When 90 year old Bryan Wearne last visited Balikpapan beach, he was under enemy fire during one of the most ambitious Australian amphibious operations of the Second World War. 70 years later, Bryan and fellow Royal Australian Navy veteran Pat Curtis have returned to Borneo to relive past adventures and to honour lost mates.
Operation OBOE was the codename given to a series of amphibious landings to re-capture Borneo (part of modern Indonesia) in 1945. 75,000 Australians participated in the Borneo campaign and more than 590 lost their lives. OBOE was the final Australian campaign of the war. Bryan and Pat were among eight OBOE veterans to travel to Borneo with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Defence staff from Australia’s Indonesian Embassy and Australia’s Federation Guard.
On 1 July 1945, Bryan was at the helm of his M10 landing craft, which had just left HMAS Manoora packed with soldiers. 20 year old Bryan had already taken part in the two other OBOE landings at Tarakan and Labuan so he knew to look out for the unexpected. In a recent landing he had conducted, some of his terrified passengers had even refused to disembark at the beach. But this time, as he watched the soldiers he was transporting preparing for battle, something was different. ‘These were Australian soldiers!’ Bryan recalled, ‘I hadn’t taken them ashore before. They were actually joking and carrying on.’
Forming into a ‘V’, the landing craft approached the line of departure off-shore and came under heavy bombardment from Japanese light artillery. The tension grew quickly when they were forced to remain in place awaiting orders. This gave the Japanese time to hone in on their attackers. Finally, the order came and the boats sailed on, miraculously coming through the barrage unscathed. Bryan didn’t let the danger get to him. "My objective was to put soldiers on the beach and get the hell out of there and back to the ship to find out what else they wanted me to do," he said.
Fellow 90 year old, Pat Curtis was in HMAS Westralia during the OBOE landings. His ship had transported some of the soldiers involved. Also a veteran of previous landings at Leyte Gulf, Pat was a telegraphist during the campaign and was mentioned in despatches for ‘gallantry and outstanding courage.’ During the Leyte Gulf landing, a Japanese dive bomber had struck the ship, killing 90 of Pat’s shipmates. The trip to Borneo has special significance for him but Pat admits it’s only recently that he has talked about Borneo and other campaigns with his family. ’When I told them I was coming on this trip, my son said, you’ve never been to Borneo!’ Pat smiles.’ It’s an honour to be here though and a privilege to be able to represent my country.’
The landing site at Balikpapan now is dotted with restaurants, coffee shops and carparks. Bryan and Pat agree it’s definitely changed a little since they were last in town. Bryan re-counted his experiences to AB Elyse MacPherson who was among several RAN members accompanying the DVA contingent as part of the Australia’s Federation Guard. AB MacPherson says she and her fellow AFG members have been fascinated by the stories these old sailors have had to tell. ‘Bryan remembers the landing in incredible detail,’ AB MacPherson said.’ Listening to his stories was such a privilege. It was great to share this experience with him.’