50TH. ANNIVERSARY OF LANDING BY. AUSTRALIAN MILITARY FORCES
10TH. JUNE 1995
REPORT ON PILGRIMAGE MADE BY AIRFIELD CONSTRUCTION SQUADRON EX MEMBERS
No.4 AC S. BRUCE MORRISON (F/O ENGINEER), JIM MOFFAT (CPL. F.D.M.T.), GEORGE PARK (LAC SURVEY).
No.5 A.C.S: JEFF WHITE & MICK MC.GHURK. No 62 WORKS WING GEOFF MC.ELHINNEY.
Thanks to the very fine response of the Labuan Vets amongst our Group a bronze plaque to commemorate the work of No.4 & 5 A.C.S. on Labuan was cast in Melbourne and forwarded to the Rotary Club of Labuan during May.
The Rotary Club had offered to provide a second plaque with a translation into the local language, and also a monument outside the Labuan airport terminal building on which the plaques were to be mounted. The Club had also arranged a ceremony in connection with it, which was programmed into a day of celebration and commemoration planned by the Labuan Tourist Association for Saturday I 0th. June.
Attending from Australia was a 2/28th. Battalion group from Perth, two R.S.L, tour groups from N.S.W. and our group arranged by Harvey Travel of Erina N.S.W. The groups totaled 120 persons. The 2/28th. Group had as it's guide Jack Sue ex member of "Z" Force who was put on Labuan nine days before the landing to obtain enemy information; he was taken off on 9th.June. Jack is an Australian of Chinese parents.
In 1945 Labuan was part of British North Borneo. After claims by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaya for sovereignty over Sabah (of which Labuan was a part) and Sarawak. A referendum was held and they became States of Malaysia. In the 1980's the Chief Minister of Sabah, Harris Salleh,ceded Labuan to the Federal Territory of Malaysia and his party lost the next election principally because of this action.
Wednesday 7th June:
Left Melbourne Airport for Sydney International where we joined nine others, including Goof Mc.Elhinney 62 Wing and Jeff White No. 5 A.C.S., on a Malaysian Airline 747/400 flight to Kuala Lumpur, an enjoyable flight with good food, refreshments. And service, taking 8 hours.
Bruce Morrison propositioned a charming cabin attendant and was taken to the flight deck where he checked on the accuracy of the navigation and the competency of the two pilots, amongst other things.
Overnight at the Subang Airport Hotel.
After an excellent buffet breakfast, which featured an extensive range of dishes, we boarded Malaysian Airlines 737 flight to Labuan and were served another very good breakfast!
Flight time over the South China Sea was 2 hours 10 minutes and on approach to Labuan Strip w e noted great development and thought we could see our old campsite out the port (left for you land lubbers) side of the plane.
The airport is under the control of the military and is on the same site as the one we built in '45. There were many F5 and Hawk fighter planes, large helicopters, transport planes and extensive hanger accommodation. It was suggested that the large air force presence had something to do with the Spratly Islands problem where several Asian nations including Malaysia, are claiming sovereignty.
At about 11 o'clock we stepped out of the plane into the heat and high humidity which most of you will recall, and when we looked down the excellent runway from the north end our thoughts went back 50 years to the scenes of utter devastation which faced us as we prepared to reconstruct the airstrip.
The civil terminal building is at the north (5 ACS) end of the Strip. It is smallish as terminals go but contains all of the usual passenger comfort and control facilities.
We were completely unprepared for the warm reception we received; there were about ten Rotary Club members with a specialty prepared large banner welcoming "representatives of No.4 & 5 Airfield Construction Squadrons" and we were given VIP treatment. It was good to at last meet President Chin Chee Kee with whom we had been corresponding for some time. After introductions and photographs we were taken to inspect the memorial which Rotary had constructed and on which they had mounted both plaques. The five of us were delighted with the memorial and it's location in front of, and to the right of the terminal building.
It is built on a reinforced concrete slab to facilitate movement if a planned new terminal building comes about and is a first class job, the surface being ceramic tiling. The work was carried under the direction of Rotary member Joseph Tanaka a Japanese who is deputy managing director of a large manufacturing company and a member of the local R. C. church.
We were taken by bus to our hotel (Labuan Hotel of 10 stories) close to the harbour and in the centre of town. The road it fronts runs parallel with the harbour and extends to the east behind "Brown Beach" where we came ashore in '45.
