American Troops on Timor in 1942

… a volunteer is a guy who forgot to step backwards with the rest…”, 2nd  lieutenant Charles H Burnside must have thought when he was asked to volunteer for a special job.


USS Peary, DD 226, IN 1941

He and 15 men of “B” battery, 147th field artillery regiment, found themselves in the afternoon of January 30, 1942 aboard the USS Peary. The ageing WW1 four-stacker destroyer left Darwin with destination Timor in the Dutch East Indies.
The ship was to anchor off the coast, about 40 miles from Kupang and east of the Mina River, where the Australians were constructing a dispersal airstrip in a hurry. Someone clearly had forgotten about fuel so Burnside and his 15 National Guardsmen were to deliver 100 drums of AvGas and they would be flown back by the RAAF. The whole job would be done in three days Burnside had been told…


While the Peary crossed the Timor Sea the wind picked up and soon the old destroyer was ploughing through twenty foot waves. It took two days to reach the Timor coast and they anchored in the dark. Blinker signals were exchanged, confirming the location, and then the “transfer” began. The drums had been lashed into “rafts” and Burnside’s men lowered them overboard.
The idea was to have the ships lifeboats tow the rafts towards the shore. This plan might have worked on a clear day and with a calm sea but definitely not in the dark, with a twenty foot surf tossing the boats and drums about.
The first lifeboat capsized and was tossed onto the beach, the drums broke loose and scattered. The second lifeboat was almost overtaken and ran down by the raft it was supposed to tow. Burnside ordered his men to jump overboard and swim for the shore. And despite the high surf and undertow they all made it, though much equipment and most rations were lost. Having tossed the remaining gasoline drums overboard the Peary set sail for Darwin in an attempt to be as far as possible from Timor at dawn.


2nd Lt Charles H. Burnside

Burnside held a count and discovered that he now had 18 men. Three sailors from the capsized lifeboat had also made it on shore. He next met with Flying Officer A.F. Cole, RAAF, who brought more happy news. His Lodestar had been strafed and shot up by a passing “Zero”, leaving him, his three man crew and the Americans marooned on the new airstrip. When daylight came it revealed a beach littered with gasoline drums as far as the eye could see. Cole and his crew set off on foot to Kupang, 40 miles to the west, while Burnside and his guardsmen went after the fuel drums. They had to roll them up the shore and into the palm-forest to get them out of sight of Japanese reconnaissance planes. It took them several days of this back-breaking work. But finally Cole returned, driving an old Caterpillar tractor and towing a trailer loaded with water and food.

With the help of Cole’s tractor and trailer, they rounded up the fuel drums and stacked them near the airstrip. Their job finally done, they made for Kupang where they were issued clothes and shoes. And with money loaned from Burnside they made quite a few “liquid purchases” in the canteen…

On February 15 a convoy carrying additional troops and equipment to Timor was severely attacked by Japanese bombers. No ships were sunk but the convoy returned to Darwin. Soon afterwards the order was given to evacuate staff from Kupang’s Penfui airfield. Burnside and his men were airlifted out in a Lodestar on February 18. The plane was so overloaded that the passengers all had to move forward and huddle behind the cockpit to get the tail of the ground…

So, between February 1 and February 18, a detachment of the South Dakota National Guard’s 147th Field Artillery Regiment was active on Timor. What had started as a three day job turned into a two week plus jungle trip. During which they were mercilessly stung by mosquitos, harassed by snakes and crocodiles and raided by Japanese planes. They lived through sleepless nights and days of blistering heat. Mercifully they all survived although many of them developed symptoms of tropical diseases.It was a time those 16 men would never forget…

Updated April 5, 2017.

Based on a 1992 publication by Robert G Webb, South Dakota Historical Society

About Kingsleyr

Thank you for visiting my blog! The posts you find here are a direct result of my research into aviation and military history. I use the information I gather as a foundation and background for my books. You may call the genre historical fiction, a story woven into a background of solid and verifiable historical facts. However, the period and region I have chosen to write about (late 1930's - 1950's in South-East Asia) are jam-packed with interesting information and anecdotes. If I'd used them all I would swamp the stories. So this blog is the next best thing. It is an "overflow area" in which I can publish whatever I think will interest you. And from the reactions I get, I deduce I am on the right track. A lot will be about aviation in the former Dutch East Indies. This, because my series of books ("The Java Gold") follows a young Dutch pilot in his struggle to survive the Pacific War and its aftermath. But there's more in the world and you'll find descriptions of cities, naval operations and what not published on this blog. Something about myself; I am a Dutch-Canadian author, living in, and working out of the magical city of Amsterdam. My lifelong interest in history and aviation, especially WW2, has led me to write articles and books on these subjects. I hope you'll enjoy them!
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One Response to American Troops on Timor in 1942

  1. JF Dowsett says:

    Once again, the tropical jungles test man and machine. Brilliant tale, thanks for sharing it.


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