What you need to know about the Battle of Tarakan during World War II

Patricia Hului

The Battle of Tarakan refers to different actions which happened during World War II on Tarakan island, off the northeast coast of Borneo.

The first battle of Tarakan happened on Jan 11-12, 1942 when Japanese attacked the island, defeating Allied forces. Meanwhile the second battle of Tarakan took place on May 1-25, 1945 as the first phase of the Allied campaign to retake Borneo from the Japanese.

Battle of Tarakan (1942)
A view of Amal Beach, east coast of Tarakan.

The Battle of Tarakan in 1942 began a day after the Empire of Japan declared war on the Netherlands.

Despite the fact that it is only a small island, Tarakan’s 700 oil wells, oil refinery and airfield put the island onto the Japanese forces must-conquer-list during the Pacific War.

Before the war, Tarakan was producing about 80,000 barrels of oil per month.

On Jan 10, 1942, a Dutch flying boat spotted an approaching Japanese invasion fleet. Knowing the Japanese army was coming, the commander of Tarakan’s garrison ordered the destruction of all oil installations on the island.

Today, one can only imagine the sounds and smells of these explosions as well as the anxiety waiting for your enemies to land.

By midnight of Jan 11, the Japanese forces landed on the east coast of Tarakan which today has become a tourist attraction called Amal Beach.

The troop was met with short but fierce resistance from the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army. The Dutch surrendered in the morning of Jan 12.

Instead of accepting their surrender, the Japanese executed the entire crew of coastal battery together with some 219 prisoners of wars (POWs) via drowning.

The island then remained under Japanese occupation until May 1945 when the Battle of Tarakan 1945 happened.

Amal Beach, where the Japanese landed in 1942.
Tarakan under Japanese occupation

The Dutch thought they did a thorough job in destroying Tarakan’s oil fields. But the Japanese were able to recommission the first oil wells by August 1942. By early 1944, Tarakan was producing 350,000 barrels a month.

During the Japanese occupation, the locals of Tarakan suffered from malnutrition. The large number of Japanese troops on the island together with 600 Javanese labourers caused food shortage on the island.

Imagine that the oilfield in Tarakan alone was operated by 250 men from the Imperial Japanese Navy.

By late 1944, the Allied forces started to strike back, launchinf air raids destroying oil production and storage facilities on the island.

Unfortunately, hundreds of civilians were also killed during these air raids.

Comfort women in Tarakan during Japanese occupation

If you are not familiar with the term ‘comfort women’, they were women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army.

The Dutch government did a study in 1994 about comfort women during the time of the Dutch East Indies.

It concluded that about 200 to 300 European women had been taken to become comfort women.

Besides Dutch women, many Javanese and east Timorese women were also forced into prostitution.

They were usually sent to Burma, Thailand and eastern Indonesia, including Tarakan.

According to records, it is estimated about 300 women from Java were brought into Tarakan. A number of them were of other origins including Eurasians and Chinese.

Similar to many human trafficking cases today, they had been lured with the promise of jobs in clerical work and clothes making.

But in the end, they were actually forced into prostitution at Tarakan’s garrison and sometimes on visiting warships.

Battle of Tarakan (1945) was just a political act?

Many historians believed the decision by the Allies to retake Borneo from the Japanese in 1945 was mostly based on political reasons.

According to an article by Department of Veterans’ Affairs in Australia, the plan to invade Borneo had only marginal strategic value.

It stated, “General Douglas MacArthur, Commander-in-Chief of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, planned the operation to alleviate concerns of the Australian government that its forces were being relegated to operational backwaters as New Guinea had become.”

During the war, MacArthur left Australian forces out of most significant operations.

So, the idea of invading Borneo was intended to make Australian forces more visible again during the war against Japan.

General MacArthur chose to capture Tarakan in order for the island to be used to support an invasion of Java. It was crucial to recapture Java so that the Dutch could formally restore its power on the Netherlands East Indies.

Another reason was to capture the oilfields in Borneo. But this did little effect on the Japanese operation. Taking Tarakan, for example, the last Japanese oil tanker left the island in July 1944.

Meanwhile, the American air and naval troops had blockades around Japan. So there was no oil being shipped into Japan from Borneo.

What went down during the Battle of Tarakan 1945

Regardless of the reasons, the Battle of Tarakan was the first stage in the Borneo campaign of 1945.

In an operation code-named Operation Oboe One, the Australian forces landed on Tarakan on May 1.

The engineers went in first and cleared gaps through the beach defences with explosives before the main assault.

Then, naval and air bombardments also destroyed or damaged many Japanese positions.

Over the next seven weeks, there was fierce fighting as the Australians pushed inland to take the whole island.

One of the primary objectives to retake Tarakan island was to build airfields.

The airfield did open for fighter aircraft to land in late June 1945 but it was not used as much as it was intended for.

The Australians underestimated the work as they found the existing airfields were badly damaged. Meanwhile the site selected to build new airfields had excessive boggy ground.

The Aftermath of Battle of Tarakan

In the end, more than 200 Australians were killed before the last Japanese positions fell on June 20, 1945.

Although the Battle of Tarakan in 1945 was a success for Australia, Australian historian Gavin Long pointed out that the results achieved did not justify the entire cost of the Tarakan operation.

So was the battle for a sideshow? Or was it to make Australia look like they contributed something during the end of WWII? The Battle of Tarakan 1945 remains debatable among historians.