The Action at Labuan

The Action at Labuan:

By mid-1945 the battles of the strategic Labuan Island and Brunei Bay objectives, except for the persistent Pocket, had been mastered by the Australian First Corp and two subsidiary mainland operations ordered…. The enemy commander understanding the situation was hopeless decided on a desperate attempt to break out and inflict a maximum of damage before the inevitable end. In the dark morning light at 4.30am 21 June two kamikaze groups, about fifty Japanese desperados each, had stealthily sneaked out of the shrinking Pocket through the smelly swamp. The Japanese achieved surprise, managed to cause some casualties and raided the logistics base at Labuan town and for an hour or so there was confused fighting in which engineers, pioneers, cooks, clerks, and other service personnel of the Beach Group were involved. A swiftly arranged offensive defence by Sergeant Antill of a small party armed with rifles and bayonets, supported by the firepower of a detachment from the American Boat and Shore Regiment, killed all the attackers and many weakened Japanese soldiers that were exterminated had 300lb ariel bombs strapped to their back. From The World at War


Mel's Story:

18 Galpin Avenue,
Victor Harbor, 
SA 5211

Col. David Davies,
52 Kippara St.
N.S.W. 2073

Dear Sir,

I was very interested in reading your letter in the latest issue of the Veteran Affairs
magazine regarding your time on Labuan Island in 1945.

I also served on Labuan in 1945 as a member of the 2/1Oth Port Operating Company.

We were well aware that there was a group of Japanese who were holed up in what was known as the pocket, but had been told that they posed no threat and would probably be starved out.

June 21 proved that one can't take anything for granted. We had come off our shift at midnight and had not long settled down, the 6am shift had been called and were settling down to breakfast when all hell let loose. The Japs had found their way out of the pocket and entered the port area.

From what we were told they were disturbed by two of the American guards who went to investigate a unusual noise outside their guard room. What they discovered was that the Japs were in the process of raising the Rising Sun after having lowered the Stars and Stripes.

These Americans were the first casualties of the ensuing conflict.

At the time we had no idea as to what was going on although our camp was only about a quarter of a mile from all the activity. What orders came through to us was to lay low, not panic as every thing was under control .Actually we were in a no win situation because although we all had rifles none of us had any ammunition The 6am gang were late going to work and when we relieved them at midday we were able to have a look at the sight and get some idea of the ferocity of the battle as the Jap bodies were still lying where they fell although when we came off shift at 6 pm every thing had been cleaned up.

I have a written report of the occasion which reads

Views of dead Japs on what became known as Hellfire Corner in Victoria Town, Labuan Island .on the morning of June 21st 1945.

Large Jap party broke out of "pocket" by coming through swamp and attacked Australian and American units based on the beach front. Total of 50 Japs killed in engagement whilst Australian losses were 22 killed and American 6 killed.

This was recognised as one of the bloodiest pieces of fighting in the whole Borneo campaign.

The above version with the exception of the casualties was printed in the 50 years ago column of the Adelaide Advertiser on June 21 1995

There was a sequel to the above engagement that did not make headlines and probably is known to very few people.

About a week later we returned to camp after coming off a 6 am shift to find the place a buzz with excitement.

About an hour earlier one of the lads in the tent lines had a rude awakening when his mess gear fell on to him while he was sleeping, On inspecting his mess plate he was surprised to find a bullet hole in it . It' s not hard to imagine the consternation this caused ..

By a bit of detective work they were able to trace the path of the bullet as to where it has passed through two lines of vacant tents. This led them to believe that the source of firing was from near our ablution block which was an old slaughter house built over a tidal creek,

On scouting around they found this Jap under some sheets of galvanised iron. He had with him a couple of Lee Enfield rifles and a supply of 303 ammunition. Needless to say he was quickly disposed of.

There is one unanswered question to this episode. Was he a survivor of the earlier scrap or had he been left behind because he was unfit or ill and on recovering made his own way in.

I had one very unusual experience when we returned to Morotai

We had it reasonably easier there, having the Japs do all the work while we supervised them .On this occasion I was supervising a Japanese who was working a winch. It was just before the end of the shift and we had a break while waiting for a transport. The winch operator came back to where I was sitting and asked me in perfect English if I knew the Five Dock area in Sydney. I answered no as I came from South Australia and had spent very little time in Sydney. On asking him why he was interested in the Five Dock area he answered "I used to live there before this war, I was a wool buyer.

I would liked to have followed up on this conversation but was unable to do so as he did not appear in any future work parties

I am enclosing a few photos that we took around the port area. Trust that you the find the above of interest.

