East Indies
by Jack McKillop

     The East Indies are a large group of islands that extend in a wide belt along both sides of the Equator for more than 3,800-miles (6,116-kilometers) between the Asian mainland to the north and west and Australia to the south. In World War II, these islands constituted the Netherlands East Indies (NEI) (now the Republic of Indonesia).  The East Indies consists of 17,508 islands in four groups:

This article does not cover Borneo and New Guinea; they are covered in two separate articles.


     In the 14th century, the Indonesian archipelago thrived with many kingdoms and a spice trade controlled by Arabs. The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese in 1498. The Dutch war of independence against Spain, and the Spanish and Portuguese union disrupted Dutch access to spices brought to Europe by the Portuguese. Wishing, therefore, to ship spices from Asia themselves, the first Dutch expedition set sail for the East Indies in 1595. When it made a 400 percent profit on its return, other Dutch expeditions soon followed, but the competing merchant companies cut into their own profits. Recognizing the potential of the East Indies trade, the Dutch government amalgamated the companies into the United East India Company (VOC).
     To pursue a monopoly, the VOC was granted a charter to wage war, build fortresses, and conclude treaties across Asia. In areas where local rulers were considered too weak, the VOC used violence to gain control and these became the first truly colonized areas. A capital was established at Batavia (now Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia), which became the center of the VOC's Asian trading network. To their original monopolies on nutmeg, mace, cloves and cinnamon, the company later added coffee, sugar and opium plantations and safeguarded their interests by taking over surrounding territory. The costs of its military operations and corruption led to the company's bankruptcy in the late eighteenth century. VOC was formally dissolved in 1800 with its colonial possessions in the Indonesian archipelago—including much of Java, parts of Sumatra, much of the Moluccan Islands, and the hinterlands of their ports such as Makasar on Celebes Island and Kupang on Timor—were nationalized under the Dutch Republic as the Netherlands East Indies (NEI).
     In 1811, British forces occupied several Dutch East Indies ports including Java but Dutch control was restored in 1816. Under the 1824 Anglo-Dutch Treaty, the Dutch secured British settlements in Indonesia, such as Bengkulu Province in Sumatra, in exchange for ceding control of their possessions in the Malay Peninsula and Dutch India. The resulting borders between British and Dutch possessions remain between Malaysia and Indonesia.
     From about 1840, Dutch national expansionism, not profit, saw them wage a series of wars to enlarge and consolidate their possessions in the outer islands. Motivations included, the protection of areas already held; the intervention of Dutch officials ambitious for glory or promotion; and to establish Dutch claims throughout the archipelago to prevent intervention from other Western powers during the European push for colonial possessions. As exploitation of Indonesian resources expanded off Java, most of the outer islands came under direct Dutch government control or influence.
     Although the Netherlands itself was overrun by the Germans in 1940, the Dutch government fled to the United Kingdom to continue the struggle. Much of the funding for the exiled government came from the oil fields of the NEI, but the Dutch military forces in the area were not strong, consisting of the equivalent of about three divisions of indifferently trained infantry (mostly militia), perhaps 150 largely obsolete aircraft, and naval forces whose largest units were light cruisers.
     The population of the NEI totaled over 70 million in 1941. This included 220,000 Dutch, of whom 80% were blijers born in the NEI and 20% were trekkers, administrators and business people on temporary assignment from Holland. The rest of the population was composed of 70 million Indonesians, 1.3 million Chinese, and 120,000 Arabs and other Asians, plus thousands of poorly counted primitive tribesmen in remote areas. The area produced large quantities of sugar, rubber, spices, quinine and other botanical drugs, timber, rice, copra and other vegetable products. More important to the Dutch were mineral products such as oil, tin, bauxite, manganese, nickel, copper, coal, gold and other precious metals and commodities. The NEI produced 90% of the world's quinine and 30 percent of its rubber.
     Java had a good road and rail network, Sumatra less so, and the remainder of the islands had little infrastructure except in the major cities. The road network totaled 43,450-miles (69,930-kilometers) mostly on the two main islands. Coastal steamers were important. Railroads were limited to 4,585-miles (7,379-kilometers), almost all on the two main islands. There were 1,378 telegraph stations in the area and 17 cities with populations over 50,000 people.
     Conquest of the oil fields of the NEI was the initial Japanese war objective. The Japanese began the conquest on 10 January 1942 when their troops landed in Borneo (q.v.). This was followed by the invasion of Celebes (now Sulawesi) on 23 January, Ambon on 30 January, Sumatra on 14 February, Bali on 18 February, Timor on 20 February and Java on 1 March.
     Two days after the surrender of Japan in August 1945, Sukarno, an influential nationalist leader, declared independence and was appointed president. The Netherlands tried to reestablish their rule, and an armed and diplomatic struggle ended on 27 December 1949, when in the face of international pressure, the Dutch formally recognized Indonesian independence (with the exception of the Dutch territory of West New Guinea, which was incorporated into Indonesia following a 1962 New York Agreement, and the UN-mandated Act of Free Choice of 1969).

