On March 1, 1942, Japanese forces invaded Java almost simultaneously at four separate locations on both ends of the island. Two invasion forces, totalling about 45.000 men attacked the defenders of strategic places like Bandung, Batavia and Surabaya.
After eight days of fierce fighting and at the cost of thousands of lives, the Allied forces capitulated, worn down by the crushing Japanese air superiority.
For more information read the page ‘Loss of Java’ that gives a brief overview of what happened in Java during those tragic days.
During my research I discovered that both an Australian and a US unit played an important part in the fight against the Japanese invaders of Western Java. As this fact seems to be practically unknown I decided to high light the contribution these brave men made to the defence of Java
The western Japanese invasion force advanced towards the towns of Batavia and Buitenzorg, initially without meeting much resistance. This changed dramatically when they reached Leuwiliang on the morning of March 2.
There, 24 km from Buitenzorg, they ran into the Australians of the ‘Blackforce’, a 3.000 man ‘pioneer’ infantry unit named after its commander, Brigadier Arthur Blackburn VC.
Most of these men had been landed in Java from the Middle East just days before, some of them without their weapons or equipment. Blackburn decided to re-organize his troops as an infantry brigade. They were well-equipped in terms of Bren guns, light armoured cars, and trucks, but they had few rifles and lacked most other equipment.
For a few days Blackburn, with some awareness of Japanese tactics, mounted a successful holding operation. KNIL units as well as the Australian ‘Blackforce’ and an attached US Army unit, the 2nd Battalion 131st Field Artillery held up the advancing Japanese for two days, partly by the excellent gunnery of the American “D” battery 2/131 FA.
However, on other battlefronts Allied troops fell back before the Japanese and by 11 March ‘Blackforce’ was obliged to surrender after Dutch forces capitulated.
About 100 men from ‘Blackforce’ had been killed or wounded in battle and many of the 2.700 who became prisoners of war died in captivity. In addition, over 200 members of the RAAF including 160 men of 1 Squadron and over 300 men from HMAS Perth (sunk during the battle of Sunda Strait) became prisoners of war in Java, suffering the same ordeal of captivity as their Army comrades.
Blackburn was a real fighting soldier and was upset by the Allies throwing the sponge in the ring. Immediately after the capitulation Blackburn issued the following statement to his commanders:
‘… You are to take the first opportunity of telling your men that this surrender was not my choice or that of Gen. Sitwell. We were all placed under the command of the Commander in Chief NEI and he has ordered us to surrender. In view of medical reports on the dangers of living in the mountains and the impossibility of obtaining food in the mountains and the fact that no reasonable prospect of escape in ships from the South Coast exists, there was considered by Gen. Sitwell to be no alternative except to obey the order…’
‘The Lost Battalion’
The 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, 36th Division (Texas National Guard), was mobilized in November 1940. One year later, this single Battalion was detached from the Division and sent to Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, to become part of a contingent of troops, who were all in route to a destination with the code name “PLUM.” It was generally conjectured that the Philippine Islands was where the Battalion would finally be stationed.
The Unit sailed from the United States on November 21, 1941 aboard the Army Transport Ship, USS Republic. After a refuelling stop at Pearl Harbor the convoy crossed the Equator on December 6. Next morning the Unit heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The USS Republic had been in dry-dock just prior to the Battalion”s boarding and had four 3-inch guns and one 5-inch gun (on the “fan-tail”) mounted on her. The Battalion manned these guns from this time until their arrival in Australia.
The convoy made short stops at Suva, Fiji Islands and then sailed on to Brisbane, Australia, one of the first American units ever to land on Australian soil. The Battalion spent Christmas 1941 in Brisbane, but before New Year’s Day, it was again on the high seas, aboard the Dutch freighter Bloemfontein, bound for Java in the Netherland East Indies, via Darwin, Australia. part of the journey escorted by USS Houston…
On January 11, 1942, 35 days after the outbreak of War with Japan, the Battalion finally disembarked on Java, the only U. S. ground combat Unit to reach the Netherland East Indies, before the Allied capitulation to the Japanese.
The 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery has played a lonely and hopeless role.
A few days after the 131st F.A arrived in Java, the 19th Bombardment Group of the U. S. Army Air Corps, under the Command of Col. Eubank, escaped the Philippines with a few B-17 bombers, loaded with pilots, co-pilots and whatever crew members had managed to squeeze aboard the planes as they took off while under attack.
Until this group evacuated to Australia on March 2, 1942, the 131st F. A. provided it with mechanics, ground crew, aerial gunners and a semblance of anti-aircraft weapons. Twenty-three men of the 131st F. A. transferred to the 19th Bomb Group and were evacuated with them. Two men were killed on February 3, 1942, when they parachuted from one of the B-17s and were gunned down by Japanese fighters, .
When the Japanese invaded Java, the Battalion (less E Battery), used its artillery and 50 caliber machine guns (salvaged from wrecked B-17s) in support of the Australian ‘Blackforce’ which had arrived in Java just prior to the Japanese landings. With what the Aussies called “top-hole” artillery fire, they helped hold up the Japanese advance at Leuwilleng, near the Central Java City of Bandung.
“E” Battery remained on the eastern end of Java to guard the airfield at Malang and to support the Dutch troops in the Surabaya area. Heavy ground action was experienced by “E” Battery prior to the surrender of the Island by the Dutch, to the invading Japanese, on March 8, 1942.
The Japanese terms of surrender were “unconditional” and all troops were advised that any further resistance would be followed by instant reprisals against the civilian population, including women and children. Of the 558 men and officers who landed on Java on January 11, 1942, 534 became prisoners of war of the Japanese.
Within a few weeks, the Japanese had all of the American prisoners from the 131st F. A. (less “E” Battery) and survivors from USS Houston together in the 10th Battalion Bicycle Camp, a former Dutch installation in Batavia (Jakarta) Java. Battery “E” remained in the Surabaya area until moved to Nagasaki and other areas in Japan via Batavia and Singapore in November and December 1942.
Thus, two Units of the American Armed Forces, consisting of 902 men, seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth…
They were sent to work in the steaming jungles and the “monsoon” seasons of Burma, chopping down jungle trees, hand building road beds and bridges and laying ties and rails with primitive tools in construction of the now infamous “Burma-Siam Death Railway”. Of the total 163 men who died in Prisoner of War Camps, 133 died working on the railroad
This Army and Navy group of POWs suffered together through 42 months of humiliation, degradation, physical and mental torture, starvation and horrible tropical diseases, with no medication..
And during all those months, years, their relatives did not know whether they were dead or alive…