It is surprising what one remembers when something like your letter in the paper sort of hits one in the eye

I am
Yours faithfully
Melville J. Prior


The Reply from Col. Davies:

52 Kiparra St,
 Pymble  NSW 2073

20 June 2008

Dear Melville,

How nice of you to write and give me news which I  had not heard before. We had no idea that so many of our troops were  killed at that time. The story that we received was that some dozen or  more Japs were marching in single file along a road; when challenged  they were recognised as enemy and the guard mowed them down with  a .50 calibre machine gun mounted on a support. We heard of an officer sleeping under a mosquito net who was killed by a Jap with a sword.

I have not received the latest issue of Vet Affairs; I had forgotten  that I had sent that story to them; it must have been two years or more  since I sent it. There is not much point in telling you anything as it may  be already printed. Thank you for the photos. I had a little trouble with  the look out tower in the pocket. I assume you mean the tree. How did  the "Tizer" manage to print this story on the day after it occurred? I  certainly found your letter very interesting.

What I did not put in my article was that near where we were  deployed on the south eastern part of Labuan was that a building on  the side of the main road running north from the harbour belonged to  the firm "Cables and Wireless" where my aunt's future husband worked  back in the 1920s. Now Optus here.

It was wrong to tell you that the pocket troops were harmless. In  theory they were surrounded by infantry of the 2/24th Brigade, a  commando squadron and others which I have forgotten. But in swampy  country at night it was obviously possible for a number of them to sneak  past, probably through a swamp. The Japs were mainly service corps,  but they would prefer to die for the Emperor than be taken prisoner.  There were three attacks on them; the first two failed; we never found out why. The problem was that they were in behind dead trees,  horizontal, had overhead cover and fired from a narrow slot, and had  cleared a "killing zone" around themselves. One RMC graduate was  killed trying to talk to a tank commander from the outside. The airforce  dropped napalm on them; the HMAS Shropshire was firing 8 inch shells  over our heads, but eventually our troops changed tactics and overran  the pocket. They wanted to get us to fire at them but the ridge which the  RAAF and USAF were using made that impossible with high velocity  guns.

At the risk of repeating myself, we had an incident in the  searchlight battery for which three of us subalterns were sent to hold a  Court of Enquiry. It showed how different two batteries in the same  regiment could be. We were 2/6th HAA, and the unit in question was the  78th AA Searchlight Battery, which had their lights deployed separately  over the island. Whereas our B troop had at least 12 posts each of eight men, watching in pairs (to stop bushes moving?), including five  Brens and a 50 calibre MG, the SL had one sentry sitting on slightly  higher ground with his rifle, while the rest of the detachment were  asleep in a hut.

During the night, one of the lads walked outside to have a pee. The guard could not have seen him come out, but may have first seen  him returning to the hut. The guard panicked and shot him in the leg.  Lucky he did not kill him. So we questioned the guard and got some  idea of their lack of training. I poked around in the hut and found a box  of 36M grenades. They were still wrapped up and had preservative  grease on them. They were useless in that state. We submitted our  report and stated that the SL troops had not been trained, and laid the  fault with the battery commander and the troop commander.

Another matter was quite amusing in hindsight. Because we could not leave our gun position, 9 Div had the films shown on our site. We had  one man on each gun and I was on duty in the command post.

Due to a noise in the scrub near No 3 gun, the sergeant realised that a  large crowd of troops watching a film was a hell of a target, so he threw a 36M grenade into the scrub to put the enemy off side and warn the  audience. Of course I yelled "Take Post" for our troops; the rest of the  audience were gone in a matter of seconds! A number left their folding  seats behind, which found their way into our mess and the troops' tents,  improving our comfort.

Although we had 8 HAA guns and about 18 40mm LAA B010rs,  the only plane we got was dazzled by the several SLs (millions of  candle power) coming into the cockpit, lost his horizon and dived into  the sea, I suspect not far from the port. You probably saw that one. I  watched it with binoculars, and saw no sign of anything hitting it.

Although I was the most recent addition to the battery, my  application to attend a staff course in Qld came through and I left in late  August, thereby missing out on some medal for those still out there for a  certain period. I can't say I was worried about that when I was first  home.

On the flight from Morotai to Biak, our US Dakota was  overloaded and only just cleared the trees, but ten minutes later, the  port engine failed and we had 300 miles to go. We all went white as a  sheet! But the pilot got it going again. From Morotai when over north  Queensland our ANA plane had to climb over a thunderstorm and in  jungle clothes at 11 ,000 feet it is very cold. Luckily I had a trench type  coat in my kit, which made the rest very envious.

Did you know that I am a Crow-eater? I have been to Victor  Harbour several times in the 90s. I went to PAC, Kent Town for 6 years.

Must go; great to relive some good memories.  With best wishes and thanks again,