Morotai, Naval Advance Base

     Naval Advance Base Morotai was located in the Moluccan Islands (now Maluku Islands. 03°09'S, 129°23'E) which consists of an estimated 1,027 islands and islets and are located east of Celebes (now Sulawesi), west of New Guinea, and north and east of Timor. The total area is 328,187-square miles (850,000-square-kilometers); total land area is 28,767-square-miles (74,505-square-kilometers). The islands were originally known to Europeans as the Spice Islands and they drew Indian, Chinese, Arab and eventually European traders in search of cloves and nutmeg. In 1511, the Portuguese built their first fort in the area on the island of Ternate, and cornered the clove trade. The Dutch, who arrived in 1599, mounted the first serious threat to Portuguese control of Moluccan’s treasures and armed conflicts broke out, taking a heavy toll from the island populations as well as the rival European powers. When the Dutch finally emerged as victors they enforced their trade monopoly with an iron fist. Whole villages were razed to the ground and thousands of islanders died.
     The British briefly occupied the Moluccans during the Napoleonic Wars, but Dutch rule was restored in 1814 but compulsory cultivation of spices in the province was not abolished until 1963. Now fish and other sea products are Maluku’s major sources of revenue, but nickel, oil, manganese and various kinds of timber also contribute to the province’s wealth.
     During World War II, the Allies planned for re-entry into the Philippine Islands requiring the securing of Morotai Island (02°17'N, 128°26'E) as a stepping stone designed to isolate Japanese forces on nearby Halmahera Island, which would otherwise have been used to flank any movement into the southern Philippines. Morotai Island, is a rugged, forested island lying to the north of Halmahera Island. The island lies about 10-miles 16-kilometers) east of the northern tip of Halmahera, is 28-miles (46-kilometers) wide by 48-miles (77-kilometers) long, and the total land area is 690-square-miles (1,787-square-kilometers). The Gila Peninsula, 6-miles (9.7-kilometers) long and 1-mile (1.6-kilometers) wide, at its southern end is flat, coral sand, covered by fine topsoil, planted with coconut groves. The remainder of Morotai is mountainous and heavily covered with forests, which provided suitable timber. At the northeast corner of the Gila Peninsula, about 1,500-feet (457-meters) of shore is ideal for landing ship, tank (LST) landings. The climate is tropical, and the moderately heavy annual rainfall is evenly distributed throughout the year.
     The U.S. Army landed on Morotai on 15 September 1944 and seized the area around the Gila Peninsula to build airfields and a naval base. The Japanese had anticipated that the Allies would land on Halmahera to the south and had only about 500 troops on Morotai and these troops withdrew to the mountains in the north of the island and were never a serious threat. The Morotai planners had planned for two airfields. They expected that a fighter strip could quickly be prepared at the site of the abandoned Japanese field, Pitoe Drome (02°02' 09"N, 128°19' 11"E), in southwest Morotai, and a strip there was to be in operation no later than D plus 2. During the next two days it was determined that a fighter strip could be constructed in the Pitoe Drome area but no bomber field could be developed there. A search for bomber field sites, of utmost importance for the support of subsequent operations, was begun immediately, and on D plus 3 it was determined that first priority should be given to a site adjacent to the beach at Gotalalamo village, on the north shore of Pitoe Bay east of the Gila Peninsula. Clearing was begun at this site the next day, and the airfield ultimately constructed there was designated Wama Drome (02°02' 43"N, 128°19' 29"E).
    Work by Australian and U.S. engineers began on Pitoe Drome and the first fighters landed on 29 September. The site was finally abandoned and relegated to the status of an emergency field which came to be known as Pitoe Crash Strip. Several factors influenced the decision to abandon the site. Japanese air reaction had been so ineffectual that the need for a fighter base on Morotai was not as urgent as had been expected. Aircraft based on Navy escort aircraft carriers, some of which remained in the Morotai area for weeks, were able to keep away most of the Japanese planes, and their efforts were supplemented by long-range land-based fighters from Sansapor, Dutch New Guinea (qv). Moreover, the line of approach which planes had to land on Pitoe Crash Strip interfered with that of the more important bomber base, Wama Drome. Finally, the terrain at the crash strip was by no means as well drained as that at other locations on the Doroeba Plain, and it was necessary to expend much engineer effort to keep the strip operational.
     Construction at Wama Drome was seriously delayed from D plus 5 through D plus 10 by a series of heavy rain storms; on some of those days it was too wet even to clear brush. Japanese air attacks and many red alerts, sounded whenever enemy aircraft approached Morotai, also stopped construction from time to time. But perhaps the most serious delaying factor was a lack of good surfacing material. It had been anticipated that good surfacing material would be found on Morotai as it had been on other islands with a coral base, but the Morotai coral alternated between a fine sand practically useless for airdrome surfacing and coral rocks which, almost as hard as granite, required much time and effort to break up. Only a few small deposits of intermediate grade coral could be found. Battling almost continuously with soggy ground and tropical cloudbursts, engineers managed to have 4,000-feet (1,219-meters) of Wama Drome operational by 4 October. On that day the first planes to be based permanently on Morotai began using the field, on which emergency landings had been made since 30 September. However, Wama Drome did not satisfy the second construction objective--completion of a 7,500-foot (2,286-meter) strip for medium and reconnaissance bombers by 10 October--although ultimately it was extended to 5,000-feet (1,524-meters). Clearing aimed at the accomplishment of the third objective, a strip 6,000-feet (1,829-meters) long capable of extension to 7,000-feet (2,134-meters), by D plus 45.