It is interesting to note that many of the English names used for identification purpose; when we were on the island in '45 have been replaced with Malaysian names. The township is no longer known as Victoria and would appear to be now called just "Labuan".
The Rotarians invited us for drinks over lunch and it provided the opportunity to discuss arrangements for the unveiling of our plaque. They offered to erect our Squadron banner, which we had brought with us and so we instructed them in the intricacies of putting it together. Photos and maps relating to '45 which we had brought with us were then produced and we noted the great interest they generated amongst the Rotarians, this proved to be the case wherever we went over the next few days; the local people were always anxious to learn 1st. hand of the landing in '45 and regarded us as "liberators".
Jeff Mc.Elhinney (professional entertainer under name of Geoff Mack of "I've been everywhere man" fame) who was a draughtsman with 62 Wing produced a 1945 print of a photo mosaic of Labuan Airfield and surrounding country on which is shown and dimensioned the existing airstrip and a proposed strip. The print is one of 1 I made; labeled "Secret' and the information is accurate to 30/3/45. No doubt Jim Trench and other Engineer Officers would have used this map in planning meetings with W/C Dale on Biak Geoff has handed this photo print over to George Park.
Memories were now being revived and relived and w e were all broadening our knowledge of the Labuan action by listening to the experiences of others who were there in our party we had two ex Army fellows; this was to continue throughout our visit and was one of the highlights of our trip. We took in the view from our 7th. Floor room where we over looked the harbour with its wharves and small container terminal, which were a hive of activity throughout our visit. Small cargo ships were coming and going all the time, as were the sleek covered passenger ferries, which hold about 100 people, and the occasional vehicular ferry, which serve the mainland. Exports from Labuan include crude oil, ships, oilrigs, copra, logs, palm kernel oil, flour, and feed.
Across the harbour opposite the township, an enormous amount of filling has been placed to extend the Rancha Rancha Peninsular easterly over the coral reef. You may recall that on the day of the landing there was a wrecked cargo ship on Rancha Rancha Point and the Japs had a gun on it's stern but the navy quickly took it out. This filled area is now a large industrial estate and accommodates a flour mill with wheat silos, power station, steel2 mill, ethylene plant, and large shipbuilding hard. It is also the landing point for a water main which brings supplies from the mainland In the outer harbour arc three oil platforms one of which is no longer a Liable proposition and is disused. Natural gas from the platforms is used to lire the boilers at the power station and excess power is sold to the mainland via is an underground cable.
Further up the harbour there are two settlements of "houses" built out over the water one on each side of the inlet. The one on the other side was there in '45 but it was of much smaller proportions then.
In front of our hotel was the western end of Labuan Square, which is a line structure, beautifully landscaped and featuring tall flagpoles carving the flags of the various Malaysian states. In front of this structure and extending to the cast behind the beach is a grassed area where soccer is played and there is a small grandstand.
Just cast of our hotel there was a small park and fronting the road is a group of four small memorials: two relate to the occupation of' the Island by the British in 1846, one records the landing by Australian forces in June '45 and the other records the death of General Maida. Commander in Chief of the Japanese Forces in Borneo who was killed in an air crash on 5th. September 1942 when en route to Labuan to open the airfield which was built by the Japanese after they occupied the Island on 1st. January 1941. On the 9th.December 1942 Labuan was named Maida Island by the Japanese government. The memorial was erected by order of General Tojo who passed through Labuan in July 1943.
Whilst the vegetation and topography of the island was familiar to us there arc only one or two buildings, which date back to ‘45, and the city is ore of modern construction and we remarked several times "what a difference". The damaged clock tower, which I am sure everyone remembers, was demolished soon after the war. Main roads are of the highest standard and there are a few traffic light installations and roundabouts at intersections. The landscaping of the roadside and median strips on main roads and city streets is very attractive and consists of various colour plants, blended and trimmed to shape.
In the city, footpaths are not all that good, the concrete paving showing signs of frequent disturbance for access to and laying of services. Main drainage through the city is by means of deep concrete lined open drains, which collect a lot of debris and it, would appear that more than storm water runoff is carried in them although sewerage is available.
There are many cars in the town area, mainly Japanese but: with a sprinkling of Mercedes, Range Rovers, and BMW's.
