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  • The Ration Truck Massacre - 75 years ago

    Rob Crossing

    Memorial ceremony 2016.jpg20 February 2017 is the 75th anniversary of a war crime, the massacre of most of the 2/2’s 7 Section near the Comoro River, outside Dili.

    The following is an excerpt from the unit’s history, All The Bull’s Men, by Cyril Ayris, which can be purchased as an eBook, here.

    We pause to remember these brave young men today.

    Lest we forget



    Ration truck massacre

    The Japanese landing had been so overwhelming and the 2/2nd communications so bad, everybody was caught unawares. The soldiers of No. 2 Section would not be the only ones who would know the agony of war on this never-to-be-forgotten day – McKenzie’s fears for the men in the ration truck were well-founded.

    On 19 February 1942, the day before the landing, Lts Don Turton and Archie Campbell had gone into Dili from Three Spurs and Railaco, carrying a dispatch. Turton’s sappers and No. 9 Section had been on leave in the town and were due to return to base. The troops had enjoyed themselves to the extent that several were experiencing difficulty standing up. The result was that those who were sober had to help carry some of the packs and weapons belonging to the drink-affected, the ten kilometres back to Three Spurs.

    Harry Sproxton, who spent the day with Jack Carey and Dick Burton, remembers the day well: “Most of us had lunch at the Hotel Portugal where we enjoyed omelets and a few glasses of champagne,” he said. “We were quite late leaving Dili and didn’t reach the ‘drome until after dark. Some discussed staying the night there, but they agreed to go back to Three Spurs when it was pointed out that they would be jeopardising leave for the rest of the company. Because of all this it was late at night when we got back to camp. We had no way of knowing it at the time, but I’ve always reckoned the Japanese landed as we were walking back.”

    Lt Campbell, who also walked from Dili to Three Spurs that night, had planned to go back early next morning with men from his No.7 Section. It was their turn for a day’s leave in the capital. However, he said he needed a rest and that he would follow later in the 10 a.m. truck. He then cleaned up, had a late meal and fell into the sack.

    It was still dark when Campbell was woken by members of his section urging him to join them in the 6 a.m. truck. The sound of gunfire could be heard in the distance but it caused no alarm; it was assumed it was the Dutch holding another of their gunnery practices. In fact, it was almost certainly No. 2 Section blowing up the airfield and the Japanese ships firing on them. Campbell blearily waved his men away saying he would come later.

    image1.jpegTed Monk, another No. 7 Section man, also decided against going; he had malaria and was still too ill to make the trip. His mate Charlie Stanton, also No. 7 Section, gave Monk his last two eggs, explaining that there would be plenty of food in Dili.

    The honking of a horn heralded the arrival of the early truck. Bob Chalmers was behind the wheel. Staff Sgt J. Walker called out to No. 7 Section to hurry otherwise they would be walking into town.

    The truck was about to pull out when Pte Reg Murray ran up carrying his boots; he had planned to go in the later truck but he had changed his mind. He scrambled into the back, still clutching his boots. There was a grating of gears and the truck drove off towards Dili carrying sixteen men singing lustily in anticipation of a brief spell away from camp. The only No. 7 Section men remaining at headquarters were Lt Campbell and Ptes R. L. Dook, Ted Monk and H. H. Calcutt. When the rations truck disappeared round a bend, they and the rest of the men at Three Spurs resumed what they had been doing, their ears half attuned to the distant booming of heavy artillery. (Some say they heard the gunfire while others say they did not.)

    The sequence of events over the next few hours varies according to who is telling the story. One thing everybody agrees on is that the first reports of a Japanese landing were greeted with near-disbelief. There had been no communication from Dili or the airfield, no word from the Dutch, no runner, nothing from Koepang ...... how could it be? Surely it must be the Portguese? The earlier gunfire suddenly assumed much greater significance

    Lt Ray Cole

    Jack Carey says that No. 9 Section, under Lt Ray Cole, left Three Spurs at 8 a.m. on a patrol to Dili to see what was going on. He said they had gone only five hundred metres when they met Slim Holly from No. 2 Section, who said he had been sent back by McKenzie to warn them that the Japanese had landed during the night. Cole had told him to hurry on to Three Spurs and report to Capt Boyland. It was Boyland who sent a runner to Railaco to let Major Spence know about the invasion. Carey said he would have arrived about 10.30 a.m.

    image2.pngHarry Sproxton described the scene when No. 9 Section reached the Comoro River: “The water was almost black with landing barges,” he said.