     Principally as a result of terrain difficulties and inadequate gasoline storage facilities, fields in the Palau Islands were not ready in time to provide any support for the invasion of Leyte Island in the Philippine Islands on 17 October. It became obvious that if any land-based air support for the invasion of the Philippines was to be made available, it would have to come from Morotai. Morotai-based aircraft flew no sorties against Leyte, but they did provide support by flying many missions over Mindanao Island in the Philippine Islands and other islands in the southern Philippines. On 7 October Morotai-based fighters began flying cover for Allied Air Forces bombers which, based at fields further to the rear, were striking Mindanao and the Visayan Islands. B-25 Mitchell medium bombers began operations against Mindanao from Morotai on the 13 October. Six days later Allied Naval Forces' PV-1 Venturas and PB4Y-1 Liberator reconnaissance bombers, operating under Allied Air Forces control, began missions against targets in the Philippines and the Netherlands East Indies. By 17 November, Royal Australian Air Force aircraft began operating from Wama Drome.
      During early October, Morotai-based fighters also flew cover for several large-scale bombing attacks against the Japanese oil center at Balikpapan, Borneo, and ultimately Allied planes based on Morotai completed neutralization of Japanese air power throughout those sections of the Indies within range. The Morotai fields, secured at an extremely low cost, were well worth the taking.
     After the war, Pitoe Drome was abandoned but Wama Drome became one of the largest U.S. Army Air Forces’ Fifth Air Force aircraft reclamation centers in the Pacific. A smelting operation was established, and USAAF planes from all over the region were flown there to be scrapped. Despite scrapping, the island was crammed full of aircraft and vehicles until 1988 when it was cleared in a final scrap drive. The scrap was taken to Krakatau Steel Mill in Java. Pitoe Drome is now Pitu Airport.
     Naval Advance Base Morotai was established to provide an operating base for motor torpedo (PT) boats and land- and seaplanes, as well as repair facilities for small landing craft, with a supplementary communication system and hospital. The first Seabees landed on 27 September to build an advance base and a naval air facilities camp. Construction at the advance base involved erection of tents for a 1,000-man camp for the Seabees and 24 Quonset huts for the base. The Seabees also erected two steel towers for the radio station, two frame buildings, four 6,800-cubic-foot (193-cubic-meter) refrigerators, a boat-repair pier, a personnel pier, and a pontoon drydock. At the air-facilities camp, tents provided living quarters for 1,800 officers and men, and Quonset huts were used for the radio station and ships' service. Frame structures with canvas roofs were set up for such facilities as sick bay, galley, storage, shops, and offices. Roads, walkways, and power and water systems to supplement these activities were then installed.
     Water was piped from wells drilled by the Army on the north end of the peninsula. Later, when further developed by the Seabees, these wells provided a plentiful supply of fresh water and replaced the stills which had been necessary during the first two months. The Seabees also erected and operated a sawmill which produced 800,000-board-feet (1,888-cubic-meters) from native woods. A 50-bed dispensary, with additional facilities, was constructed of 18 Quonset huts and three frame buildings which were used for administration, galley, and storage. The power-distribution system for the whole base included three 75-kilowatt generators, two 50-kilowatt generators, and one 15-kilowatt generator. The base was complete and usable by 30 November 1944, except for the hospital unit. Naval planes used the Army airstrips.
     On nearby Soem Soem Island (now Pulau Sumsum, 02°03' 29"N, 128°15' 04"E), PT Advance Base Four was established to service three PT-boat squadrons. The camp consisted of tents, except for four Quonset huts which were used for storehouses. Here, also, a dispensary was established with a capacity for 1,000 men. The main task of the PT-boats was to intercept and destroy Japanese barges carrying troops and/or supplies from Halmahera Island to reinforce the Japanese still left on Morotai. They also attacked and shot up Japanese camps and facilities on Halmahera.
     The outstanding project for this area was the assembly of a pontoon Liberty-ship pier. The 431-foot (131-meter) wharf section was made up of four 6-by-18-foot (1.8-by-5.4-meter) pontoon barges and six 3-by-18-foot (0.9-by-5.4-meter) pontoon bridge sections, with necessary hinges, piles, cable, and incidentals, completely fabricated at Milne Bay. All sections and equipment were towed by two Navy tugs from Milne Bay to Morotai, a distance of 1,700-miles (2,736-kilometers). The first ship used this facility on 8 October 1944, just 11 days after the Seabees arrived. Japanese action during the construction period was confined tonight air attacks; they flew 81 missions between 12 September and 1 February with the last attack coming on 22 March 1945.
     Naval Advance Base Morotai was disestablished on 21 January 1946. Part of the equipment, materials, and installations were turned over to the Royal Australian Navy, under Lend-Lease agreements. The rest was sold to the Netherlands East Indies Government.

