Balikpapan landing (AWM 018812)

Balikpapan Landing (courtesy australian war memorial)

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Work on this story has largely stalled because of similarity to the story of the musical play "South Pacific"


From the moment of his birth in the cool hills of Buitenzorg, the baby Trisnawati was considered special. His father was a bupati and he was born to be a leader of West Java. Servant girls would fuss over him and compete for his gurgles and smiles. Not only was he the son of a bupati, destined to inherit a regency of the most fertile part of the Dutch east Indies; there was something else. He shared the birthday of Queen Isabella and this resonanted with his royal connection.

He had skin the colour of langsan fruit. His hair was straight and thick. His eyes made him special. His eyes were almond shaped and set into a high temple punctuated by an aquiline nose. When strangers first met him, their first remark was invariably Halus - 'fine, he is so refined'. amongst his elegant features, it was felt, it was his eyes that were most striking. They were opalescent. Depending on the angle of the sun, they could be almost any colour. It seemed that when they most needed to be penetrating and insightful, when he was delivering the wisdom of a guru, then his eyes would play the game and become pools of unfathomable darkness. He had nice eyes full of wisdom.

The regency had been established with Dutch guns against insurgents in 1749. Dutch enthusiasm for sugar had given his family stable rule for four generations. The dutch govenors were known for an approach to local culture with a ruthless convenience for their own ends. In many parts of Indonesia where Islam was felt too strong, they forbade it or introduced administrators from the the former portugese christian eastern islands.

In Buitenzorg, The family of Trisna was already connected with the sultan. Islam was so well established, that it was taken for granted, the sultanates were feirce in battle, but offered so little resistance in the name of religion, that minor cheiftains who cooperated with them were elevated to Bupati. This was a finacial invasion more than a physical one. Elsewhere the wound was reefreshed by the sight of every dutchman, while in Buitenzorg, the dutch were absent. One benevolent Indonesian ruler had been replaced by another hungrier one. Trisna felt the bitterness of taxation like his people, as a simple thirst for sufficiency - a primal longing for survival.


Vera Hamilton was born to inherit a sugar plantation in Auchenflower, Queensland . Her father took ten years to clear enough space to plant sugar. Her mother patiently watched the farm grow while they subsisted on her vegetables. This was before miniature trains to transport the sugar cane to the refinery, where black-strap molasses was made. This is before the rum business and British brewing and confectionery boomed into the colonies. This was before the immigrants and the cane-toads arrived. Vera's father cut the cane himself and pushed it through an old laundry mangle and sold fresh cane juice to rich tourists at Brisbane cove. Before long he was brewing ginger beer to sell when the cane was out of season. Within a year he had hired two pretty girls to sell it for him on the jetty close to the railway station.

By the time Vera was born, they had a station hand to help with the business of growing and cutting sugar cane. They had fields stretching almost to the coast and the nearby city of Brisbane was beginning to feel close. The station hands name was Hideturo Khan. He was half japanese and half Afghan and when he discussed it, he would joke that he was half of something else as well. The foothills of Queensland belonged to the Dutch and Germans in the same way that Tasmania belonged to the first settlers. There was plenty of room, back then.

Australia was that kind of place. Communities sprung up and overlapped. There was more friendly cmpetition between Belgians and Dutch here on the frontier than could be politely discussed at home in the old country, where such discource of comparison was seen as rough and indiscrete. The only taboo in the emerging cultural pallette was religion. So many people had settled in Australia to escape the foibles of the old world, that to ask a strangers persuausion, was an unveiled invitation to leave. Hidetoru had skin the colour of mango at sunset and when he fell to smallpox she was thirteen. Her father said he was a believer, and better than the soft handed milksops who came out on the boat. She hankered for farmers.

