The Borneo campaign of 1945 was the last major Allied campaign in the South West Pacific Area during World War II (WWII) to liberate Japanese-held Borneo.
One of the combats that took place during the campaign was Battle of Beaufort in 1945.
Located about 90 kilometers south of Kota Kinabalu, the town of Beaufort was initially developed to help the economic activity of interior of Sabah.
The town was named after former British governor Leicester Paul Beaufort.
The prelude before the Battle of Beaufort
The operation to secure North Borneo was separated into phases; preparatory bombardment, forced landing and an advance.
They wanted to turn Brunei Bay into a naval base for the British Pacific Fleet. To do that, the Allied forces need to secure Labuan to control the entrance to Brunei Bay. At the same time, Labuan would be developed as an airbase.
After several weeks of air attacks as well as a short naval bombardment, soldiers of the Australian 24th Brigade landed on Labuan on June 10.
The Japanese garrison was outnumbered and the Australians quickly captured the island’s harbour and main airfield.
The fight in Labuan continued until June 21. In the end, a total of 389 Japanese personnel were killed on Labuan and 11 were captured. Meanwhile, Australian casualties numbered 34.
After capturing Labuan, the Australian solders successfully captured the town of Weston against light opposition from the Japanese.
Since there was no road from Weston to Beaufort, the battalion advanced along the single track railway toward Beaufort.
In the meantime, another Australian battalion landed around Mempakul from Labuan also without any resistance from the Japanese.
They managed to secure the Klias Peninsula before moving along the Klias River heading to Beaufort.
Later, the two Australian battalions reunited at Kandu and made their journey towards Beaufort together.
Once the Australians captured Beaufort, they would be able to control the railway that ran toward Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu).
The Battle of Beaufort
On June 26, the two Australian battalions started to approach the town. At that time, there were about 800 to 1000 Japanese soldiers at Beaufort.
The Australian soldiers coordinately captured the town and ambushed the route where the Japanese were expected to withdraw along.
At the same time, the Japanese resistance lacked coordination as they tried to launch six counterattacks against the Australians.
During the battle, some fights even went down to hand-to-hand combat.
The six counterattacks by the Japanese all resulted in failure. By June 29, Australian soldiers had captured the town.
With that, the Australians were able to open the Weston-Beaufort railway line to bring in the supplies.
The Allied forces then continued to secure Papar on July 6.
In the end, The Battle of Beaufort took the lives of seven Australians and 93 Japanese, leaving 40 people (including 2 Japanese) wounded.
The story of Tom Starcevich’s gallantry
On June 28, Tom Starcevich’s company encountered two Japanese machine-gun positions in the middle of a jungle track.
The Japanese opened fire first and the Australians suffered some casualties. Starcevich moved forward and assaulted both Japanese positions using his Bren gun.
He killed five Japanese soldiers and causing the rest to retreat. Later on the same day, the company again came across another two machine gun positions. Again, Starcevich single-handedly attacked both and killing another seven Japanese soldiers.
For his bravery, Starcevich was awarded the Victoria Cross after the war. It is the highest decoration for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to members of Commonwealth armed forces.
The track where Starcevich’s gallant move took place was later renamed Victoria Cross Road.
Additionally, there is a monument in Beaufort named The Starcevich Monument or Beaufort Australian Monument dedicated to Starcevich.
The aftermath of Battle of Beaufort and the discovery of comfort women
With their six counterattacks, the resistance in Beaufort was the only time that the Japanese had actually made an effort to fight against Allied forces in North Borneo.
Although there were minor combats in the following months, the Battle of Beaufort was considered the last significant action fought in North Borneo during WW2.
In August 1945, a member of the Australian Ninth Regiment was in Borneo as part of the British-Borneo Civil Affairs Unit.
He reportedly found some Javanese women who had been transported to Borneo by the Japanese as comfort women. These women were forced into sexual slavery during the war.
The Javanese women were living in the ruins of the Japanese comfort station somewhere in Beaufort.
According to the book Legacies of the Comfort Women of World War II, the Australian forces took them to a small island off in the Borneo coast for medical treatment and rehabilitation.
While the Australians wanted to send them back to Indonesia, the women were afraid of going home because of the shame associated with their experience, so much so that one of them committed suicide. However, it is not certain if the rest of the women managed to return home.
After the war ended, Beaufort was the place where the Japanese were told to gather before they were transported back to Japan.
Unfortunately for them, many of the Japanese were killed by the Muruts on their way to Beaufort.
Out of thousands of Japanese troops who marched to Beaufort after surrendering their firearms, only a few hundred ever reached Beaufort.