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The restless sky over Tarakan Island, January 13th 1942

Bert Kossen

After the successful attacks made by the ML-KNIL against the Japanese invasion fleet off the Tarakan coast on January 12th, the commanding officer at Samarinda II airbase, Major van Dam, was ordered by the ML headquarters at Bandoeng to continue these attacks the next day. In order to avoid further losses (one Glenn Martin had failed to return) van Dam decided to change tactics and let his Glenn Martin flights attack independently. What he did not know was that the Tarakan garrison already had capitulated on the 12th and that the Tainan Kokutai, operating from Jolo Island and flying the formidable Navy Zero fighter, was ordered to fly permanent patrols to protect the invasion fleet. The tragic attack that followed is described by two survivors; Sergeant-Majoor-Vlieger W.C.G. Tinkelenberg and Luitenant-Waarnemer R.S. Soeriadarma.

A Dutch Glenn Martin bomber is loaded with British bombs during the type's service in the Far East.

At 07.00 the first flight of three Glenn Martins (crews: Beckman, Butner and van Kruiselbergen) started from Samarinda II. The flight-commander, Luitenant-Vlieger-Waarnemer Beckman, decided to break-off the attack when he found out that there was no cloud cover above the target. The next flight started at 07.30 (crews: van Boeckel, Straatman and Volckert) and was never heard from again. After the war Japanese reports indicated that the Zero's of the Tainan Kokutai had made their first victims of that day.

Flight Commander J.H. Lukkien led his three Glenn Martins (crews: Lukkien, Troost and Tinkelenberg) for the next strike against the Japanese invasion fleet. Luitenant-Waarnemer R.S. Soeriadarma, an Indonesian officer, was the observer onboard Lukkien's aircraft, Glenn Martin M-588: The sky was completely clear when we were near the target zone. We were instructed to break-off the attack if there was no cloud cover but since this was our first offensive mission, Lukkien and I decided to complete the attack. We were young and "green" then and I still ask myself today if we made the right decision to carry out this suicide attack. .

Sergeant-Majoor-Vlieger W.C.G. Tinkelenberg flew Glenn Martin M-5103 during the attack: We started our bombing-run at 5000 meters. I could see the Japanese fleet and counted some 50 ships. It became freezing cold when we opened our bomb-doors. Everything was ready for the attack when suddenly the Japs opened up on us with what seemed like all the anti-aircraft guns of the Japanese navy. .

By now Soeriadarma had selected their target: We changed directions several times to avoid being hit by the anti-aircraft guns, but I already had selected our target; a cruiser or a large destroyer. Though I had to concentrate on my bomb-sight I noticed that the anti-aircraft guns had stopped firing, so we were probably entering a fighter defence zone. On my signal all three aircraft released their bombs and I could see at least one of them being a direct hit. Further observations were impossible because Lukkien had spotted six enemy fighters which attacked us from above. In an attempt to escape the attackers Lukkien dived towards the sea but we were hit several times, one of the bullets hitting the pilot's legs. .

Tinkelenberg also saw the attacking enemy fighters: In no time my plane was shot up pretty badly. My cockpit was completely messed up and I knew I must have been hit though I could not feel any pain. When the second attack came I saw that my throttles were shot away and with them a part of my left hand. After the third attack the plane was burning fiercely and I ordered my crew to bail out. Three times I yelled the order in my microphone and then decided to bail out myself. I never saw my crew members again. .

With a wounded pilot and a damaged plane, Soeriadarma also found himself in deep trouble: I saw the aircraft of Tinkelenberg and Troost being shot down. We were now the only plane left and the Japanese fighters tried in turns to finish the "kill". We reached sea level so they could not attack as from below. Lukkien was wounded badly and had lost a lot of blood, but he somehow managed to keep the aircraft under control. He had to switch off the left engine because it received a hit and was leaking fuel. Our gunner had managed to hit one of the Zeros and after that they didn't make another attack. We saw them returning towards their base, probably thinking we were finished anyway. I gave Lukkien my first-aid kit and ordered the second pilot to fly the aircraft to the nearest airfield. I repaired our radio and sent an un-coded message to Samiranda; "watch for enemy fighters". The fact that I transmitted this message un-coded later gave me some trouble. When we finally reached Mangar airbase "on one engine and a prayer", Lukkien wanted to take control of the aircraft, because our second pilot, sergeant-vlieger Vermey, didn't know how to land the aircraft. Lukkien flew the aircraft straight in, which was a remarkable achievement considering his physical state. After we had landed all crew members ran to the cockpit to get the pilot out as quickly as possible. We made sure he was taken to hospital immediately and that probably saved his life. When we visited him that evening he was already feeling better. During the night a KNILM plane took him to Java. .

Major van Dam still had six of his Glenn Martins airborne and heading towards Tarakan when he received Soeriadarma's alarming message. He ordered these two flights immediately to return to base. One of them did, but the other flight (crews: van der Schroeff, Moorrees and Bos) did not receive the order and continued their attack. Luitenant-Vlieger-Waarnemer van der Schroeff was instructed to bomb Tarakan airfield, which he did with excellent bombing results. This time no planes were lost and according to Japanese reports, 15 Japanese soldiers lost their lives during the bombardment with 27 more injured.

The dramatic attacks against the Japanese invasion fleet at Tarakan on January 13th had cost the ML-KNIL five Glenn Martins and almost all of their crews. Only Sergeant-Majoor-Vlieger Tinkelenberg survived. After he had bailed out of his plane he landed in the sea. He could not swim because he was too exhausted and badly wounded. In the distance he could see the Japanese ships, two of them burning. After drifting in the sea for more than 20 hours he reached the shore. A Dornier flying boat took him to Balikpapan on January 15th, from where he was evacuated by a BPM plane to Java Island. Soeriadarma also survived the war and later became an Air Marshal with the Indonesian Air Force. Lukkien was awarded the Dutch DFC (vliegerkruis) for his brave behaviour on January 13th 1942. He recovered from his injuries and later escaped to Australia were he flew B-25 Mitchell bombers with No.18 (NEI) Squadron.

Also see: Who sank IJN destroyer Shinonome, December 1941?

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Copyright Bert Kossen 1999-2000