A Christmas story

JUST AFTER MIDNIGHT, six soldiers were shot in their beds in the Officers’ Quarters on Christmas Island. Their bodies were wrapped in bed sheets and mosquito nets, and tossed off the cliffs into the Indian Ocean where the silhouette of five ships could be seen, lingering on the horizon.

It was 10 March 1942, and Singapore had just fallen to the Japanese. The Indian army stationed on Christmas Island had been tuning into Axis propaganda and did not want their British superiors to resist the coming invasion (three workers had already been killed from an exploratory Japanese bombing raid); to fight would mean certain death. Rumours were circulating that the Indians would gain their independence and side with the Japanese soon anyway, so Sergeant Mir Ali decided to act. He convinced twelve of his countrymen to lock the ammunition store and to attack their commanders after they returned from an evening party. The Sikh soldiers threw their superiors from the cliffs to ensure that as the Japanese naval forces approached, there would be no resistance.

This is a story of occupation and incarceration on Christmas Island that dates back more than sixty years. There is a rich and fascinating history to the place, though the legacy of war is one that is often buried beneath many others on this most controversial island.

Christmas Island is an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, named by English captain William Mynors, who sailed past it in on Christmas Day in 1643. It has a legacy of colonisation, segregation, exploration and commerce. As we know, Christmas Island is difficult to consider in a contemporary setting outside of it being the Australian epicentre of the asylum seeker and immigration situation.

While this island of barely two thousand full-time residents is never far from the news, there is one part of its past that has remained buried in the jungle surrounding the township.

JON SCRAMBLES DOWN the rock face and hacks away a tangle of brush with his machete.

‘Just so you know, we’re trespassing right now,’ he says matter-of-factly. We skid down the slope, which is littered with fallen trees and jungle debris from the January 2014 cyclone. At the edge of the cliff, Jon pulls back the creepers to reveal a Japanese observation point and bunker hidden in the undergrowth behind the phosphate mine’s conveyor belt.

Jon Stanhope is the outgoing administrator of the Australian Indian Ocean Territories, which also include the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. His office overlooks the cove and the rusting phosphate chute. He rummages through a cabinet and produces a box.

‘It’s back here somewhere, sorry, my cleaners are superstitious and think there might be ghosts around. They wouldn’t come back until I locked it away.’ The ‘it’ he is referring to is the material that was found with the Unknown Soldier, who was exhumed from Christmas Island in 2006 and is now buried in Geraldton.

On 6 February 1942, locals on Christmas Island noticed a ‘strange object’ offshore and soon discovered the corpse of a man in a blue boiler suit, adrift in a life-float with the marking ‘Made in NSW’ on its sides. Decades of research have gone into identifying the soldier – so far inconclusively – whose body was the only one recovered from the HMAS Sydney, which was destroyed by the German raider Kormoran on 19 November 1941 off the coast of Western Australia.  

‘They didn’t know what to do with this stuff, so I said I’d keep it here,’ Jon informs us. We rummage through old gin bottles, metal shards and other material, which might have helped to identify the soldier. As I will learn, the memory of war on Christmas Island is still treated quite casually. Jon looks up from his rummaging.

‘Have you heard of the World War II remnants on Christmas Island?’ he asks. I shake my head.

‘Christmas Island was bombed. The USS Wolf sunk a Japanese sub just here,’ he says pointing out to the pier outside his window.

‘If you’ve got nothing to do we can go exploring,’ he suggests. ‘Most of the locals don’t even know about these places,’ he adds, grabbing his keys. We head out into the areas around ‘The Settlement’ where most people now live, to uncover the story of the Japanese occupation on Christmas Island.

THE LEGACY OF war on Christmas Island has been buried behind the concerns for government infrastructure, the resources devoted to the detention centre and the tourism focus on the natural attractions of the island, which lies 2,600 kilometres from Perth and only three hundred and sixty kilometres from Jakarta.

When the Japanese arrived on 31 March 1942, with the support of nine bombers, two cruisers, two battleships and a destroyer, the white flag was hoisted and the Japanese began their occupation of what was a strategic point between Australia and Asia. The Japanese commander gave his soldiers ‘three days to have a free hand with the population’, and they set about looting and drunkenly cavorting, and assumed control of the opium stores on the island. Despite the fears of the population, there was only one instance of sexual assault – on a sick Chinese resident who ‘died a few days later’, according to John Hunt’s book on the occupation of Christmas Island, Suffering Through Strength (self-published, 2011).

The British, Indian, Chinese and Malay prisoners were told to ‘work hard and be loyal to the Emperor’, and so began their three years of imprisonment on the island. While many of the workers fled to the jungle, there were more than a thousand under Japanese watch in the beginning. The Japanese forced the prisoners to continue with the lucrative phosphate mining that had been sustaining the island and, by all accounts, they kept their heads down as much as they could during their internment.

THE JAPANESE ESTABLISHED defences for any attempted retaking of the island, and remnants of these still remain. Jon and I follow a hand-drawn map from 1977, searching for what is buried beneath the jungle at the edge of town. From the observation points above the yellow and dusty phosphate belt, we head to one spot that Jon knows better than most.

