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Carole O Neill

Daughter of Ambon War Cemetery creator attends ceremony marking 75 years since the Battle of Ambon

12 January 2017

The daughter of an Australian Second World War veteran has attended a special service of commemoration at the Ambon War Cemetery, Indonesia, which her father built 50 years ago.

The ceremony involved the rededication of the cemetery and memorial by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to mark the 75th anniversary of the fall of Ambon to Japanese forces on February 3, 1942.

Carole O’Neill is the daughter of Major Keith Proctor who was instrumental in building both the Jakarta War Cemetery and the Ambon War Cemetery, while working for the CWGC in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Mrs O’Neill said: “I must admit, the experience of being back in Ambon was very special to me and it was great to meet the current staff of the CWGC.”

The service was also attended by five veterans of the Battle of Ambon, which ran from January 30 to February 3, 1942.

Ambon was one of a succession of Japanese victories in 1942, as their forces swept through South East Asia, from Hong Kong to Java, and from Papua New Guinea to the borders of India in a period of just six months.

Ambon War Cemetery is now the final resting place of more than 1,950 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War (1939-1945) – more than 1,000 of them Australian. The majority of those buried here died during the Japanese invasion in 1942, or subsequently as prisoners of war.  The cemetery is built on the site of the former prisoner of war camp, known as Tan Rouy.

The cemetery itself was completed 50 years ago this year, before its formal dedication in April 1968.

For Carole O’Neill’s father, building the Ambon War Cemetery was a big logistical challenge and she described some of the difficulties he encountered.

“A basic diet, the heat and humidity of the equator, little contact with home and English-speaking individuals and the non-arrival of supplies and materials, living conditions were difficult. In December 1964, he was forced by armed soldiers to leave Ambon and there followed years of negotiation and political discussion. It wasn't until 1967 the work on Ambon commenced again still with hardships.”

Major Proctor was awarded the MBE for his services to the CWGC and his citation from his Recommendation for MBE reads:

“In practice, it (the construction of Ambon War Cemetery) proved necessary to mount the operation from outside, and the materials required, together with the greater part of the foodstuffs necessary to feed the labour force, who were happy to accept much of their wages in kind, were bought from Australia. Due to meticulous planning beforehand, construction, which was started in January 1967, was finished in six months.

“The credit for the organisation and planning of both these operations (ie Jakarta cemetery and Ambon) is Proctor’s entirely and it was his initiative, personality and drive that translated his plans into practical achievement. Throughout the construction, he was present in person on the sites, almost on the Equator, in circumstances of some personal danger and hardship.”

Despite the danger, Mrs O’Neill said her father recalled many joys about working in Ambon, adding:

“The charm and richness of the gardens with tropical flowers especially where he worked six to seven days a week. The plentiful tropical fruits of pineapples, mangoes, breadfruit, paw paws. The abundance of fish in the clear waters of the bay. The coral reefs in the clear, aqua waters. Church bells ringing and ringing on the Sunday morning and afternoon. The friendliness of the caretaker, the Chinese contractor and the missionaries.”

Mrs O’Neill wore her father’s medals for the ceremony at Ambon and she provided the following account of his life.

“He was born on November 29, 1912, in a small country town in Victoria, Australia, one of five children. His early years were not easy as the family experienced many tragedies, including the premature death of their mother, along with the 1930-31 drought which concluded with the eventual surrender of the farm and the loss of their home and possessions in a fire. Keith tried to make a living at this time by prospecting, droving and labouring.
“In 1936, he joined the army as an engineer and in 1940, boarded the Mauretania for the Middle East. He fought against Rommel’s Forces at El Alamain and after retraining in Australia for jungle warfare, he was sent to fight in Borneo and New Guinea.

“After World War Two, he stayed in the permanent army and found himself still on the move with postings to Woomera, South Australia, Japan with the occupational forces and also Korea. His wife and child waited patiently at home. Then the family were off again to various states of Australia and various army camps.

“In 1959, Keith transferred to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission finding the travelling and the separation wasn’t yet over. For the next 13 years, he travelled Australia and the Pacific. The CWGC cemeteries are scattered far and wide, from small remote Australian towns with just one or two graves, such as Bealiba in Victoria or larger ones for example Adelaide River in the Northern Territory. Unlike today, when transport is relatively easy, the Pacific War Cemeteries were often hard to get to with numerous and complex journeys on aircraft, trains, ferries and rattling buses. On arrival he often spent months living in remote and difficult areas. He visited Rabaul (on the island of New Britain) Labuan (Sabah, Borneo) Japan, Fiji, New Caledonia, Singapore, Hong Kong, New Guinea and Indonesia just to name a few. But his accomplishments were particularly notable in Indonesia.”