The Borneo campaign was the last major Allied offensive in the South West Pacific during the Second World War. In a series of amphibious landings, Australian troops attacked the island. The goal of the campaign was to defeat the Japanese forces on Borneo and thus retake the Dutch and British possessions on the island.
The Japanese military occupation of Borneo, a period of about three years and eight months, beginning in 1942, was an unsettling time. Daily life in occupied Borneo became increasingly stressful. As the occupation lengthened, the situation worsened. Acute shortages affected practically all items, from soap to rice to cloth; everything seemed to disappear from the shelves of once abundantly stocked Chinese shophouses in the bazaar. Having less food on the table was tolerable, but being slapped for failing to bow to the Japanese sentry was humiliating. The Japanese occupation not only had a dramatic impact but also brought about serious and radical developments in its aftermath.
The landings in the Dutch East Indies, primarily on Borneo, grew out of discussions between the Americans and Australians. The Australian army had replaced American divisions containing the bypassed Japanese forces in the Southwest Pacific. The Japanese armies on New Guinea, Bougainville and New Britain presented no major threat; but the question of dealing with their soldiers remained. Thus the Allied Supreme Commander in the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, supported an invasion on Borneo, codenamed Operation Oboe.
In principle, the re-taking of Borneo was agreed at the second Quebec conference of September 1944. The Bornean oil fields were to be secured for the British Pacific fleet that would join the Americans in the push for the Japanese home islands. Despite the Quebec decision and also Borneo’s strategic position for the re-conquest of Malaya and Java, the Allied Pacific strategy dictated by MacArthur appeared to be the Philippines. In this scenario Borneo appeared inconsequential; logistically its oil was too far away to aid the forces heading straight to Imperial Japan. Hence British and Australian military circles were having reservations as to the necessity of Borneo. But when Blamey voiced Australian concerns and suggested that the Borneo operations be shelved, MacArthur swiftly rejected such a proposal.
The first landing began with the seizure of Tarakan. Next, the Australians landed on Labuan Island and at Brunei. The landing at Balikpapan was the last amphibious operation of the war. The Australians lost fewer than 600 killed, but Japan did not surrender one minute earlier as a result.
The Australian Army lost 7,384 dead fighting the Japanese in the Second World War. This was fewer of the nation’s warriors than died as prisoners having been captured in Malaya and at Singapore in 1942. For a people whose soldiers, sailors and airmen won such admiration in other theaters, it was a tragedy that in their own hemisphere the wartime experience was poisoned by domestic strife and battlefield frustration.