In both the First World War and the Second World War, the Furneaux Islands made significant contribution via manpower to each conflict.
At least 89 of the islands’ young men and three women enlisted for service during the Second World War and not all would return to their island homes.
Once again, the 12th and 40th Battalions were raised. Just as in the First World War, the 2/40th was recruited almost entirely from Tasmania.
Initially it was planned that it would consist of three rifle companies from Victoria and one rifle company and one headquarters company from Tasmania.
However, just as in the First World War, public and political pressure led to the battalion being formed from the island state.
Volunteers assembled at Brighton Army Camp in July 1940 spending the rest of the year in training.
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On January 7 in 1941, the battalion travelled to Bonegilla Camp near Wodonga on the Victoria/New South Wales border to join other battalions that would form the 23rd Brigade, as part of the 8th Division.
From Bonegilla the battalion’s next stop was Katherine, Northern Territory and then in June they moved to Noonamah, just south of Darwin.
When it became clear that it was the intentions of the Japanese to take over the Asia Pacific area, the battalion was rushed to Timor on December 10 in 1941, its role was to help protect the airfields.
The battalion arrived at Koepang two days later with the 2/40th forming the bulk of ‘Sparrow Force’, which was detailed to defend the airfield at Penfui, the operational base for the Hudson bombers of 2 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.
Despite the long period of training, the battalion was largely ill-equipped and likely to be overwhelmed by a significant enemy attack.
The commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Leggatt, made repeated requests for greater reinforcements, artillery and supplies which were never met.
On February 20 the Japanese made an amphibious landing south of Koepang and a parachute landing to the east.
Despite their best efforts, the odds were stacked against the men of ‘Sparrow Force’ with food, water and ammunition fast running out and a large Japanese force closing on its rear.
Added to this was a number of casualties including Lance Corporal Maxwell Batt who was killed in action.
Batt was a 21-year-old labourer who was working on Flinders Island in mid-1940. He enlisted there on July 1 1940 and was allotted to the 2/40th Battalion.
In November 1941 he was promoted to the rank of lance corporal.
The name of Lance Corporal Maxwell Batt appears on the memorial at Adelaide River Cemetery along with others from the 2/40th Battalion who were killed on or about February 22 1942.
Lieutenant Colonel Leggatt was delivered an ultimatum by the Japanese – to surrender or be bombed.
Leggatt took the decision to surrender and the bulk of the men of the 2/40th Battalion became prisoners of war, including ten from the Furneaux Islands.
Some members who were manning its rear echelon at Champlong managed to escape inland only to be taken prisoner later.
A group who managed to hide in the hills were subsequently evacuated later in 1942. Russell Beeton would join this group.
He had been born on Chappell Island. He enlisted at Emita on Flinders Island on May 29 1941 and was one of a number of reinforcements for the 2/40th Battalion.
According to the Photographic Record of Service Personnel – Furneaux Group by Frances Rhodes, he escaped from hospital after being taken prisoner.
Joining up with 2/2 Commando Force, he took part in guerrilla warfare before being evacuated by Dutch submarine.
Beeton was discharged on December 9 1944. Vivian Tasman Maynard enlisted on the same day as Russell Beeton.
Maynard did not escape and was taken into captivity along with Privates William John Garrett, Patrick Joseph Holt, David Mitchell Rhodes, Harry Holloway Russell and brothers Private George Robert West and Corporal Mervyn Leslie West – all with a Flinders Island connection.
The men spent the first seven months of their captivity interned in a camp at Usapa Besar. Here lax security meant that parties were able to slip out of camp to forage for food and to gather intelligence.
In July 1942 the 2/40th Battalion Prisoners of War started to be broken up with a small party of senior officers shipped out to Java.
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The rest were moved in September to Timor and onto places such as the Burma/Siam Railway or Sumatra. Privates Garrett, Rhodes, Russell and the West brothers were forced to work on the Burma/Siam Railway.
In early 1944, the Japanese authorities decided to send 10,000 of their fittest Prisoners of War to Japan to boost the labour workforce in their mines, factories and wharves.
Among those rounded up were 105 men of the 2/40th Battalion, leaving Tanjon Priok (Jakarta) for Singapore and onto Japan.
Vivian Maynard and William Garrett were among those selected as fit. They were placed onboard the ‘hell ship’ the Tamahoku Maru, a 6780 tonne vessel.
Along with Miyo Maru they carried 900 prisoners of war. The Tamahoiku Maru also carried a cargo of copper.
Leaving Manila the vessels encountered a big typhoon which left the Miyo Maru damaged and needing to transfer the prisoners of war she was carrying to the Tamahoku Maru.
The US authorities had been actively keeping their ears open on the movement of the convey that included the Tamahoku Maru.
Upon receiving intelligence that the convoy was to change course three US submarines were sent to intercept despite being aware that there were prisoners of war onboard, including Americans.
At 11.50pm on June 24, approximately 40 miles South-West of Nagasaki the men were awoken by an explosion as another ship in the convoy was torpedoed.
Within seconds another hit the Tamahoko Maru just forward of the bridge on the starboard side, blowing the covers off the hatches.
Many onboard were killed in the explosion or by falling debris with the men below decks being washed out to sea. It has been estimated that the boat sank in less than two minutes.
Vivian Maynard and William Garrett were among those who drowned either that night or before those in the water could be picked up the next day.
Their names are now recorded on the memorial at the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore.
The 2/40th Battalion suffered the loss of 264 men between 1942 and 1945.
Seventy four of these men died as a result of the fighting at or near Koepang with the remainder dying as a result of their captivity.
The lives of the families and of the men themselves inextricably changed forever.
- Andrea Gerrard OAM MA is the curator of the 12/40ths Royal Tasmanian Regiment Collection
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