Tag Archives: Balikpapan

Private W.B. Macdonald NX 84656

I’m still wandering through old family photographs and documents, piecing together images and information, trying to form some coherent narrative of my father’s life.

My father Bruce Macdonald enlisted in the Australian Army in January 1942. He was 19 years old, and he spent the next four years in uniform.

He was born and raised in Dubbo, third child of Kathleen ‘Marsie’ Samuels and Dubbo Mayor John Boyd Macdonald (after whom I was named…) Following a decline in family fortunes he left school at 14 and spent several years’ working as a jackaroo on remote properties in NSW and southern Queensland.

Nothing in his early life could have prepared him for the experience of war in the Asia-Pacific. He trained in Queensland, then saw active service in New Guinea, several islands of (what is now) Indonesia, and The Philippines, much of it on board the converted passenger ship HMAS Kanimbla.

Throughout those years of World War II he carried a photo of his sweetheart (later to become my mother) in his wallet. I like to think that her smile gave him consolation in dark times, some connection with ‘home’, and some hopes for a future after war. They exchanged frequent letters, some of which have survived, full of deeply romantic sentiment.

After the war he brought back a number of small photographic prints from places he visited along the way. I think – but can’t confirm – that he took them all himself. It’s certainly his unmistakeable handwriting on the back of each one, identifying the locations. Many are grainy and blurry, under- or over-exposed, but some of them really give a sense of what it might have been like to be there.

For instance, he was on board the Kanimbla on 1 July 1945, the day when Australian forces launched their largest-ever amphibious attack, on the Japanese-occupied oil city of Balikpapan. The Kanimbla was only there as a troop carrier, one of 100 vessels in the attacking force, and it left the next day after dropping off its cargo of combatants.

(He couldn’t possibly have imagined that, 71 years later, his son would be living in that same city of Balikpapan, in a house quite near to the ‘Red Beach’ where most of the Australian troops came ashore. )

“Landing at Balikpapan”

Much of the city and its strategically important oil refinery was destroyed by allied bombing, naval artillery bombardment, and in the fierce fighting which ensued from 1 July. The Japanese defenders were massively outgunned and outnumbered (by about ten to one), but they put up ferocious resistance.

Consequently, the casualty figures showed a similar discrepancy. By the time hostilities ceased, 229 Australians troops had died – along with over 2,000 Japanese.

In his Army-issue notebook, my father kept a meticulous record of his movements during these latter stages of the war. Over a period of just four months he was in Townsville, Moratai (five times), Balikpapan (three times), Tarakan, Leyte, Manila, Subic Bay, and Manus Island (twice).

His service record reveals other dimensions to his service. He was hospitalised several times, due to malaria and a “bone abscess”. And he was perhaps not a model soldier, being punished on three occasions for overnight “Absence Without Leave”, and once in 1945 for “Conduct to the Prejudice of Order and Military Discipline”. For this latter offence he was fined three pounds and “awarded 14 days’ C.B.” (Confined to Barracks). Unfortunately there are no details of what had occurred…

He left Balikpapan for the final time on 23rd August 1945, and landed in Townsville on 4 September. It was a shock for me to realise that just 14 days later (on 18 September) he stood in the little church at Glenroy (near Tumbarumba), getting married to my mother.

In the photos he appears happy, sort-of shy, sort-of proud, and quite a bit thinner than the 79 kilos that he carried when he enlisted. He was probably feeling rather disoriented too, and still knocked about by the malaria and dengue that he acquired in the tropics.

Nobody talked about PTSD in those days…

In any case he was only allowed brief leave to get married, as the Army had not quite finished with him – even though the war was over by this time. He returned to (non-combatant) service, and wasn’t ‘de-mobilised’ until 20 January 1946.

The day after he re-entered civilian life, and began the impossible task of picking up his life from where he’d left it four years previously, he received a telegram from his father, who was proud of his antipodean origins:


And perhaps also thanks from Australia…?

Postscript: in the subsequent 43 years of his life, he said almost nothing to us about his war years. And, apart from a trip to New Zealand, he never again left Australian shores. “I’ve been overseas. Didn’t like it.”

36 Views of Kalimantan (Part 2)

More from the series 36 Views of Kalimantan – Random photos 2014-17. Hope you like some of them!

