Z Force families: Hidden stories of Australia’s guerilla soldiers unveiled in special exhibition
They were Australia’s original special forces.
The brave men who reckoned with crocodile-infested waters, Japanese forces and unreliable information are being showcased in an exhibition illuminating a dark time in Australia’s war history.
Not many Australians knew of Borneo before 75,000 Aussie troops descended on the politically divided island in 1945.
Even less is known about the group of special forces who were working behind enemy lines, building up a guerrilla force with the local Indigenous population and laying the groundwork for Australia’s landing two years prior.
Researchers from the Australian War Memorial and the Australian National University have been piecing together the threads of information that exist on the Australian special forces, known as the Z Force Special Unit, in Borneo.
They have created oral histories from Z Force families and for the first time, have spoken to the relatives of Borneo’s local Dayak population, who were a vital tool in the comparatively successful allied military campaign in Borneo.
“It’s a difficult and a not well-known story and part of the reason why, is that the men were sworn to secrecy for 30 years after the war,” lead researcher Robyn Van-Dyke said.
“Many families hardly know the stories and then they were unable to document them in that way.”
The exhibition is focusing on three main operations: Operation Platypus, Operation Agas in Saba and Operation Semut in Sarawak.
The story of Jim Bowditch forms a big part of the exhibition on Operation Platypus.
“If you look at his medal set, it is a story of somebody who had a huge contribution to the Second World War,” Ms Van-Dyke said.
“He was a rat of Tobruk and he also won a distinguished conduct medal for Platypus 8.”
Ms Van-Dyke was in Darwin to borrow the medals for use in the exhibition and gather information about Jim Bowditch’s experiences in Borneo.
His widow, Betty Bowditch said her husband did not talk about the war, but would stay up late, at times drinking while battling his war demons.
“There was one event that was really on his mind and he did have a bit of a breakdown at one stage,” Mrs Bowditch said.
“It was in the jungle coming to a Japanese boy and it was him or him, so he had to kill the boy, who was about the same age as him.”
“In the end he started to drink heavily and smoke heavily which impacted his health.”
Jim Bowditch is known in the Northern Territory as a crusading news editor whose efforts alerted the nation to major issues going on in the post-war dream land that was Australia.
Fifty years after the war, he was awarded the bronze star medal from the Americas for this body of work in the South Pacific.
He passed away in 1996, aged 78.
“I think he’d love it, I think they all do now, you know,” Mrs Bowditch said.
“It’s something they fought hard and brave and they’d be honoured. He’d be honoured.”