Vera came from an English background. Her parents were free settlers from the empire-on-which-the-sun-never-sets. "Britain", her parents often reminded her "stooped to conquer Australia". The vast continent had given itself to settlement, without a fight, in their opinion. Australia was a possession unworthy of the throne, but if the crown chose to own it, "then by God, we are the people who shall make it worthy." They sang - We are royal and loyal and we're the fly in the oil, but say it aloud and see us all boil. So far from what they knew of civilization, they clung to whatever vestige of the mother culture they could foster. They combed their hair and wore woolen suits to church and afterwards read novels about the adventures of Somerset Maughun in the Jungles of British Malaya. She was destined to marry a sugar man.

Singha-Pura Edit

DOUGLAS. Hello sister, Golly Gee Jeepers! I hardly recognized you.

VERA. Oh, Hello there Major. Thanks. This is my street frock, do you like it?

DOUGLAS. You look like a dream-boat in that outfit, sister. Nice colour.

VERA. Oh jolly good, aren't you going to buy me a drink? I'm parched.

DOUGLAS. Roger that, sister! I'll be right back. (to Trisna) - Take a seat with sister and I'll be right back. what'll it be?

VERA. Just a soda please! What about your friend? Aren't you going to buy him a drink too?

TRISNA. I'm alright. (exit DOUGLAS)

VERA. Phew, what a pleasure to sit down. I've been to lunch with a friend at the officers mess. There was a presentation that nearly finished me off. I swear those boys can talk when they are admiring each other. And what about you there, fellow, where did Douglas pluck a civilian from? What was your name?

TRISNA. Sorry, you're a soldier?

VERA. Almost, I'm posted to the casualty clearing station at the hospital. They have only given us leave because the shelling has started across the strait. We are all on a short leash. There were a few casualties last night, but it looks like the japs are in for a fight.

TRISNA. I don't understand? Hospital?

VERA. Nurse, I'm a nurse. Sorry, It's all been so exciting I am quite forgetting my manners. Who might you be?

TRISNA. My name is Trisna. I remember you now. We have already met.

VERA. Really? I'm sure that is not possible. I would have remembered...your ...eyes (suddenly shy as DOUGLAS enters and sits down)

TRISNA. I was aboard the Argonaut when I arrived. I saw you collecting supplies at the dock.

VERA. Was that you? (enter Malay servant in clean white uniform, carrying drink tray. starts when he sees Trisna)

SERVANT. Aduh! Ngak Bisa...Excuse me, Sir? You cannot be here. (to VERA and DOUGLAS) Coolies not allow in club? Understand? Must get off verandah!

DOUGLAS. No no, he's all right - he's with us. We are not drinking, just sitting.

VERA. It's all right. (to SERVANT) Not coolie. He's in a suit for goodness sake, (exit servant)

DOUGLAS. Perhaps we should move Trisna? Food hall down the street.

VERA. I'm not going to a food hall, I've been eating all day.

DOUGLAS. He is...

VERA. ...fine. He's fine and we have already introduced ourselves, we met at the dock when Trisna was disembarking. Where had you come from?

DOUGLAS. Half dutch. I was going to say Trisna's mother was dutch.

TRISNA. She died when I was young. England. Holland. I was sent here to singapore for schooling, but my father has interests in europe. (to VERA) You are from England? British?

DOUGLAS. She's an Aussie.