    “There was gear piled on the beach and there seemed to be hundreds of troops. We were less than a kilometre away in the cactus. We were hidden from view but we could see them clearly. I remember saying, ‘Gawd, are we prisoners of war?’ We didn’t stay long. We established that they hadn’t advanced west of Dili then headed straight back to Three Spurs.

    Carey says that No. 8 Section, under Lt Burridge, had left Three Spurs soon after No. 9 Section, and had also reached almost as far as the Comoro when they saw the Japanese activity on the beach and returned to Three Spurs.

    The unit’s dispatch rider Pte P. (Pinocchio) Alexander meanwhile had left headquarters for Dili on his motorcycle to deliver a message. He was never seen again.


    Screen Shot 2017-02-15 at 2.05.32 pm.png
    “Arch Campbell, whose anxiety over his No. 7 Section was growing by the hour, had left about noon with Ron Dook, Ted Monk and Mick Calcutt to find out what had happened to his men,” he said. “Avoiding the road, Campbell took to the bush to follow a spur to the Comoro from where they could see Dili and the aerodrome. On arrival they met a small party of Javanese troops who had escaped from Dili and were heading inland. The result of all this was that Campbell was even more concerned about the fate of his No. 7 section.




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    Ready for war (L-R): Don Airey, Keith Hayes and Dick Crowder.


    We return to the ration truck. When the truck with its driver and fifteen passengers left Three Spurs, the men’s spirits were high. There was not a lot to do in Dili but at least they could have a drink and relax. Just getting away from camp life and mixing with the locals were cause enough to celebrate. The cool morning air and the ever changing scenery added sparkle to what promised to be an enjoyable day. The truck’s engine and the men’s singing drowned the sound of distant gunfire.

    In the vehicle were Bob Chalmers (driving), S/Sgt J. W. E. Walker, L/Sgt Gordon Chiswell, Cpl Jack Simpson, Ptes Reg Murray, Ken Hogg, Don Airey, Dick Crowder, Harvey Marriott, Frank Alford, Tony Lane, Jim Pollard, Peter Alexander, Keith Hayes, Charlie Stanton and Harry Cotsworth.

    The truck had almost reached the Comoro River within a few kilometres of Dili when it ran into the ambush.

    This time it was well laid, the section was taken completely by surprise.

    The Japanese quickly surrounded the vehicle and at gunpoint, forced L/Sgt Gordon Chiswell and Ptes Alford, Keith and Marriott out of the truck and disarmed them. The truck was then driven off towards Dili with the rest of the Australians under guard in the back.

    The Japanese surrounded the four Australians left behind, tied their hands behind their backs and indicated to them to start marching towards Dili.

    They had been walking for a while – how long, is not known – when some Dutch soldiers opened fire on the column with machine guns. The Australians jumped into a roadside ditch as the Japanese returned the Dutch fire.

    When the firing stopped the Japanese returned to the ditch and made the four Australians turn around so that they were facing away from them. Their hands were still bound behind their backs. The Japanese stepped back a few paces.

    One of the Australians shouted: “They’re going to shoot us.”

    There was a volley of rifle or machine gun fire and the Australians fell.

    Keith Hayes heard Harvey Marriott cry: “Oh, my God.” Then Hayes lost consciousness, bleeding from a bullet wound to the side of his neck. He had been out to it only a few seconds when he became aware of his mates groaning. He played dead, listening to the Japanese finishing them off with bayonets.

    When it was his turn the bayonet sliced through the other side of his neck. Again, he blacked out.

    Hayes has no idea how long he lay in the ditch. All he knew when he came to was that the Japanese had gone and that one of them had untied his hands, apparently to steal his watch.