Tjilatjap, Naval Advance Base

     Tjilatjap (07° 44'S, 109° 00'E) (now Cilacap) was the only ocean port of any significance on the south coast of Java. It had a small anchorage and narrow channel, and correspondingly limited facilities. It was defended on 8 December 1941 (7 December in Hawaii) by a reinforced battalion of mostly militia.
     On 15 January 1942, the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) Command was established at Batavia (now Jakarta), Java to control the military forces of the four nations. The American naval elements of this new command were the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Fleet that had been based in the Philippine Islands and moved to Soerabaja (now Surabaya) on the eastern end of Java on 1 January 1942. U.S. Naval Forces Southwest Pacific Area established headquarters at Tjilatjap which became a base for auxiliary vessels.
     As the naval bases at Batavia and Surabaya came within range of Japanese bombers, Allied submarines and light warships retreated to the relative safety of Tjilatjap, and such few supplies and reinforcements as still got through to Java came through the port.
     On 10 February, two submarine tenders, USS Holland (AS-3) and USS Otus (AS-20) arrived from Australia to remove Rear Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, Jr., and his Asiatic Fleet Submarine Force Staff. Holland returned to Australia before the end of the month while Otus escorted the damaged light cruiser USS Marblehead (CL-12) to Ceylon.
     On 1 March the Japanese Army landed at three points on the north coast of Java and all ships in Tjilatjap harbor were instructed to disperse to safety. This resulted in the naval forces of ABDA to be dissolved. The Japanese occupied Tjilatjap by 7 March and the Royal Dutch East Indies Army surrendered the next day.