Across the bay is Jon’s white, wooden house. As administrator of the Indian Ocean Territories he is given the use of a beautifully kept colonial mansion overlooking coconut trees and the Indian Ocean; we’re there to look under the floorboards. The Japanese commandant used this house during their three-year occupation. Jon shows me a neat line of faded black graffiti, about thirty centimetres long, on one of the support pillars. It is written in Japanese script and he has no idea what it says. He says it is just one example of the interpretation that needs to be done on the island. Across the road, we pull back a tangle of scrub to reveal a hidden and crumbling Japanese pillbox, right on the corner of their suburban street. ‘This is emblematic of where all the Japanese war legacy on the island will be in twenty years I think,’ Jon says.

We drive up to Smith Point to search out further evidence. Such is the casual regard for the war relics here that we pass a Japanese ammunition store and anchor point on the side of the road; it is left to rot and fade into the jungle, among a sprawl of wild dragon fruit vines. We pass my hotel and the Golden Bosun pub. These were the sites of the old hospital, morgue and psychiatric facility – not that you’d know it now, looking at a balcony of drinkers and a solitary life buoy. According to our map, this was also
where the Japanese had their brothel of ten women imported from Java,
and the British and Indian prison huts. Up to 60 per cent of the Christmas Island residents were removed to Surabayan prison camps, though many workers remained.

Out on the point is the restored Tai Jin House – the former garrison barracks of the Royal Hong Kong Artillery. It is now used for functions, along with the British-built battlements. There are various plaques and memorials to the soldiers and an unmarked Japanese two-pound gun, but Jon points us straight towards the cliffs and a mess of fallen trees and jungle scrub. After twenty minutes of hacking, climbing and scrambling we find an old British bomb shelter dug into the rock on the point. It is covered with graffiti from locals and soldiers, though it is all
but forgotten.

We find the remnants of a World War II road and an old defensive barrier – now just rusted barbed wire covered in jungle. Jon finds a concealed gun site on Smith Point; it hasn’t been officially identified as Japanese although the structure, using railway sleepers as fortifications, is identical to others we find against the cliff. We climb into the box, which looks out towards Java, and Jon says there used to be an electrical board in here too. ‘I reckon it’s just been thrown away,’ he laments.

‘We should be respecting this. It doesn’t mean we’re condoning their behaviour. Though it is part of the history of the people on this island.’

We scramble back down the hill and pause at the memorials for the SIEV (Suspected Irregular Entry Vessel) X, which sunk in 2001 and drowned 353 asylum seekers, and the SIEV 221, where fifty people drowned in 2010. Jon points out the old residence, guns and ammunition stores. They are well kept and newly painted.

‘The asylum seekers painted all this,’ he tells me as we walk to the shade of two nearby trees. Jon points to etchings on their trunks, ‘They’ve all carved their names in the trees to be remembered. It’s poignant really, considering what went on here before all this.’ Then, to no one in particular, he says, ‘I hope they’re safe and in Australia.’

Jon thinks the legacy of Australia’s involvement in the war here should be remembered, just as the asylum seekers hoped to be by carving their names in the trees. As we drive on to another remnant, I get the impression that Jon feels Christmas Island is forgotten and disregarded in a broader sense, too. He continually reminds me that it is part of Australia as well, though it’s not always treated as such: ‘People talk about forgotten Australians in the context of war. What about these guys here?’

OUR NEXT STOP is out in the ‘Drumsite’ community. We find gun installations and observation points, and behind a house now occupied by the Australian Federal Police we pick past old chook pens and gigantic robber crabs to another bomb shelter.

‘Watch out for that one,’ Jon says, pointing to a barbed creeper next to my leg. ‘We call it the “gotcha”!’

This shelter uses sleepers; it has a much narrower opening and a kind of steel gate – distinct from the carved hole and stonewalls of the British shelters. It also has a perfect view down to Flying Fish Cove.

‘Can you see the difference here?’ Jon confirms that this was a Japanese construction.

Our final stop is behind the post office and in the grounds of the church. The grand, sweeping stairs are those of the former Japanese Shinto temple, which was destroyed promptly after the Japanese departed. This is one of the few remnants that have had some recognition, though not nearly enough. The only mention of the temple comes in correspondence from Major Van der Gaast after the British returned. He noted: ‘The temple, which was quite attractive, made a good bonfire and also served to burn a large number of Japanese signposts, previously collected by the population.’

The Japanese retreated to Java on 24 August 1945, displaying none of the bravado with which they arrived. They divided out the provisions, gifted the opium stores back and defused the sabotage mines before leaving Christmas Island for good.

Once again, Jon shows me that the legacy of war here is immense, though its importance has been swept aside by other concerns. There is an entire war history sitting in the hills of Christmas Island waiting either to be recognised and remembered – as many other worthwhile memorials here have been – or swallowed by the jungle until there’s nothing left. On the hundred-year anniversary of World War I, Jon wonders what state this place will be in for its own war centenary, in 2042.

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