Corporal J.H. “Dummy” Armstrong at Adelaide River, Northern Territory, 1941, just before going to Timor with the 2/40 Battalion. (Photo courtesy Sue Beard, Hobart)
In the early months of 1946 the mother of a Tasmanian soldier was still waiting for news of her son who had gone to Timor to fight the Japanese in December 1941. He had not returned home when other men of his infantry battalion were being repatriated towards the end of 1945 from Japanese prison camps scattered far and wide across East Asia. But she had reason to hope. Her son’s name had not appeared on any casualty lists, except as “missing”. The survivors of his unit – the 2/40 Battalion – could only say that they hadn’t heard about him since he left the prison camp near Koepang in Timor (at Usapa Besar) on a mission to make contact with the Australians operating as commandos in East Timor.
The mission had been given to him by the battalion commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Bill Leggatt, who later wrote that he “has not been seen since”.
By April 1946 army authorities hadn’t given Florence Armstrong of Beaconsfield any other information about her son, Corporal James “Dummy” Armstrong. Then, in the middle of a war crimes trial being held in Darwin, a story appeared in the Melbourne Sun on 16 April, which said this:
“Darwin – Monday. A helpless, blindfolded war prisoner had been seen running around a Timor village before he was shot by Japanese, a War Crimes court was told today.
The Japanese were charged with having murdered TX Cpl J.H. Armstrong AIF and Gunner Martin, British Army, near Koepang on or about June 12 1943. The prosecutor, Capt J. Simpson, said his first witness Willem Latunahina, would say that in June 1943, a Japanese truck carrying two blindfolded white men, passed his hut.
Soon afterwards some Japanese troops marched into the village and he was told to go inside and close the doors and windows.
He looked through a crack in the bamboo walls and saw the two white men faced by a row of Japanese. A little later he heard the sound of a volley and then a single shot.
He saw one of the blindfolded prisoners run around a building, knock his head on the corner of it and fall. The prisoner was picked up and later there were more shots. Later he saw where some bodies had been dragged and found two fresh graves…”.
This was how Florence Armstrong found out about the death of her son, and how he died. The story must have chilled her to the bottom of her soul. She learned, on one single devastating day, in a brutal and unforgivably impersonal way, that her son had died a horrible and lonely death, probably believing his fate would never be revealed, and never be known except by his executioners.
She immediately complained to military authorities about their callous insensitivity, which sparked a scramble for cover between different sections of the army. One senior officer responsible for organising a response to Florence Armstrong’s complaint wrote this: “In order that a reply may be given to Mrs Armstrong on the publicity aspect of the matter early advice would be appreciated as to how authority came to be given (if it was given) for publication of the name of Cpl Armstrong in the newspaper report”.
Indeed. But did it ever cross the minds of anyone – including Armstrong’s commanding officer Bill Leggatt – to take the time to visit Florence Armstrong and speak with her about how it was that her son came to be executed by the Japanese? Did anyone bother to explain to her that he was sent on a dangerous mission in July 1942 to make his way through Japanese-occupied territory to East Timor? Did anyone consider that it would have been of some comfort to her to know why her son had been chosen for such a dangerous job?
Did anyone seek to tell her that the qualities he demonstrated in combat against the Japanese before the 2/40 Battalion surrendered were the reasons he was given a lonely and difficult task which resulted in his torture and murder by the Japanese military police, the Kempetai?
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests something else entirely, the application of a cloak of silence, obligatory and untouchable. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when historian Lynette Silver was investigating the mass murder of Australians at Parit Sulong in Malaya – in another case of men listed as “missing” – that she came across the story of Armstrong in the records of the war crimes trials. In all the interviews I had with men of the 2/40 Battalion between 1977 and 1994 not one veteran seemed to know what had happened to Armstrong, even though many of them spoke about him. Somehow, irrespective of the publicity given in April 1946 to Armstrong’s death, the men of the 2/40 Battalion seemed unaware of his fate.
On the face of it, this seems both perplexing and extraordinary, given that for half a century after the war the unit held annual reunions on the weekend closest to the date of their capture by the Japanese, 23 February.
However, these were all men who had been in combat, and had seen men die in battle. All of them had witnessed the deaths of fellow prisoners in prison camps and had lived through all kinds of privations. More than 260 of them had not come home – a death rate of 25%. In 1946 there was only so much that they could take on board as they each faced their own issues of readjustment, rehabilitation and reintegration into a society which had little understanding or comprehension of their experiences – and never would.
There is also another context, paradoxically reinforced by the publicity given about Armstrong by the Melbourne Sun. These ex-POWs sought to protect the families of men who had died by withholding detailed information. The best way to do that was by silence, total silence. They were very aware of the notion of betrayal of trust of those who had died, and that meant comforting the bereaved relatives by saying little, if anything. That was a lifelong commitment. They also knew they couldn’t articulate the reality of their lives as POWs to those who had not had similar experiences, so they rarely did so. It was almost always too personally difficult as well, exceptionally emotionally draining, and likely to revive nightmares, flashbacks and other problems.
