The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Friday, November 11, 2011


Siap! (Ready!) The battle cry of the 1945 pemuda. Dr Frank Palmos (centre) with East Java Governor H Soekarwo and Western Australian Trade Officer Martin Newbery at the thesis handover.


Historian Dr Frank Palmos’ claim that the 1945 Battle of Surabaya was ‘Indonesia’s Gallipoli’ might leave many Indonesians puzzled.

But his apt description resonates with his fellow Australians. They’ll immediately understand even though the ragged, ill-armed Indonesian independence fighters lost. They started as ragamuffins, but they graduated as Revolutionaries

The 1915 invasion of Turkey on the beaches of Gallipoli Peninsula by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps was a debacle – but it led to the two countries’ soldiers creating their own ANZAC image and history, independent from Britain.

Likewise the prolonged stand by an untrained force in East Java was doomed when thrown against the war-hardened British and Gurkha troops equipped with tanks, planes and ships, fighting on behalf of the Dutch, desperate to retrieve their East Indies treasure.

The bamboo spear boys were determined not to let their loathed masters back when the Japanese occupation forces surrendered. They fought furiously in deadly street battles, mightily impressing their opponents.

The Allies had been misled into expecting a pushover by the Canute colonisers who couldn’t read the changing tides. The world took note. International support for a Dutch return began to ebb.

“The people of Surabaya were the first to be fully free Indonesian citizens,” said Dr Palmos. “They seized their city from the Japanese, defending it while extending the Republic’s first independent territory.

“They created a functioning civil service that went deep into East Java when Jakarta and the rest of the country was controlled by foreigners, even though Independence had been proclaimed in August.

“They had freedom for 99 days. About 100,000 eventually died, and when the Dutch took over the city was maybe 70 per cent empty.

“Until recently these important events haven’t been adequately addressed by local or international scholars for a number of understandable reasons.

“Most relate to the versions of history imposed by the first two presidents, Soekarno and Soeharto. They used Indonesia’s revolutionary history to portray themselves in pivotal roles and to buttress their administrations. Neither man fought in Surabaya.”

Dr Palmos will present Surabaya 1945; Sacred Territory to Soekarwo, the Governor of East Java to mark Heroes Day. It’s an academic work but Dr Palmos is no sequestered scholar.

After mastering Indonesian in villages and kampong, in 1964 he opened the first Australian news bureau in Jakarta. Few foreigners understood the language so the young reporter became an honorary simultaneous interpreter for diplomats and journalists covering President Soekarno’s speeches.

Later he reported on the Vietnam War. During the 1968 Tet Offensive he was the sole survivor of a Viet Cong ambush that killed four journalists. His book of the tragedy, Ridding the Devils, explores his post-war return, seeking the man who shot his colleagues when it was clear they were unarmed reporters. It’s also a scarifying account of post-stress trauma.

After working in Paris and the US Dr Palmos became an award-winning TV reporter. He also translated The Sorrow of War, the story of a Vietnamese soldier by novelist Bao Ninh. The work has been judged by the Society of Authors in London as one of the best 50 translations of the 20th century.

Work on his thesis, which may be published as a series of school-level books next year, began in 1996 when Dr Palmos retired from journalism, successfully challenged a near fatal rare disease and returned to study.

He ransacked archives in Indonesia and Britain, translated more than 1,500 pages from Indonesian into English, and videotaped interviews with scores of veterans and historians, like Retnowati Abdulgani-Knapp.

Her father, Roeslan Abdulgani who died in 2005, was a Revolutionary who later became UN ambassador. He bequeathed his papers to Dr Palmos, and these became his research starting point. The author ranks the diplomat’s account of the battle – 100 Days that shook Indonesia - as the best local history.

Other sources included Suhario Padmodiwiryo (Memoirs of a Student Soldier), and Irna Hadi Soewito, author of the memoirs of Brigadier-General Sungkono, the Inspector general in the army during Soekarno's presidency.

These writers and some veterans are expected to be at today’s ceremony, but the restless Australian still wants to meet others who may have escaped his net.

“I’m hoping to draw out of Surabaya, Malang, Mojokerto, Kediri, Sidoarjo and elsewhere memoirs that are probably lying about in family drawers and boxes left by departed veterans, or with luck, by living veterans,” he said.

“My work will bring about massive changes to the Internet ‘histories’ of Surabaya of the time. Almost all the current stories on the Battle of Surabaya have to be rewritten and replaced with genuine, original research. Most of the foreign literature on the Battle is based on counterfeit or flimsy reports.”

Frank Palmos life is a template for a do-it-yourself career in journalism. He was born in rural Victoria in 1940, the son of a Greek shopkeeper. He started work at 14 as a newspaper messenger boy knowing exactly what he wanted – to be a war correspondent. But the stairs were steep in an industry dominated by Anglo-Saxons.

Fortunately he was gifted with compensations; tenacity, curiosity, and the secret of migrant families’ success – a gluttony to learn. His knack of picking racecourse winners raised cash for books and travel.

Australian columnist and broadcaster Peter Russo, who was forever badgering his Eurocentric audience to understand their Asian neighbors, pushed the young journalist to focus on Indonesia.

When his newspaper opened a Jakarta office fresh Frank elbowed aside seasoned correspondents for the job because he’d single-mindedly seized the language and grappled the culture.

He was rewarded by witnessing the great jolts of history, like the coup that felled Soekarno and raised Soeharto, and to be in Vietnam before governments learned how to turn reporters into puppets.

“I’ve long held to the belief that we should add something to the worth of the world,” Dr Palmos said. “We should add knowledge, and it should be lasting.”

Does he think he’s achieved his goals?

“Yes, I do, I’m confident of that.”

(First published by The Jakarta Post 10 November 2011)

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