Labuan is a free port and duty free goods can be purchased. At the east end of town behind the west end of "Brown Beach" a multi million dollar high rise building of very large proportions is being erected to accommodate 100 off shore banks which are to be selected by the Government after tendering. The Island has status as an International Offshore Financial Centre and it is hoped that it will become the financial hub of South East Asia. Over the divided road in front of our hotel was a timber archway, which carried an advertisement for the 50th. Anniversary of the landing commemoration 8 lOth June
You may remember that on the 9th.June '45 aboard our LST's there was a report of an American destroyer being stunk. This vessel was actually an American minesweeper U.S.S. Salute (185' long, 795t) that struck a mine while sweeping for our convoy; it sank with the loss of 9 lives. The minesweeper, which had been active in many areas of the Pacific war, was buckled amidships when she struck the mine and sank just outside Labuan harbour in about 20m of water. Four of the crew was entombed in the engine room and the other 5 were buried at sea. In recent years divers located the wreck (it's guns are still loaded) and sketched it as it lay on the bottom. This morning a few, of the survivors and relatives of those who lost their lives went out over the wreck and a video camera was taken down and they were able to view the vessel through monitors on deck. A plaque was attached to the vessel and a service was conducted and a wreath thrown into the sea. We had an interesting talk to a number of the survivors.
Friday 9th June
We hired a mini van and toured the island going first to the War Cemetery where there are 3904 graves.
What a moving experience; there are rows of graves with plaques reading "An Australian soldier of the 1939 1945 War Known Unto God"; several were of soldiers killed on the 1Oth. June and subsequent days on Labuan and one was an LAC airman aged 19 years killed on the 23/6/45. Yet another was Army Chaplain The Rev.W.E.Holt who was shot in the Jap "pocket" and died two days later on the 22nd.June aged 36. All of the bodies that could be recovered from the Sandakan Ranau death march are interred at Labuan. There is also a brick columned building which has a brass plaque fixed on the inside of each column recording the names of Australian servicemen whose bodies have never been found. The cemetery is beautifully landscaped and immaculately kept and there was not a dry eye amongst us.
We traveled to the north via a road on the west side of the airstrip and past the area where George Park had been involved in building a bomb dump in '45. There is a large recreational area in the vicinity and it has pylon lighting. Continuing on we drove to the northwest side of the Island stopping at Surrender Point, right on the water, where Lieutenant General Masao Baba commander of the 32nd. Japanese Southern Army in North Borneo arid Sarawak surrendered to Major General G. F. Wootten of the Australian 9th.Division on 10th. September 1945. The general area was the site of the 9th.Divison camp. There are no buildings but there is a small fenced enclosure in which there is a brass plate carrying details of the surrender although the date is incorrectly given as the 9th. September. This is a very quiet side of the island and the sandy beach makes a nice picnic area.
Immediately to the north of the surrender plaque is the Japanese War memorial set in large area of land which had been landscaped but appears to have been neglected however there was additional landscaping work being undertaken dining our visit. The memorial is large, of concrete masonry and a segment of a sphere. Many members of our Squadron would remember this part of; the Island as it is only a few hundred yards south of where we obtained our coral at low tide.
We continued on to the north and passed our old gravel pit, which is easily recognized because gravel extraction is still going on in the area. We also thought we identified the site of our Chinaman. Driving northwards we then came to the "Chimney" does anyone remember it? None of our party did and yet how did we come to miss it? It is on the highest point of the island, brick, and about 100 feet high. It formed part of the ventilation system for a coal mine which was operated on and off over a number of years until about 1890 and had a narrow gauge railway to the wharves in Victoria township.
At the extreme north end of the Island is the Manikar Beach Resort only a few years old and providing five star accommodation with a large swimming pool and duty free shop. The other three groups from Australia stayed here.
Continuing on we passed the area where our campsite was without being able to actually pin point it. Our bus trip cost us $l OR (about $6A) each for three hours.
Lunching in the hotel we were approached by a Malaysian Wing Commander pilot in working dress and a high-ranking Malaysian Naval officer. They were very young and so friendly. Both had been to Australia and participated in exercises with Australian armed forces. We were impressed with their friendly approach and enjoyed talking to them about the planes and bouts they were using.
Walking around the shops later a fellow came up and asked us where the wharves were, he was an Aussie who had served in air sea rescue operating from the Victoria township wharf.
In the evening we attended a reception for the Australian and American groups at Manikar Beach Resort where we assembled outdoors and partook of numerous hot and cold dishes and of course one or two Heineken, Anchor or Tiger beers.