HMAS Kapunda played an important role in Sarawak history. This navy ship was where the Japanese officially signed their surrender in Kuching on Sept 11, 1945. The surrender officially ended Japanese occupation in Sarawak after three years and eight months.
HMAS Kapunda during World War II
According to the Royal Australian Navy’s official website, HMAS Kapunda was one of 60 Australian Minesweepers (commonly known as corvettes). It was built during World War II (WWII) in Australian shipyards as part of the Commonwealth government’s wartime shipbuilding programme.
The ship was named after the town of Kapunda, South Australia. She was one of the 36 corvettes commissioned solely by the Royal Australian Navy.
HMAS Kapunda was commissioned in Sydney on Oct 21, 1942. Then she began operational duty as a convoy escort vessel on the east coast of Australia between Sydney and Brisbane.
In March 1943, HMAS Kapunda began escorting convoys from Queensland ports to Port Moresby and Milne Bay in New Guinea.
This was when she first fired her shots when a flight of eight Japanese bombers, escorted by 12 fighters, attacked the Milne Bay bound convoy she was escorting.
Thankfully, the crew aboard HMAS Kapunda and her sister ship – the HMAS Bendigo – diverted the enemy’s targets and the bombs fell harmlessly into the water.
A month later, HMAS Kapunda was engaged in another battle when 37 Japanese aircraft attacked MV Gorgon, one of the ships she escorted.
After shooting down one of the aircrafts, HMAS Kapunda’s crew rescued MV Gorgon from fire, bringing the damaged ship safely to port.
In 1944, HMAS Kapunda was put to patrolling mostly New Guinea, Solomon Sea, Morotai and Biak islands areas in Indonesia.
On July 29, 1945, HMAS Kapunda left Moratai enroute to Balikpapan in Borneo, clocking her 100,000th mile since being commissioned.
During this time, life aboard the HMAS Kapunda was mostly uneventful until the end of WWII.
Japanese forces around the world (including Kuching) surrender
The first atomic bomb ever used in warfare codenamed ‘Little Boy’ was dropped on Hiroshima on Aug 6, 1945 followed by the ‘Fat Man’ on Nagasaki three days later.
Less than a week after the bombing of Nagasaki, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced to his people that Japan would accept the Potsdam Declaration in a historic radio broadcast called ‘Jewel Voice Radio’ where he also stated a new national mission which included striving for prosperity and well-being of all nations.
Before the surrender, the Australian 9th Division was tasked to secure the main prisoner-of-war and internment camp in Kuching.
According to Ooi Keat Gin in Post-War, 1945-1950: Nationalism, Empire and State-Building, this mission became more urgent from mid-August when the Japanese surrendered.
“Out of frustration or vengeful reprisal it was feared that the Japanese military authorities might begin a wholesale slaughter of Allied prisoners of war and internees. With haste the nucleus of a task force (Kuching Force) with a British Borneo Civil Affairs Unit (BBCAU) detachment landed at Kuching on 11 Sept,” Ooi wrote.
On that same day, Brigadier-General Thomas C. Eastick, Commander of Kuching Force, received the surrender from Major-General Yamamura Hiyoe on board the HMAS Kapunda.
HMAS Kapunda in Kuching
Meanwhile, Eastick wrote to his wife Ruby on Sept 14, 1945 describing his arrival in Kuching as “the busiest five days I have ever had or likely to have, a wonderful job and one that has given me wonderful satisfaction.
“Last Monday early, I went aboard a USA destroyer escort and spent just over 24 hours aboard, transferred to HMAS Kapunda and went up the Sarawak river to Pending and there took the surrender from Jap Maj General and several thousand Japs.
“The finale of the ceremony was of course receiving the general’s sword as a token of final surrender. It is a beauty, of course, has wonderful historic value. After the general was dismissed, I spent an hour or so with the Jap chief of staff and other officers and then went to the prison camp where there well over 2,000 soldiers and civilians men, women and children. I got a greater part of them together in an an open space and said a few words to them.”
The news about the Japanese surrender also made headlines around the world.
Graham Jenkins, a special correspondent of The Mercury reported that “Cheering crowds lined both banks of the Sarawak River as the convoy carrying the Australian occupational force made its way up the river to Kuching capital of Sarawak’.
The news also reported that before the force landed, there was some delay when Yamamura “pleading illness, demurred about going out to HMAS Kapunda to surrender to Brig T. C. Eastick”.
“Excuses were not accepted, and Yamamura came reluctantly and handed over his sword. Heartfelt relief and jubilation were evidenced among Australian prisoners who were able to meet their liberators,” the news stated.
HMAS Kapunda after the war
After the Japanese surrendered, Kapunda was used to assist the evacuation of Allied prisoners of war from Kuching.
A year later, HMAS Kapunda was paid off into reserve on Jan 14, 1946. She was marked for disposal on Dec 30, 1960, and was sold on Jan 6, 1961 to Kinoshita (Australia) Pty Ltd for scrap.