A Murdoch journalist who contacted 2/40 veterans at the time of Lynette Silver’s revelation in 1998 of Armstrong’s torture and murder expressed surprise at their “lack of interest”, as he put it, but even if they knew – and had long since decided to put it out of their minds – there was much else they had seen and experienced, lived through and tried to cope with as best they could. “Lack of interest” is a total misrepresentation and misinterpretation. Just another example of failure to understand and empathise with men who had confronted issues of mortality while still in their twenties and thirties, decades before most of us even think about it in personal terms.
Nevertheless, it is inevitable that keeping their own counsel about things meant that much of what they knew was never revealed during their lifetimes, but died with them, and was even forgotten by them with the passage of the years. For most of them, their memories remained confined to themselves and shared only with those who had been with them in Usapa Besar, in cycle camp on Java, in Changi, on the Burma-Thailand railway and in the mines and factories at Omuta and many other hell holes.
So it was, perhaps, how the story of “Dummy” Armstrong’s death came to be forgotten by being put away, but how he died is not the end of his story. What happened to Armstrong was briefly and ingloriously publicised in April 1946, but then put in a place to be forgotten for half a century. But in returning to his death, we are also returning to his life, and asking the question which Bill Leggatt should have answered if he ever tried to comfort Florence Armstrong all those years ago.
Why was Armstrong chosen by Leggatt to risk his life in such a way rather than someone else? Why him? He was but one of about 1,000 men held in the camp at Usapa Besar.
What was special about Armstrong?
Armstrong was from the mining town of Beaconsfield in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley. By the time he enlisted in the AIF in June 1940, describing himself as a 21 year-old labourer, he had a police record and had spent time in gaol for breaking and entering and stealing. In May 1939, he and a close mate were sentenced to a year in jail. They both pleaded guilty to having broken into a saddler shop in Launceston and stealing two suitcases, two calico tents, two tent flies, a camp bed mattress, two cartridge belts, two pairs of mittens, a clock, a plough-line, whip, rope clothes line, two leather kitbags, an electric torch and five shillings in cash. Armstrong admitted to the court that he had been previously convicted of breaking and entering, stealing, receiving and illegally using a motor vehicle.
Some of the stolen items were found by police at a camp the two had set up near Ben Lomond. Which tells us something else about Armstrong. He was a skilled bushman. To have a rabbit or wallaby see him first was a serious mistake, and to miss with a single-shot .22 rifle was seriously stupid. Armstrong was at home when hunting and trapping. He was in his element being silent and unseen, alone and independent, backing his judgment. Well before he joined the army he was used to making his own decisions, not always in his own best interest or the interests of others. When the 2/40 Battalion went to Timor in December 1941 he was one of the few soldiers whose name was well known by most men in the unit.
His reputation had its beginnings during army training exercises in Tasmania in 1940. One 2/40 veteran, Dennis Scanlon, remembered that when the battalion “had these platoon stunts, with one section acting as the enemy, if we put Armstrong out as a scout we’d have no worries. He’d nail them and they wouldn’t even know he was there. He was like that”.
Another story told about Armstrong while the battalion was travelling by train and truck through the Northern Territory to Katherine in the early months of 1941 reveals another dimension. At one of the stops, probably at Alice Springs, where the battalion marched through the town, Armstrong got involved in a fight with two men who followed him from a pub.
According to Scanlon, Armstrong told him “he worked them around until he had the light of the moon to see them”, and soon ended the fight.
Another 2/40 veteran, Ron Dunn, who also enlisted in June 1940, had known Armstrong since they were schoolboys together. “From a young kid nothing scared him”, said Dunn. “He was called Dummy when he was at school, not because he was stupid or anything like that, but the name stuck and everyone called him Dummy in the army”. Dunn also recalled that when the 2/40 Battalion left Darwin for Timor in December 1941, just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, “Dummy took a little kangaroo on the ship just to prove he could get away with it, which he did”.
The main role of the 2/40 Battalion was to protect the forward air base near Koepang in Dutch Timor. But when the Japanese attacked on 20 February 1942, they had complete control of the sea and the air, choosing where they landed troops without opposition, as well as by parachute across the Australians’ lines of communication to the east. The battalion and its attached units were forced to fight successive battles to clear their way to their base camp at Champlong. In one of those actions, for control of the town of Babau, which had been captured by Japanese paratroops, Armstrong took independent action to gain control of a key position in the town which was holding up the Australian advance.
Phillip “Bluey” Renshaw described what Armstrong did. “Everyone took cover when the Japs opened up on us, but he just kept walking firing this Lewis gun from his hip at the Jap positions and a house from where the Japs had us pinned down. He was right out in the open. If anyone should have won a VC for the action on Timor, he should have.”
