Try Audible and Get Two Free Audiobooks

The story of Captain G.F. Stephan, Tarakan Island 1942

At first
(pieces from page 2, 3 and 5)

After the occupation of Indo-China by the Japanese army in 1941, messages were received about the concentration of large numbers of Japanese aircraft on the airports near Saigon. These messages contributed to the rising tension in the Far East and was the reason to bring the ML to war readiness.

It must sadly be said that the strength and especially the combat capabilities of the Japanese airforce has generally been underestimated abroad. The reason for this must be the secrecy that has always been enforced by Japan with regard to its war preparations.

The aviation-magazines never contained important data regarding Japanese military aviation; on occasion there was something on civil aviation in Japan. There were no data known about the modern Japanese military aircraft. Not about the strength of "first-line" aircraft, nor about the production capacity of the industry. It is for example known from the newspaper that, although a British embargo had been enforced, at the end of 1939 the full equipment for an aircraft factory was shipped to Japan from Germany via Lisbon.

The number of aircraft that the ML numbered before the war:
- 80 Glenn Martin Bombers type W.H. 1,2,3
- 16 Curtiss Hawk fighters
- 20 Curtiss Interceptor fighters
- 72 Brewster Buffalo fighters
- 36 Curtiss Falcon light scouts
According to a prearranged plan "Plenaps", fighters would be stationed at Tarakan.

(page 9)
On 30 November 1941, in the early afternoon, the temporary commander of the ML (Colonel Kengen) received an order from the Army commander to bring the ML to mobilization strength without delay. The necessary orders were given the same day to the parts of the ML. The mobilization-order was, given the development of the political situation, not unexpected. Units were combat ready and excercises were conducted with, among other things, the transfer of aircraft troops to the outer regions. For administrative purposes, the official mobilization wasn't recognized until December 3.

Pearl Harbor
(page 14)
On December 7 1941 the surprising and devastating Japanese attack took place, mainly conducted by air forces, on the American naval base at Hawaii, Pearl Harbor. At the same time, Japanese troops invaded the coast of Malaya near Kota Bahru, which succeeded. The same day, Japan declared war on Britain and the United States. On December 8, the governement of the Netherlands East Indies announced that it considered itself at war with Japan. At this time, the ML was ready for her wartime tasks.

(page 25 and 26)
The airport at Tarakan was initially meant for civil aviation, so there were no special military instalations prepared. After the institution of PLENAPS, in which there was also a presence forseen, though small, at Tarakan, this changed.

As a result, it was decided, with regard to the "wetness" of the terrain, that a concrete runway and more space would be constructed. In addition, a start was made with building shrapnel bunkers.

As the war broke out, the runway was almost complete. The extension of the terrain hadn't begun yet. The shrapnel bunkers were completed in due time, but couldn't be used because of the softness of the entrances.

The presence initially consisted of a patrol of Brewster Buffalo fighters, 4 aircraft strong under command of Lt. Benjamins. Later, the patrol of Lt. Droog, 3 aircraft strong, was added. The patrol Droog, then from Samarinda II, took part with 4 aircraft in the combined attack with bombers on Miri on December 19. They succeeded in shooting down an enemy fighter, but also lost one of their number by crash landing (Sergeant Wessels). On Tarakan, one plane crashed as a result of the bad condition of the terrain.

During an inspection on December 24 by the regiment commander, the readiness of the patrol was well considered. The aircraft were spread out over the field, the shrapnel bunkers weren't used, the runway was in usable condition. The Reserve Captain of the Engineer Corps Van der Vecht pointed out the projected modifications, which would take at least three months of construction .

The patrol-commander requested the addition of a code specialist, because the exchange of messages took too much of his time. This was a well-motivated objection, even more because the troop commander at Tarakan could offer no resistance.

On 25 December, just after the inspection plane left, an air attack by a four-engined bomber took place on Tarakan, with machine-gun fire. The damage sustained was minor, but in the following battle, the aircraft of Sergeant Berk was irrepairably damaged.

On 26 December, the Japanese conducted the first real air attack on the airfield with seven aircraft. The air warning service was deficient when it came to aircraft approaching from the sea, as a result of which our aircraft were still cranking up their engines when the enemy arrived. In the engagement, Lt. Droog and Reserve Training Officer Olsen were killed, while Reserve Training Officer Venek left his plane by parachute.

This prompted the retreat of the remaining fighter patrol (three aircraft), Lt. Banjaurins (?), Reserve Training Officer Funssen (?) and Sergeant Lak to Samarinda II, where it was brought back to strength. In case their services were needed at Tarakan, they could be back in two hours (Tarakan - Samarinda II is 440 km).

Meanwhile, the commander of Vl.G-IV (Captain Stephan), whose patrol it was, was ordered to Samarinda II to report, with the information he gathered there, about the possibility to station fighters at Tarakan without too many risks.

Meanwhile, the enemy continued his bombings intermittently, for which they probably used the airfield on the island of Jolo.

From Captain Stephan, a message was received on January 7 1942 from Tarakan, that he had found a field on Borneo, that almost without modifications could be used as a base for fighter aircraft. Our fighters didn't come into action before the enemy invasion there on January 11 (11 January as the enemy landing on Hensdo (?)). Two fighters were based here, which were probably downed by the Japanese.

Apparently, Captain Stephan didn't have the opportunity to leave Tarakan, or he lost too much time with the preparations for this new field. Anyway, he remained there until after the garrison's surrender. From Reserve (?) Captain Colijn, I later heard that he advised Stephan to try to get away, which he did. He was accompanied by Reserve Training Officer Bouwens, who had made a crash-landing at Tarakan during the fighting. Since then, it has been heard that Captain Stephan was killed by Dayaks, while Reserve Training Officer Bouwens became a POW.

Note Source: 1941-1945 De Militaire Luchtvaart gedurende de Oorlogsdagen in het Verre Oosten. Rapport, Sectie Krijgsgeschiedenis Luchtmacht Groep MLK, PAK 002 no.F  by Colonel E.T. Kengen. He was familar with all important issues, and was therefore able to give a reliable insight, without going into details. Only those available at the time of this writing have been mentioned. This text has been copied so many times that it is not always readable. Where the question mark (?) has been placed there may be an error.

Note Dedicated to my grandfather, Cpt. G.F. Stephan - Bea Stephan, December 2001

Veterans of the Dutch East Indies Index . Bibliography . Article List . Geographic Names
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942