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Tuesday, 14 May 1985
Page: 1940


Senator KILGARIFF(10.41) —Mr President, I would like to tell you a little story tonight about a person called Jermias Koanfora, a Timorese who did much to rescue Royal Australian Air Force personnel in Timor. Over the years he has been given very scant attention by Australian authorities. During the early weeks of May substantial coverage in the media has been given to VE day. Forty years ago the greatest global conflict the world had ever seen came to an end in Europe but the war went on for some time in the Pacific area.

I wish to speak very briefly this evening about something which took place in the South Pacific region during World War II. In Timor in 1942-on 13 April 1942, to be specific-a RAAF Hudson aircraft, A16-159, crashed on the shores of Koepang Bay near the village of Pariti. The four crew members of the aircraft, Flight Lieutenant H. O. Cook, Flight Officer V. Leithead and Sergeants Hearle and Witham, were helped across the shore by a Timorese by the name of Jermias Koanfora and his friends. Hearle and Witham were badly injured and could not travel. Although none of the airmen could speak Indonesian or Timorese, Koanfora cared for them and provided guides and two horses for Cook and Leithead. Led by the guides, Cook and Leithead reached their escape point, Berata, and were picked up by a submarine which took them home to Australia. The other two members of the crew were captured by the Japanese and subsequently bayoneted.

While the two officers were still heading for Berata, the search party was stalled by Koanfora, who told its members that the two wounded men were the only members of the crew. The delay enabled the two escapees to arrive at Berata just ahead of their pursuers. Koanfora was later singled out for severe punishment by the Japanese as a result of his covering up for the officers. He was arrested by the Japanese and imprisoned. During his four months' imprisonment he was subject to great deprivation and nearly lost his life. His health never fully recovered from the ill-treatment that he received. This story of courage and sacrifice is one of many which have been reported by Australians who owe their lives to the native people of New Guinea and Timor. Often the natives tended to sick and lost servicemen knowing that they would be severely punished by the Japanese if they were discovered to have helped allied soldiers. Koanfora jeopardised his own safety in just such a way.

I raise the story of his bravery so many years later in this place because the story did not end with the return of the Australian officers to Australia. In 1959, at 58 years of age, Koanfora received a letter from a Mr Dominie Dekker, apparently the Chairman of the Kupang Protestant Church Synod, saying that he had seen a report in an Australian newspaper that Koanfora was to be paid 40,000 pounds sterling for saving the lives of the airmen. Of course, this was a ridiculous amount. However, that was the amount which was stated. In 1961, Koanfora attended a ceremony at Koepang, where Dekker and representatives of the Australian Government, led by Group Captain Handbury, presented him with a scroll expressing the appreciation of the Australian Government for his assistance to the airmen. He was also given a sum of money.

I recently wrote to the Minister for Defence (Mr Beazley) as I have received several representations during the year regarding this matter. I received an answer from the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence, Mr John Brown. I have been advised that the Department of Defence has been unable to locate any file on this matter. It is presumed to have been destroyed over the years. The sum of money which was paid to Koanfora is believed to have been 25 pounds because Department of Finance files show an approval in 1958 for an ex-gratia payment of that amount to Mr Jermias Koanfora. So, instead of the 40,000 pounds which was talked about by a newspaper, Koanfora only got 25 pounds. I believe that if this represents the true figure which was paid to Koanfora, his actions have been grossly undervalued.

Mr Koanfora is now 84 years old. He is blind and is living in very poor circumstances. It seems a pity that he has not received any real compensation from the Australian Government for the privations which he suffered as a result of his protection of our countrymen. I would hope that the matter will not rest here, with a letter from Mr Brown telling me that the relevant records of payment have been lost. When one thinks of the dozens, indeed hundreds, of lives which were saved by the Timorese people, the natives of the islands, and the other Pacific islands, during World War II, it seems that the people of Australia owe an enormous debt to those people which the Government could acknowledge in a practical and meaningful way even now to this old man who is 84 years old. I hope that this matter is further pursued and a suitable reward is provided to Mr Koanfora for his assistance to our servicemen.

Of course, that is but one story. Even after so many years we should have the graciousness to accept the responsibility of ensuring that this old man is looked after. For what he did and for what he suffered he was given only 25 pounds. Being an Australian, I have a guilt complex because of the lack of assistance and sympathy that we have shown to the Timorese people over the years for the very many things that they did for Australian servicemen who either crashed on Timor in aircraft or were captured, as was Senator Sir John Carrick who was taken prisoner in that area.

In closing, I remember that once I was in the highlands of Timor just before the disastrous civil war broke out. I wandered in the highlands and I met a group of old Timorese people. Recognising that I was an Australian, they came out to greet me. These were people who had assisted Australians tremendously during the war years. One could see at that time that Portugal was walking away from its responsibilities in Timor, leaving it open to civil war. I said to those old men: 'Aren't you afraid of what the future portends for you?'. They said: 'No, we are not afraid because we have got friends. We have got Australian friends and they will look after us'. So it is a very sad story. When one recalls this simple story of Mr Jermias Koanfora, I do not think it is too late for Australian authorities at least to recognise this old man and the things he did to save the lives of those Australian airmen.