ACS ASSAULT LANDING AT LABUAN Extract from the book “ALWAYS FIRST” by David Wilson
The next in the Oboe series of operations was the landing on Labuan Island and the adjacent Muara-Brookton area of Brunei Bay. The island was strategically placed in that aircraft based there were capable of supplying air cover along the Asian coastline from Singapore to Shanghai, as well as interdicting Japanese lines of communications in Indo China and Malaya. 31 The United States Navy Task Group 78.1 provided 230 vessels to transport the attacking force to Labuan. The RAAF engineers were represented by 4ACS and 5ACS, who were aboard four of the 76 vessels, which departed from Morotai on Monday 4th June 1945. During the following afternoon, the fleet sailed into stormy weather and that night a severe electrical storm and torrential rain made conditions miserable for the troops, who were sleeping on open decks. George Park recalls that ` the sea would occasionally wash over the deck and pass under my stretcher'. The weather improved as the convoy passed south of the Philippines. A fleet oilier had taken station astern of the LST to replenish the fuel stocks of escorting destroyers, giving the men a chance to study ship to ship refueling at close quarters. Under an umbrella of Lightning fighters and the vigilant eyes of Catalina crews, the convoy turned south on the 9th. The men prepared for the landing scheduled for the next morning. Live ammunition was issued as the assault force maneuvered for position in the night.
As dawn broke on 10th June the island of Labuan and the township of Victoria could be seen to the port side of the LSTs, which were anchored a mile and a half off shore. Four destroyers were positioned closer inshore and the heavier cruisers steamed further to seaward. At 8.10am the destroyers and cruisers opened fire on the beach defences. For the men on the LSTs the noise was deafening. The concussion from the heavy calibre guns of the cruisers battered their eardrums. Landing craft equipped with rocket launchers cruised close inshore, the flash and smoke from the salvoes of rockets a spectacular sight. The shoreline erupted in a composition of smoke and flame for an hour. Eight squadrons of Liberator bombers added their weight of explosives to the deadly symphony, and low flying Beaufighters and Mitchells flew ground support missions in support of the advancing troops.
Although the landing had been unopposed it was not until the morning of 11th June that the Airfield Construction Squadrons landed. It was a day of hard work and humour, against a background of 25-pound artillery firing into the hinterland. The water depth averaged 60 centimeters, but there were variations, as Douglas Perry of 5ACS recalls: `when we went ashore ... we were directly over a bomb hole full of water. We had trouble getting the equipment out and getting it on to the beach'. Pilot Officer Bennett learned this from personal experience when he stepped off the ramp of an LST all that could be seen was a revolver held above his head as he waded ashore. To Alex Clarke, a member of 4ACS, the sight of bulldozers pressing shoreward with only exhaust pipe extensions and drivers visible above the water was memorable. George Park remembers that late in the afternoon the driver of the Survey Section Dodge Blitz Buggy, Vince Sewell, negotiated the water barrier with success but was not as adept at driving on dry land. The Blitz jammed in gear. The Army beach controller, to whom they were to report, was not impressed when Vince yelled `I can't stop' as the recalcitrant vehicle hurtled passed. By 9 pm the LSTs had been partially unloaded; one of the remaining tasks was to roll 200 litre drums of fuel off the ramp to float ashore. The following morning the incoming tide floated the drums. Some had ruptured. The reluctant men had to be threatened with disciplinary action before they stripped and entered the scum to rescue the errant drums.
In the meantime a camp had been established near the airfield. The men slept with a `rifle by your side, and small arms fire 20 yards away was no joke'. The airmen were each rostered to undertake one hour's guard duty. Incessant artillery and small arms fire was incompatible with sleep. In the early hours the tension broke. One of the guards challenged a strange figure. When no password was forthcoming alarmed airmen groped for rifles in the gloom. The call went out to `bayonet the bastard'. A terrified voice quavered from the darkness: `No. Not Me. I'm 4ACS'. Following a call of nature, the airman had little thought of remembering the word of-the day."
On the morning of 12th June, the Army was pressing the enemy located around the airfield. The two construction squadrons commenced the rejuvenation of the strip, which was `a mass of bomb craters, some small, some great gaping holes nine metres deep and fifteen across'. The Survey Section was up at dawn and breakfasted close to the airfield. They drank foul tasting chlorinated water as they heard the rattle of small arms fire and the rush of artillery shells overhead before:
Led by [Flying Officer] John `Dan' Daniel ... we walked to a position behind an earth mound at the south end of the airstrip which formed part of a revetment ... It afforded us protection as we cautiously examined the area, the fighting appeared to be taking place to the west of the strip, so we moved out. [We] worked feverishly all morning, setting up a line of reference pegs ... It wasn't easy working amongst the water filled bomb craters which was about all the airstrip consisted of at that ... time.
We had a brief lunch from our field rations and one of our general hands ... became curious about the war being waged some little distance from us so he climbed on top of the survey wagon for a better view. He had not been there long before he attracted gunfire ... in spite of the danger we were in ourselves, we roared laughing when he fell to the ground in his haste ... to get down.
We took shelter in a bomb crater and shortly after several Australian infantrymen came by and expressed their surprise at our being there; it appeared the ownership of the airfield had not been completely determined!
By 17th June the efforts of the two construction squadrons had improved the serviceability of the airstrip to such a degree that Dakota aircraft and two 76 Squadron Kittyhawk fighters were able to land. Next day twelve 457 Squadron Spitfires landed. Although two crashed, the remainder commenced operational flying on the 19th.
The reconstruction of the airfield had not been without difficulty. 4ACS was constructing the southern portion of the airstrip and 5ACS that to the north. For some unknown reason, the surveys undertaken by the two teams varied by 30 centimeters and the Wing Headquarters was called to arbitrate in favour of the 5ACS survey a decision which `did not prevent us [4ACS] from letting all and sundry know that the fault lay elsewhere'. The two squadrons used different techniques to fill bomb craters 4ACS pumped the water out, then blasted the remaining mud out with explosives, while 5ACS simply filled the craters but all worked a 24 hour day. The area was floodlit. Warning of enemy incursions could not be heard over the noise of the machinery and plant operators were vulnerable in the event of enemy activity. Even during daylight the men were not out of harm's way. George Park noted in his diary that it was nerve wrecking working steadily in light jungle to be interrupted by three or four rifle shots being fired in one's direction by an invisible assailant.
By 16th June the Japanese defenders had been forced into a defensive pocket opposite the ACS camp and the Australian artillery was firing across the airfield to support attempts to break into the Japanese redoubt. Although the permanent camp was established three quarters of a mile from the airfield, the men were aware of the proximity of the enemy and their propensity for nocturnal infiltration of the Australian positions. There was little enthusiasm to sleep in the outermost positions in the tents, and the men slept with their rifles close at hand. George Park recalls one incident where he was woken by a burst of sub machine gunfire. There was bedlam in the tent as bemused men sought boots, personal attire, and weapons in the dark. The reason for the furor was simple. One of the guards was coming off duty when he spotted a python slithering along the pathway and decided to shoot the reptile. Not a bullet hit the snake, which was dispatched with the judicious application of a piece of timber. However, the night of 20th and 21st June was of less levity. Approximately 100 Japanese soldiers, each with a fused aerial bomb on his back, broke out from their defensive positions and attempted a suicide attack on the airstrip and beach area. Several skirmishes occurred during the night. By morning 49 of the enemy had been killed and the remainder captured. The following day the last pocket of organised resistance was assaulted. Labuan Island was under Australian control.