Synopsis / Meta Edit

Balikpapan is a port in Borneo and the site of the strangest australian battle of world war II. It also marked an Australian policy change away from identification with European colonial power, toward recognition of regional independent sovereignty. The waterside workers of that time took sides with the Australian military and refused to load dutch ships bound for Indonesia to re-establish control of her former posesseion. This hesitation was gradually eroded by General Macauthur in his fervour to transfer the oil fields to allied control. The wholesale invasion of Indonesia became an occupation of a less populated Borneo Island and police action to remove the Japanese occupation. The beach landing occured just before Iwo-Jima, when japanese surrender was inevitable, yet the japanese resistance was fierce. I would like to combine that story with two others which mark the birth of an Australian relationship with Indonesia. One story relates that nurses fleeing Singapore in 1942 landed at Betawi (Jakarta) and spent two nights at the hospital in the cool hills of Buitenzorg (Bogor) before being evacuated again. This is long enough for a chance romantic encounter between a nurse and another to develop into a story which ties them together. Using a little license, I should like to tie this with a third story about the Dutch attempting to raise a flag as the Japanese resistance failed, only to have Indonesian nationalists tear the blue stripe off the dutch flag. This desperate gesture was the spark which saw the resulting 'Bendera Merah Putih' (red and white flag) being raised everywhere across the archipeligo, at this dawn of the Indonesian Nation. I personally feel the relations between Indonesia and Australia have been unduly concerned with business interests for too long. Despite the massive wealth disparity, I would like to offer this combined story as a gesture of goodwill between the humble people of great neighbours. [1]

Characters are Vera Hamilton (blended names of two nurses awarded OBE for bravery aboard the 'Empire Star') and her romantic interest is a fictional multilingual Trisnawati Pria Koesoemapradja. Trisna is the son of a minor bupati (dutch appointed regency) and sugar plantation heir. He is a full blood indonesian, but his birth mother is deceased and his step-mother is indo-dutch (this establishes his credentials as full blood malay muslim, while allowing him European language and tastes). He meets Vera in Singapore while undergoing British schooling and again in Bogor during the evacuation. Trisna refuses to follow Japanese orders and escapes beheading in the jungle where he joins the growing nationalist guerillas in Java. Trisna argues for a treaty with the british, on the basis that they are traditional rivals of the dutch, but this choice of european oppressors does not appeal to his countrymen. He is sent on a suicidal negotiation of terms with the australian admiralty when the army lands in Balikpapan. Sister Hamilton is also posted aboard the same ship.

A possible source of tension and narrative indulgence is an alternative suitor for Vera as an american intelligence agent posing as a war correspondent. Arthur Douglas comes to mind as a personna of Douglas MacArthur himself. Douglas becomes infatuated with Trisna and Vera and has the perfect excuse to stay involved at the radio room, he could go ashore as photographer and be killed. As with much of the pacific conflict, Balikpapan was fought with American logistical support, especially air power. The manpower was largely Australian with some oddities including the Matilda II infantry tank, which had a turret, but ammunition was unavailable for the unusual calibre and the especially heavy armour was painfully slow with a top speed of just nine kilometre per hour - like an invasion by snails.

A pivotal conversation takes place between him and radio operator, able seaman and signalman Tommie Flanigan aboard the HMAS Westralia off the coast of Borneo while the beachhead bombardment rages ashore and the amphibious craft start landing tanks on the beach. The signalman conveys messages of reluctance between the nearby admiral and the commander of the 7th division and politicians from Canberra, while stories of Australian sympathy with Indonesia and distaste for imperialist colonialsim arise from (still very British) Australia. The signalman also happens to come from the same town as Vera. A chance meeting between Tom and Trisna leads to a reunion with Vera. Vera must be stationed aboard the HMAS Westralia due to the history of mutiny which suits the waterside workers dispute [2]

General MacAuthur is the arrogant pacific politician that Australians love to hate. The American fleet is steaming towards Iwo Jima, amidst rumors of a weapon of mass destruction. The japanese control the oil wells, but without a merchant navy, has no means to transport the fuel home. The question on everybodies lips - Why waste Australian lives on a beach landing against dug-in japanese resistance when they could just wait off-shore? Reluctance deepens as a battalion of Indian sepoy, enroute to their homeland, is detoured to a police action in Surabaya with bloody results. Tom and Trisna convince the admiral to Garrison Borneo and wait. This masterly inaction is the key to emerging Australian-Indonesian relations. The possibility of Indonesian Independednce does not seem real to all charcters, yet just across the strait in Java, japanese resistance collapses and the spark of dutch loyalism flounders and sputters out. Indonesian nationalism is born.

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