    Painfully, he checked each of his three mates. All were dead. Climbing over their bodies he pulled himself out of the ditch and staggered to a rice field where he was out of sight from the road.

    He was found by two Timorese boys who, at great risk to themselves, carried him to their village on the outskirts of Dili. Their mother Donnabella Martins took over, cleaning his wounds and dressing them with some kind of paste wrapped in banana leaves.

    “She treated me as though she was my mother,” Hayes would say later.

    “I was there for several days. They would carry me into the bush away from the hut during the day, and bring me back at night. The sea was behind us, the Japanese were in front. There were Japanese all round us. When they approached the village Donnabella would wrap me in a blanket and hide me at the back of her hut. During the day I could see the enemy planes flying directly overhead, landing and taking off from the airfield. I owe my life to that woman. Doctor Dunkley told me later that he could have done no more for me than Donnabella had done. He was amazed my wounds had not become infected. I wrote to Donnabella after the war to thank her and she replied, thanking me for having taken so much trouble.”

    After his days in Donnabella’s oomah Hayes was dressed in Timorese clothes, hoisted onto a pony and taken across country to Capt Laidlaw’s (The Bull’s) B Platoon. On the way he met up with Alan Luby.Luby:

    “He had some terrible wounds though the bleeding had finished and fortunately no vital organ had been penetrated. We placed him on a stretcher and carried him for two or three hours to Doctor Dunkley. The appearance of Keith was the first real indication we had that the Japanese had arrived.”

    Cpl Eric Thornander, who was involved in Hayes’ rescue, said: “I first saw him when I was on an OP with Sgt Alf Coupland on a mountain, just up from Cactus Flat. It was my turn with the glasses; we could see some Timorese boys making their way up the side carrying Keith. What a mess he was in!

    “I was one of the blokes who brought him through to B Platoon headquarters. We got him there all right but there was nobody there. I didn’t go into the lines as I thought the place could be booby-trapped. We decided to take him through to company headquarters. We had to do this in stages – leaving him in a safe place, searching the area to make sure there were no Japs around, then doubling back for Keith. It was getting on towards dark when we were rumbled by six or eight C Platoon blokes. I remember I was very quick at convincing them I was one of them. Don Hudson had had his weapon shot out of his hand and all he could carry was a whacking great catana (hunting knife) which I thought he was going to use on me. We decided to continue on with Keith to company headquarters via Ermera and Vila Maria and up the mountains.”

    All but one of the twelve Australians driven off in the truck were killed, though there are no eye witness accounts of their deaths. It is known that their truck also came under fire from the Dutch – and there was one eye-witness account of them being taken from the vehicle before they were executed. A Dutch soldier said that the men fought the Japanese with their bare hands until they were overcome by sheer weight of numbers.

    The one survivor from this second massacre was Pte Peter Alexander (not Pinocchio) who, for some unaccountable reason, was separated from the others and taken to Dili for interrogation. He was able to give a detailed account of what happened on that fateful morning:

    Today was the big day, a day’s leave into Dili. The thought in everyone’s mind was food, something different from buffalo meat and rice. Down out of the foothills roared the truck, across malaria-riddled Tibar flats then the climb up onto the coast road overlooking the ocean. What a sight! Ships in the channel! The Portuguese had arrived at last! Little did we know we were driving into the rear end of a big Japanese force heading for Dili.

    A few miles down the road the truck was brought to a halt by a burst of machine gun fire. I remember someone saying: “Those Portuguese bastards aren’t very friendly, we’d better get out and have a word with them.” We got out of the truck to be surrounded by Japanese but still thinking they were Portos. These thoughts were quickly dispelled when they began tying our hands behind our backs with signal wire.

    Twelve of us of us were pushed back into the truck leaving four to walk alongside. One of them was my best mate, Keith Hayes. A Jap was driving; we had not been moving for long when a machine gun opened up on the vehicle. One burst ripped through the truck’s canopy. It was then that we were told to get out and into the drain along the side of the road. That was a big mistake by the Japanese because the bloke behind the machine gun must have had it sighted right along the ditch.