36 Views of Kalimantan is published here in three parts. Click on these links to view Part 1 or Part 3.

Kapuas Hulu 5-Apr-2015 (13/36)


Tumbang Manggu 10-Dec-2014 (14/36)


Bukit Bangkirai 2-Apr-2017 (15/36)


Idul Fitri 17-Jul-2015 (16/36)


Betang Sungai Utik (West Kalimantan) 29-Mar-2015 (17/36)


Kebun Raya Balikpapan 17-Jul-2017 (18/36)


Long Api (North Kalimantan) 27-Apr-2017 (19/36)


Palangkaraya (Central Kalimantan)16-Aug-2015 (20/36)


Tumbang Manggu (Central Kalimantan) 9-Dec-2014 (21/36)


Banjarmasin 13-Sep-2015 (22/36)


Balikpapan 31-Dec-2016 (23/36)


Buntoi, Central Kalimantan 17-Jul-2016 (24/36)


Produce of Pasar Klandasan, Balikpapan

Photos of produce for sale at the Pasar Klandasan, Balikpapan. Plus one cat photo.

No people, no story, no captions. Just some shapes and colours and lighting and composition that I liked.

By rights, each image should come with an accompanying smell, because the pasar is filled with aromas of the products being sold. But unfortunately we don’t (yet) have the technology to communicate scent…


















Vendors of Pasar Klandasan, Balikpapan

There are three ‘traditional’ markets along the waterfront of central Balikpapan. Of these, the most long-established is the Pasar Klandasan (‘Klandasan Market’). It sells a fairly comprehensive range of fresh produce and non-perishable goods, it’s cheap, it’s open long hours, and it’s close to Karen’s workplace. For these reasons, it’s the one that we know the best.

The merchants of Pasar Klandasan, each with their own little stall/shop beside an alley of the big market area, are uniformly good humoured, calm and polite.

They run their small-scale businesses with patience and quiet dignity. And they like to have a chat and a good laugh to pass time between customers.

It’s not an easy way to make a living. Many of the stalls are open before dawn, and they work long hours.

Mbak Etma sells a range of dried spices and herbs, as well as peeled cloves of bawang putih (garlic) and bawang merah (red onions or shallots).

Most of the vendors lease their stall space from the actual owner, paying as much as Rp15,000,000 per year (approximately AU$1500) in rent for a lock-up stall in a good location inside the pasar. But even outside locations are expensive, and with mangoes at Rp10,000/kilo, they still need to sell a lot of produce to make a profit.

We bought a metal colander and a few plastic containers from Ibu Haji Parsini. It would be easy to completely outfit a kitchen from her compact little stall.

There was a major fire in central Balikpapan on 5 January, resulting in the destruction of hundreds of homes before the flames were extinguished. 67-year old Ibu Parsini was one of those who lost everything in the blaze.

The eggs on sale in the Pasar Klandasan come over from Surabaya (East Java) by boat. There’s chicken eggs, duck and quail.

Unlike a supermarket, there are a number of different varieties of banana on sale. But most commonly available are pisang susu (‘milk bananas’) and pisang Ambon hijau (green Ambon bananas).

Ibu Janah prepares bunches of bananas to be hung on display.

Vendors of fresh produce (especially meat, fish and leafy vegetables) have extra difficulties because, with no refrigeration at the Pasar, they have to carefully manage their own wholesale purchases so as to minimise spoilage and waste of unsold produce.

A lot of the fruit on sale is shipped in from other islands. But pineapples, dragon fruit, durian, salak, mangosteen and rambutan (amongst others) are usually locally grown.

Apples, pears, grapes are ‘imported’ from Java.

It’s quiet in the middle of the day at the Pasar, and Ibu was resting at the back of her little shop when we arrived. She was very willing to be photographed in front of her stall, once she had donned her jilbab.

Despite the absence of refrigeration, the produce is always fresh, the ‘wet areas’ of the market are clean and devoid of flies etc. There are no bad smells (other than the occasional cigarette…) Nearly all of our produce shopping is done at this market, and we’ve not had a day of illness.

In contrast, in the supermarkets of Balikpapan, of which there are now a number, the vegetables in particular are often so old, limp and unappetising-looking as to be unsaleable.

We got talking with Ibu Eka and Ibu Ferra, who have adjacent stalls near the main entrance to the market. They are both originally from South Sulawesi, though they didn’t meet until they had moved to Balikpapan. Like many people from Sulawesi (and other islands) they have moved here because the economy is relatively stronger.

