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Australian Diggers in East TimorA Debt Repaid

A WWII Debt Finally Repaid

Sunday 23 April 2000

Corporal Richard Hadke keeps a keen eye during a patrol in the Tonabibi district in East Timor.

Money could not repay the East Timorese for their loyalty in saving the lives of Australian soldiers," said Jose "Xanana" Gusmao to Peter Cosgrove at the handover of responsibility for Timor from the Australian-led InterFET force to the UN administration, UNTAET.
"We went to Timor and brought nothing but misery on those poor people. That is all they ever got out of helping us - misery," said the late Paddy Keneally of the 2/2nd Independent Company, which with the 2/4th, fought a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese in 1942.
Mr Gusmao went on to say: "General, you have now paid the debt and the East Timorese people honor you for that. We thank you personally and we thank all InterFET from our hearts."
In 1942, Timorese boys attached themselves to individual Australian soldiers, using their sturdy Timorese ponies or their own backs, to carry packs and equipment, freeing up the Australians to fight.
During March and April 1942, the 2/2nd were successful in ambushing and harassing Japanese forces, especially around Dili.
Colonel Bernard Callinan, later commander of the 2/2nd, wrote after the war that the stories the Timorese spread raised the Australians to the level of demi-gods.
It was amazing to them that Australians never seemed to be killed, while they could kill many Japanese. One Timor theory was that only silver bullets in the head could kill them.
The 2/2nd, trained as commandos, rapidly became skilled and feared guerrillas and depended for their success on moving freely among the people, who supported them with information and food.
It was only when the Japanese reinforced their garrison later with about 12,000 more troops that the Australians were forced to retire, evacuating the 2/2nd and 2/4th in December 1942 and January 1943. The Japanese oppression of the people of Timor until the war ended was as awful in Timor as it was elsewhere in South-East Asia. The population declined by about 40,000 over the period, a loss of 10per cent.
Timor was a colony of the supposedly neutral Portugal, then under the control of fascist dictator Salazar, and it has been argued that Australia actually invaded Timor in 1942, bringing the Japanese invasion and the subsequent suffering.
This is, supposedly, the debt we owe. But it is, I think, a cloud-cuckoo-land argument.

The Japanese wanted Timor as a base from which to strike northern Australia, and to deny it to Australia as a base to attack them. Unhappily, the Japanese in World War II needed no excuse to pillage and oppress indigenous people. The Indonesian occupation and the bloody organisation of the militia/TNI terror might well have a toll similar to the 40,000 deaths by Japanese hands. Certainly the destruction of Dili and towns such as Liquica, and the expulsion of the population was gruesome, and sufficient reason for the international communityto be under an obligation to do something; the debt of decency.
The handover was two months ago, and on the eve of Anzac Day, thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops are still in Timor, helping stabilise security on the border with Indonesian West Timor, and creating as normal environment as possible for the people of Bobinaro District.
The 5/7 Royal Australian Regiment is a mechanised unit based in the old Portuguese fort at Balibo with forward patrol bases, checkpoints and observation posts closer to the border. 5/7RAR is being rotated out of Timor after six months' duty by 6 RAR, a complex tactical and logistical operation that was in full swing when I spent a night at the Tonabibi patrol base, 24 kilometres west of Balibo.
A tremendous amount of civil military liaison is run out of Balibo - reroofing schools, helping food programs, processing refugees at Batugade and coordinating support for the family reunion visits, where 2000 to 10,000 Tamaraus from both sides of the border meet to swap information.
This process of reassurance is crucial in the overall security plan. At Tonabibi, surrounded by member of 8 Platoon C Company, and others, I learnt a lot about the conditions Australians weathered in 1942, and what it has been like for today's Australian soldiers repaying the legacy of debt.
These modest young soldiers have encountered drug-influenced Indonesian soldiers in tense situations that might have been turned bloody, except for the professionalism of the Australians and a residual common sense of the Indonesians.
Several times weapons were pointed, but not used - a soldier's sign of respect for the moment. Even the militia could recognise a no-win situation when confronted with one.
5/7 RAR fired only three rounds in earnest during its Timor tour, which demonstrates just how well soldiers did their job.
Since the beginning of January, C Company has been at Tonabibi manning checkpoints, camped in an abandoned building opposite a small village.
Because of the change-over with 6RAR, the kitchen has been packed up, which means noodles rations and more noodles rations. When I visited, it was fairly quiet. We swapped yarns near the gas ring, watched the sun sink behind the armored personnel carriers and followed the moon's rise.
At 10pm, a few guys put their boots on, pick up their weapons, and clamber into the carrier. They are aboard for a very public two-hour moonlight patrol, just to let people know the Australians are still about.
Another patrol rumbles off at 4am, and later that morning a two-day patrol heads for the hills. Apart from shaving, the contemporary diggers were just like the legend of the 2/2nd in Timor. The 2/2nd, however, were renowned for their piratical and flourishing beards, and 8 Platoon soldiers are clean shaven, and short-haired, as befits the hot and humid climate. Otherwise, they are the grandsons of the 2nd AIF - literally, in one instance.
An 8 Platoon soldier's grandfather was a member of the ill-fated 2/40th captured and imprisoned by the Japanese on West Timor in 1942.
Many come from families with a military tradition. They have, it seems, the same ready humor, camaraderie, mutual dependence and the traditional concerns over beer (none), cigarettes, and getting a brew.
There is nothing gung-ho in their style. They are relaxed with officers, disciplined, and completely professional. Lance-Corporal Mark Wicks has been writing modest reports regularly for his hometown paper in Bendigo, and receiving huge quantities of toys and books in return.
He had an Easter distribution for the local children, who almost swamped him in their eagerness, and were extremely vocal in their thanks.
That's how it is in repaying the debt.
I went back to Dili in a convoy of army trucks, and was cheered all the way up Timor's magnificent version of the Great Ocean Road.
In every village and hamlet locals, particularly the children, waved and cheered the soldiers.
It was like a 124-kilometre parade by a World Cup-winning team. They travelled through devastated towns and villages, past congregations singing in open churches, skirted freshly sown rice fields and under fish hanging from the trees.
That's East Timor on the eve of Anzac Day. A debt repaid.

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