    The Japs were spread out along the opposite side to us – and that was where the next couple of bursts were aimed. The Japanese copped a few casualties in this short exchange. One of them who was opposite me let out a scream – I could see his knee cap had been sliced by a bullet and appeared to be held by a thin strip of skin.

    After the firing ceased the Japs were in an ugly mood. We were ordered out of the drain and told to stand in a line. A length of signal wire was then passed through the wire already binding our wrists. I was on the end. It was then that a Japanese about four feet tall and with a face like an ape, came dancing down the front of the line, pointing to a Lewis gun he was holding, then pointing at us. He was making his intentions quite clear. The Lewis had probably been captured on one of the islands they had overrun.

    Another Jap produced a packet of cigarettes and proceeded to light and place one in each of our mouths. The number one Jap on the gun appeared to be having a bit of trouble with the mechanism and was impatiently trying to fit the magazine.

    It was at this stage that a lone Jap came full belt out of the trees screaming his head off and jabbering to the officer in charge. I think the same thought passed through all our minds – perhaps we were going to get a reprieve. The officer gave an order then one of the soldiers cut me off the end of the line; that was the last time I was to see my mates. I didn’t hear that machine gun fire so I was always living in hope that they had not been gunned down.

    A couple of prods with a bayonet and I was told to hurry back along the track where that Jap had come running from. A few hundred metres further on we came to a Japanese officer sitting under a palm tree making a meal out of a tin of baked beans. Alongside him was another officer who spoke very good English. He said he wanted to know what we had done with the Japanese consul and his family. I had ten minutes to tell him; if I didn’t my head would be cut off.

    Talk about out of the frying pan, into the fire! I didn’t know there was a Japanese consul in Timor, let alone where he was. As the minutes ticked away more Japs gathered around; as I was to learn later, a beheading was a big event. The officer lost face if the victim wasn’t decapitated with the first stroke of the sword.

    When the last few minutes were ticking away there was one mighty explosion from somewhere up in the foothills. The Japs lost interest in the execution and all began having their say on the explosion; maybe they thought it was the start of a bombardment. By the time they had settled down again the full ten minutes had passed.

    Then there was another interruption, this time it was a Japanese coming down the track with the Japanese consul and his family. They were greeted with much bowing and scraping then they all decided to head for Dili. The interpreter said something to my officer who told me I was to be taken into Dili and that maybe they would let me live.

    Peter Alexander would be sent to Singapore’s Changi Prison then to Thailand to work on the infamous “Death Railway”. He would survive both brutal internments.

    The bodies of the last eleven to be executed were never found. Lt Campbell and Pte R. Dook later swam the Comoro River and unearthed a helmet in which there was a scorched sock – Jimmy Pollard had padded his helmet with a sock after shaving his head. They also found evidence that the men had been incinerated.

    And so it was that within twenty-four hours of their invasion of Timor and less than three months after entering the war, the Japanese demonstrated a brutality that would continue to stain their reputation for decades to come.

    For the 2/2nd the opening of hostilities had been a disaster – two men killed defending the airfield, a dispatch rider shot and killed on his motorcycle, fourteen men massacred in cold blood and the company scattered and out of touch. Things could hardly have been worse.

    Those killed in the massacre were:

    Don Airey, 21

    Frank Alford, 21

    Bob Chalmers, 23

    Gordon Chiswell, 23

    Harry Cotsworth, 28

    Dick Crowder, 25

    Ken Hogg, 22

    Tony Lane, 21

    Harvey Marriott, 35

    Reg Murray, 23

    Jack Simpson, 36

    Charlie Stanton, 22

    Jim Pollard, 22

    John Walker, 23

    Jack Carey said that in his opinion No. 7 Section was among the best in the unit. “They had some excellent men who
 would certainly have made good officers,” he said. “Campbell was knocked rotten by what happened. He was extremely proud of his section.”

    At subsequent war crime trials two Japanese were sentenced to death for their part in the massacre. Two received life imprisonment and another was given fifteen years.



    Map - Ration truck massacre.jpg



    Three other members of the 2/2 lost their lives on that first day of the Timor campaign:

    Reg Alexander, 24
    Bryant Gannon, 29
    Fred Smith, 20

    Edited by Rob Crossing


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