Hero of Ambon
This week marks the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Ambon. The Japanese landed on the island of Ambon on 30 January 1942. Within a few days the small Australian garrison, overcome by the size of the invading force, had surrendered. The fate of these Australian soldiers was varied, but history records that over three-quarters of them would not survive the war. Some of these men’s stories can be told through the collections of the Australian War Memorial.
William Thomas Doolan, born in Werribee and raised in Morwell Victoria, was 27 years old when he enlisted in the AIF in July 1940. He became a driver in the transport section of 2/21st Infantry Battalion, and in December 1941 was sent to Ambon as part of the ill-fated ‘Gull Force’. Following the Japanese invasion on the night of 30 January 1942, orders were received to go into action stations. Doolan was based near the foot of Mt Kudamati, and angered by thoughts of the invading Japanese was alleged to have said “Give me a yard of bike chain, and I’ll do ‘em over myself”. With that he armed himself, most probably with a rifle and hand grenades, and hid in the bush and waited. On 1 February, with the approach of Japanese trucks, Doolan mounted a single-handed attack. Although never confirmed, it was reported at the time that he killed up to 80 of the enemy.
Doolan’s bullet riddled body was found by members of his battalion a few days later, once the action had ceased and the surrender had taken effect. He was buried in a marked grave near to where he fell.
His grave cross was crafted and inscribed in Tantui (Tan Toey) prison camp by some of his fellow battalion members who had been taken prisoners of war. The Japanese graciously gave permission for the cross to be erected over his grave. This hand-made cross remained in place until 1946 when Doolan’s body was recovered for reburial in the newly constructed Commonwealth War Cemetery. At that time it was discovered that the Ambonese had carefully tended his grave with fresh flowers throughout the war and regarded him as a great hero.
Sung to the tune of the pre-war music hall ballad ‘The Rose in her Hair’, a tune the Ambonese had heard the Australian working parties singing, they composed a song to honour him. Sung in Ambonese Malay a number of attempts have been made to translate it. Below is one version, several more are held in the collection at 3DRL/4193 and PR91/128 along with news clippings of the time.
Caught by the great guns, machine-guns and rifles,
Of the Australians on Ambon,
Thousands of Japanese lay dead and wounded.
From a tree, the Australian, Doolan, killed many men of Japan.
He did not run away or move back.
Until at last he was killed by the men of Japan.
The Australian soldier Doolan died by the side of the road.
His grave is under the gandara tree.
His mother, father, wife and children have not seen it.
The tale is told everywhere.
The Australian soldier Doolan killed many Japanese.
Then died by the bullets of the men of Japan.
Calling his mother, father, wife and children.
But they did not hear him.