Jack did speak to me in those impressionable adolescent years and I continue to hear his voice slightly muted by the passage of time, but still powerful, a compass where I can find true north.

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