It turns out that Ibu Eka’s kampung (home village) is at Danau Tempe, which by coincidence we may visit in June. She asked us to say ‘hello’ to her kampung.


Anzac Day in Balikpapan

This morning we attended the Anzac Day dawn service at Pasir Ridge here in Balikpapan. And it was every bit as interesting as we had expected it to be. The event did however involve some measure of culture shock, as we listened to the unaccustomed tones of Australian voices in Balikpapan, and (a recording of) a Scottish pipe band playing ‘Waltzing Matilda‘ and ‘Along the road to Gundagai’… repeatedly.

The Anzac Day dawn service is a well-established annual event here, one of only four locations in Indonesia where the day is officially commemorated. Balikpapan is also home to a well-maintained Australian War Memorial (the Tugu Australia) which sits in the middle of a roundabout down on Jalan Jenderal Sudirman.

Balikpapan was the site, on 1 July 1945, of the last major land operation of the Second World War, and the Australian Army’s largest ever amphibious landing. 21,000 Australian troops, supported by artillery and Dutch, British and American air and naval forces, overwhelmed the Japanese occupying force of just 3,900 soldiers. By that time, the Japanese had occupied the island of Borneo for three years.

However many historians, and even many military leaders at the time, have said that the operation served no worthwhile strategic purpose. The oil refineries, port facilities and most of the military fortifications had already been destroyed by months of artillery and aerial bombardment (comprising some 23,000 shells). The Japanese forces in Indonesia were already close to collapse, and (as it happened) the end of the war was only six weeks away.

Nonetheless, 229 Australians died in the ‘Battle of Balikpapan’, and 634 were wounded. Pasir Ridge, where today’s service was held, was the site of some of the fiercest fighting.

Around 1800 Japanese soldiers were also killed in the battle (nearly half of their total number), and just 63 were taken prisoner. Near the site of the Australian memorials on Pasir Ridge is an unmarked and unremarkable mound of earth, where a number of Japanese casualties were buried in a mass grave.

Despite the early hour, we were keen to attend the commemoration. In part this was because my father was here on that day, almost 73 years ago. He was on board the landing ship HMAS Kanimbla – though happily he was was not sent ashore, and his ship returned to Moratai the next day.

The (hopefully not apocryphal) story goes that General Blamey addressed the soldiers of the 2/9th Battalion aboard the Kanimbla, en route to Balikpapan, trying to gee them up in preparation for the imminent massive battle. “I know that the 2/9th will want to be in the thick of it!” he proclaimed. At which point one of the ‘Diggers’ interjected loudly: “Pig’s arse! Aren’t you coming with us?!”

All up, around 100 people attended the dawn service at Pasir Ridge, which is on land now held by the oil company Chevron Indonesia. There were, amongst others: representatives of provincial and city governments, Chevron, senior staff (including military personnel) from the Australian Embassy, officers and rank-and-file from the Indonesian military (TNI), veterans and war widows, as well as a number of Australian expats resident in Indonesia.

It was a nicely inter-cultural, Indonesian-Australian event, with all speeches and prayers delivered in both Bahasa Indonesia and (Australian) English language.

Adjacent flagpoles flew the Indonesian flag (the ‘Merah putih’) and the Australian flag – at half mast. In front of the flagpoles, an Indonesian honour guard stood at attention throughout the service.

About a dozen large wreaths, each marked with the words “Lest we forget” were laid, by both Indonesian and Australians, on a memorial formed from parts of a wrecked Australian tank.

As is traditional, the service concluded with (a recording of) The Last Post, a minute of silence, and Reveille. The Australian flag was raised from the half mast position up to the level of the adjacent Indonesian flag.

And then (of course!) there was an extended block of time set aside for group photographs, with almost every possible permutation of people assembled and photographed in front of the tank memorial. 

Yes, including us! (Seen here with Fleur Davies, Matthew Campbell and Richard Swaby from the Australian Embassy in Jakarta).


Then the ceremony was over, and we all decamped, boarding the two provided buses to take us down the hill to the Novotel Hotel for a buffet breakfast and warm conversation. But no beer and two-up…

Thanks to the Organising Committee for our invitation to attend, and for planning and hosting such a memorable and professionally-run event. Lest we forget.

For more on the Battle of Balikpapan: