Subject: In praise of living history

In praise of living history

Alex Frew McMillan

<> The Australian

May 22, 2010 12:00am

THE mother of East Timor's President, Jose Ramos Horta, remembers evacuating the Timorese capital city, Dili, with the 2/2 Independent Company of the Australian Army. Perched high in the hills, at the war memorial at Dare, she recalls how the Timorese scaled those same tracks on foot so many years back, knowing the Japanese were coming, and scared of what they might do.

"I liked Captain Laidlaw," she says in Portuguese, recalling a famously bearded bear of a man. He was later promoted to major and commanding officer of what's affectionately known as the "second second".

The President's mother is in her 90s, but her story is not unusual. Anyone of a certain age in East Timor will tell you about the Sparrow Force, and how that brave band of Australian commandos took on the Japanese in World War II.

With East Timor finally in a period of relative peace, it's possible to tread in the steps of Sparrow Force. Exploring the country offers up beautiful mountains, red earth set against a bright blue sky, and some wonderful hiking.

Following the path of the Sparrow Force also gives a fascinating window into the country's history and the only troops who did not yield in the face of the Japanese invasion. "They alone did not surrender," Winston Churchill remarked of them.

The most interesting sites relating to the Sparrow Force are south of the capital, where the Australians retreated into the hills that rise up almost 3000m.

The trip leaves you panting for breath a little if you've left the capital, at sea level, earlier in the day. And that's in a four-wheel drive; the troops made the trek on Timor ponies or on foot.

In many ways, East Timor's story is a story of war. The former Portuguese colony has effectively been in some kind of conflict since Australian troops first arrived on December 17, 1941.

East Timor was returned to the Portuguese in 1945, wasted away as a colonial backwater and was then invaded by Indonesia when the colonists left in 1975.

After the people voted for independence from Indonesia it became Asia's first new nation of the 21st century in May, 2002.

The Sparrow Force, later reinforced by troops from the 2/4 Independent Company, engaged 20,000 Japanese troops for more than a year, including the elite 48th Division. The last Aussie troops were eventually evacuated in February 1943 on a submarine, with the Sparrow Force having killed an estimated 2000 Japanese soldiers for a loss of only 40 men.

The arrival of the Australians was a pre-emptive invasion of Timor (the Portuguese were told not to co-operate) after Japan entered World War II. East Timor is the closest part of Asia to Australia, and the Australian government was rightly concerned that Japan could use its runways to start bombing missions targeting Australia. After East Timor fell, Darwin was bombed numerous times by planes using the airports in and around Dili.

Heading out of the capital, we stop to give a lift to a well-dressed elderly gentleman climbing the hill to town. Later, he tells us how, as a young boy, he helped both the Australians and then the Japanese.

"They just told me to carry stuff," Thomas Borsi says in a conversation translated by our guide, Arnaldo Maia from Eco Discovery. "They called me to help." It was a wise course for those who wanted to survive.

Borsi, who was called Bermali at birth but who took a new name after converting to Catholicism, was about 12 when he became a creado, the Portuguese name the Australians used for their local helpers. He hefted material, or supplies, from Lequidoe in the hills above Dili to the main road at Aileu, and from Aileu to Maubisse, in the centre of the country, and then from Maubisse all the way to Betano on the south coast.

"When I got to Betano, the Australians left me there, so I was hiding," he says, getting away with it for about eight days until the Japanese found him. He convinced them he could help them, too, and carried their backpacks and equipment in the reverse direction, until the Japanese troops left him in Lequidoe, where his family was doing its best to stay out of the war. They left him to work the fields with his kin.

Thanks in part to the help of the creado, the isolated Australian troops (Canberra assumed they had surrendered) fashioned a radio known as Winnie the War Winner from parts gained on a raid on an outpost of Timorese who had sided with the Japanese. They were eventually able to communicate with Darwin; it was only believed they were not being used by the Japanese after they correctly gave the name of the wife of the signaller, Captain Parker.

Stories like that abound in Timor. On the climb out of Dili, stop at the Dare war memorial to the Australian forces. There's a pleasant cafe and an exhibit outlining Timor's World War II history. The site is perched on the hills overlooking Dili and, as you look out over the now peaceful capital and its fringing coral reefs, you can only imagine how it must have looked when the scenery, now so serene, also featured warships and fighter planes.

The relics that survive from World War II in East Timor are not well preserved. In the sleepy town of Same, there's the chassis of a piece of heavy artillery, a howitzer that historians say was built by the British. It's now hidden in the undergrowth off a side road in the centre of town. The barrel is missing, perhaps taken by the evacuating Australian troops when they left East Timor.

There's also the wreckage of a Liberator plane sitting at Suco Liurai, a small village high on the hillside above Maubisse.

Most of the wreck was once visible, but local villagers have used what they can for scrap metal. Only the undercarriage, too heavy to carry, remains. Eco Discovery rediscovered the wreck in November 2008.

This Timorese company is starting to arrange trekking and tours of the country's World War II historical sites, and will organise customised trips, including hikes from Dili clear across the country to the south shore. It has worked with a number of Australian veterans or their families.

Australian army records show the Liberator took off from Darwin and crashed on the mountain in May 17, 1945, while on a reconnaissance flight over East Timor. The crew of 16 all died, and the villagers buried the bodies in a crude shallow grave next to the plane at first.

Australian troops arrived in September that year and confirmed the wreck from the number plates on the engine. The bodies were taken to Ambon, in Indonesia, for proper burial.

Besides the undercarriage, it's possible to examine the site where the bodies were first buried, a small dip in the ground, which gives an eerie sense of place. It's also possible to tell where the plane hammered into the mountain slope, scraping open a plateau in the hillside that is now covered with grass. Local schoolchildren know the site of the wreck and will accompany visitors up to it, playing around the site.

We head onwards to Betano, where the engine block of the Voyager, the supply ship used to reinforce the Sparrow Force, is visible at low tide. Pieces of the wrecked ship litter the shore, where it ran aground.

The beautiful scenery and the great hiking of East Timor are as important as the artefacts, which will leave you a little disappointed if they're your sole focus. It's the living history of Timor that is most interesting.

Up in the hills, Borsi, the World War II creado, tells his story surrounded by 10 young children as he chews red betel nut that he keeps in a gourd in his pocket. "We suffered for war many times, and now we feel independence, so everything is better," he says.


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