Bill Leggatt later recommended that Armstrong be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his bravery. Leggatt’s citation for the award stated that when “very heavy resistance was encountered especially from enemy on the side of the road running through the village and no progress was being made”, Armstrong “with a Lewis gun moved by himself around the left flank. In the face of heavy enemy fire he entered a building which enfiladed the enemy position and opened fire, killing five of the enemy and driving off the remainder. This enabled a vital position to be secured and materially assisted the eventual capture of the village”. Leggatt’s final comment mirrored Renshaw’s assessment. Armstrong “showed an utter disregard of personal safety and a matter of fact coolness and initiative which were an excellent and much needed example to soldiers who had come under fire for the first time”.
After the battalion was captured by the superior Japanese forces and imprisoned at Usapa Besar near Koepang, Leggatt used a small number of men to do reconnaissance work outside the camp. Armstrong and another Tasmanian, Bill Rainbow, did much of this work. Leggatt said after the war that his aims were to gather information about Japanese forces, obtain weapons to arm reconnaissance and escape parties, to seek information about men who hadn’t surrendered and to find ways of communicating with Australia.
Armstrong had a .303 rifle hidden in his hut at Usapa Besar which he took with him when he left the camp. Ted Sweetman, who was in the same hut, recalled that “Dummy got a bit of galvanised sheet from somewhere and poked it in the roof to hide the rifle”. Other men managed to get ammunition into the camp, including grenades, some of which ended up with Armstrong. “There’s a story about him going out with one of the Englishmen from the Bofors-gun battery”, said Dennis Scanlon. “They ran into a patrol of four or five Nips. Dummy slung a hand-grenade among them and skittled some of them, and then killed the others with a knife”. He told the British soldier that he used a knife because he’d “made enough noise for one day”.
Leggatt became particularly interested in getting information to Australia about the way Japanese aircraft used the airfield near Koepang, and the times when Japanese bombers were likely to be on the ground and vulnerable to air raids from Darwin. When In late March 1942 a Hudson bomber was shot down by Japanese fighters and the Australian pilot was captured and brought to the prison camp, Leggatt’s second-in-command, Major Ron Campbell, raised the possibility of organising an escape by plane to get information to Australia.
Armstrong was delegated to spy on the Japanese at the airfield, to collect information about their routines, how the planes were guarded and when they were fuelled, and to work out the best way to get a group of eight men to the airfield during the night. On 23 April the escape plan was put into operation, and Armstrong guided the group of officers to the plane that had been earmarked. Ron Campbell recalled that as they approached the airfield Armstrong swore at some of them for the noise they were making, including Leggatt, telling them they were “bloody clumsy bastards”.
Armstrong and one of the officers were given the responsibility of dealing with a Japanese sentry, but they couldn’t find him at his usual position, so the whole group then quickly went to the plane and broke in. For the next few hours the Australian pilot, Jack MacAllister, tried to start the plane, without success. Luckily for all the prisoners at Usapa Besar the mission failed. Luckily because if it had succeeded the reprisals would have been severe.
Another incident which occurred while the Australians were in Usapa Besar which has been linked to Armstrong, was the destruction of Japanese ammunition stores. Many 2/40 POWs remembered a massive explosion some time after they had been incarcerated, an explosion which was not the result of a bombing raid from Darwin. Leggatt made no reference to it in his post-war report, but anecdotal evidence which circulated among veterans after the war suggested that Armstrong was responsible.
After the failure to highjack the plane, Leggatt didn’t give up on his plan to get information to Australia. In July, Armstrong was given his final task. He left the prison camp for the last time “carrying an intelligence report in order to contact the 2/2 Independent Company in Portuguese Timor”. The Independent Company was operating as a guerrilla force in East Timor, and it was hoped that they could get the intelligence report to Darwin.
There is no indication that Armstrong made contact with the Australians in East Timor, and there is no evidence about how he and Martin survived in Japanese-occupied territory from July 1942 until they were captured in about April or May 1943. Timorese witnesses to the torture of Armstrong in May 1943 and to his murder in June described to the war crimes court in Darwin what had happened. He was tortured on several occasions by being hung from his arms off the ground and bashed, and by hitting his head on a concrete floor.
There were others like Armstrong who left Usapa Besar and were never seen again. Some men refused to surrender, and went “bush”. Armstrong’s story is also their story. There are still men listed as “missing in action” in Timor whose story will never be told. When Bill Leggatt recommended Armstrong for a decoration he did not mention the roles that Armstrong had been given while a POW, a most odd omission.
Armstrong was not awarded a posthumous Distinguished Conduct Medal or any other decoration. But it is impossible to disagree with Bluey Renshaw that he should have been recommended for a Victoria Cross, and that he should have got one. It is also doubtful that Bill Leggatt or any other senior military officer told Florence Armstrong that her son had been recommended for an award for bravery, or that she ever knew about his leadership in action at Babau or his work for Leggatt outside the prison camp.
Leggatt himself received a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) for his command of the 2/40 Battalion and from April to September 1946 he was based in Melbourne as officer in charge of the war crimes investigations. He would have followed the Darwin trials very closely. From 1947 to 1956 he was a Liberal member of the Victorian parliament, and then Victorian agent-general in London until 1964. In 1957 he was knighted.
— Peter Henning