In 1945, the Australian Z Special Unit organised a dangerous mission to rescue the Sultan of Ternate, Muhammad Jabir Syah right under the Japanese nose. They called the mission Operation Opossum.
Also known as the Kingdom of Gapi, the Sultanate of Ternate is one of the oldest Muslim kingdoms in Indonesia.
It was established in 1257 by Momole Cico who was the first leader of Ternate.
The kingdom’s Golden Age took place in 1570-1583 during the reign of Sultan Baabullah. During this time, the sultanate encompassed most of the eastern part of Indonesia and a part of southern Philippines.
Fast forward to 1942 during World War II (WWII), the capital of the sultanate Ternate city was occupied by the Japanese.
The sultan and his family were held hostage in his own palace. While imprisoned, the Sultan sent several of his men to Australian Army headquarters on Morotai island asking to be rescued.
General Douglas MacArthur heard the Sultan’s plea and sent a team from the Z Special Unit to rescue him in a raid called Operation Opossum.
So here are five things you need to know about Operation Opossum:
1.The initial plan for Operation Opossum was not to rescue the Sultan
According to Australian War Memorial, the original plan for the Operation Opossum was to attack Ternate Island in order to extract an Australian airman.
However, the Netherlands Indies Civil Administration later informed that the man was later removed.
Since most of the intelligence on which Operation Opossum based came from the Sultan, the plan then changed to extract him as a preliminary move to recover the missing airman.
2.How Operation Opossum went down
The team consisted of eight Australians from Z Special Unit along with three Dutch officers and a Timorese corporal.
After roughly two months of planning, the mission left Morotai on Apr 8, 1945 and landed on Hiri Island, two kilometers north Ternate.
From Hiri, the message that Z Force had arrived was sent up the volcano where the royal family was hiding.
The family then safely descended to the coastal village of Kulaba after a six-hour trek. From there, two perahu took the Sultan along with his two wives, eight children and other relatives to Hiri.
3.The mission almost failed because the locals were too happy to see the Sultan.
When the royal family arrived at the village, the villagers were too happy to see their sultan and greeted him in their traditional way. They squatted down with one raised knee, with hands pressed against their faces in an attitude of prayer and remained so until dismissed by a nod from the Sultan.
Some of the village elders even lined up to kiss his feet.
The sultan was not happy with the greetings from his people. He kept telling them to be careful in case the Japanese would see them.
True enough, word got out that Sultan was escaping. Several boats carrying Japanese soldiers were sent to Hiri to stop the mission at dawn the very next day.
4.The heroic death of Lieutenant George Bosworth
When the Japanese soldiers made contact with the Z Forces, they exchanged fire.
The current Sultan of Ternate, Sultan Mudaffah described what happened during the attack to The Sydney Morning Herald in an interview back in 2010. He was 10 when his family was rescued by the Z Forces.
Lieutenant George Bosworth, who was guarding Sultan Jabir, rushed about 500 meters to the landing site.
Speaking of Bosworth, Sultan Mudaffah said, “This man was too brave. According to my father, he was just standing there, shooting. My father said ‘you can’t just stand there’.”
Three of the Japanese soldiers fell on the beach. As Lieutenant Bosworth approached one of them, it turned out the Japanese soldier was still alive as he picked up his rifle and shot Bosworth in the head.
The fight continued between Z Force and the Japanese, forcing the remnants of Japanese tried to swim back to Ternate.
However, the Japanese were all killed by the locals before they reached shore.
From Hiri, the sultan and his family were taken to Moratai. There, Sultan Jabir debriefed General MacArthur on Japanese positions and tactics in the area.
They were then sent to settle in the Queensland town of Wacol until the end of the war.
MacArthur learned from the sultan that the Australian airman had been removed. Therefore the plan for his extraction was not carried out.
5.Operation Opossum loosely inspired a movie which starred Mel Gibson before his Hollywood fame.
Attack Force Z (alternative title The Z Men) is a 1982 Australian-Taiwanese film. Operation Opossum reportedly inspired the film, although the plot was very different from what had actually happened.
The plot circles around Captain P.G. Kelly (Mel Gibson) who leads a team of the Z Special Unit against Japanese during the WW2.
The movie was screened at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 1981. Years later, Gibson called the film “pretty woeful… it’s so bad, it’s funny.”