The Diamond Dakota Mystery

The Diamond Dakota Mystery


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781741147452
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 06/01/2007
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Juliet Wills is an award-winning journalist who has reported for CNN, major Australian television networks, and NHK in Japan. She has also written for newspapers and magazines and is currently a senior researcher for an Australian television program.

Read an Excerpt

The Diamond Dakota Mystery

By Juliet Wills, Marianne Van Velzen

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2006 Juliet Wills
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74115-839-7




Oil dripped from the engine of the Douglas DC-3 Dakota and sizzled on the steamy tarmac. Dutch pilot Captain Ivan 'Turc' Smirnoff sought shade under the wing of the aircraft, but it offered little respite from the stifling heat and humidity. The atmosphere at Andir airport seemed surreal and terrifying to Smirnoff and his crew, who anxiously waited for their passenger load and further instructions. Occasional machine-gun fire could be heard from the other side of the mountain pass, adding to their unease. Wrecked hangars and the remains of planes smouldered around them, a constant reminder of the danger they were in.

Soldiers on the outskirts of the airport terminal allowed through only those whose names were on the evacuation list. The plane's passenger load was limited, and military personnel who could continue the fight against the Japanese would be given priority. The civilian and military passengers selected for evacuation sat nervously in the terminal, aware of the many people outside desperate to take their place. Everyone wanted to get moving.

The aircraft radiated the sun's heat and Smirnoff 's uniform was wet with perspiration. The morning passed and the midday sun beat down through thick tropical clouds and still there was no word from military officials. The wait was excruciating. Time seemed to be moving in slow motion, out of sync with the action unfolding around them.

Smirnoff wished the clouds would break to ease the oppressive heat. A strong wind whipped up, blowing hats, bending trees and lifting the plane from its chocks. The Dakota looked as if it was champing at the bit. Thunder and lightning cracked in the distance, drowning out the gun fire. In peacetime no pilot would take to a sky so laden with monsoonal clouds. But this was war.

* * *

As Imperial Russia's second most decorated pilot in the First World War, Ivan Smirnoff was considered to be daring, cool and uncannily lucky by fellow pilots. He had shot down eleven German planes, a phenomenal number for the Eastern Front, and his bravery had earned him a raft of honours and the nickname 'Ivan the Indestructible'. His medals included the Croix de Guerre, the Cross of St George (awarded when he was a foot soldier), the White Eagle of Siberia and the Order of St George for exceptional bravery (the equivalent to the Victoria Cross).

The flight of refugees from war-torn countries was an all-too-familiar scenario for Smirnoff, who had been forced to flee his homeland after the Russian Revolution in 1917. He eventually ended up in England, where he joined the Royal Air Force. At the end of the First World War he joined KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. These were the pioneering days of civil aviation, when the endurance of planes and pilots was put to the test and when many didn't make it. Pilots such as Charles Lindbergh, Charles Kingsford Smith and Amelia Earhart took to the skies, breaking new ground and becoming media celebrities. Smirnoff became a famous international pilot in his own right, breaking record after record in the air, and was soon a household name in his newly adopted home. In 1933 he had flown what was then the longest air route in the world in just four days; it was a trip which normally took ten. The story made newspaper headlines around the globe.

The war in Europe had forced Smirnoff and his wife, Danish actress Margot Linnet, from their home in Amsterdam and the pair had relocated to the Dutch East Indies. Java was to be a haven away from the horror of war in Europe. But after the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Smirnoff was mobilised to help the Allies defend the Pacific.

* * *

The world was surprised by the speed at which the Japanese had been able to move through the Pacific. Singapore was attacked at almost the same time as Pearl Harbor, and within two days Japanese attacks on RAF fields in Singapore had destroyed nearly all of the RAF's front line aeroplanes. Vital aerial support for the army was lost before the actual ground attack on Singapore had even begun. The British forces never had time to regroup, and predictions of an attack by sea proved fatally wrong.

Lacking aerial support, the flagships of the British Navy, Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse, the Allies' principal defence, were unable to fend off repeated attacks from Japanese torpedo bombers and were sunk. These were the first of the capital ships sunk solely by air power while actively resisting attack. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later said of the event, 'In all of the war I have never received a more direct shock.'

By the end of December, the Japanese had captured the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and Hong Kong; Malaya fell on 11 January 1942 and, on 8 February, 23,000 Japanese soldiers attacked Singapore across the Johore Strait. Nearly 150,000 young men were captured and one in four would not survive the three and a half long years to war's end.

With all of Malaya and southern Sumatra under their control, the Japanese now concentrated on the islands and sea expanses of the East Indies, the last barrier between them and Australia. All along, the oil-rich East Indies had been one of their primary targets. The Americans had placed an oil embargo on the Japanese to protest their aggression in China. But the Japanese needed oil to fulfil their imperialistic goals. The full might of the Japanese army, navy and air force was now bearing down on Java.

The Allies proved no match for the Japanese. In a dramatic battle on the Java Sea on 27 February 1942, almost the entire Allied fleet was sunk within a few hours, while the Japanese escaped virtually unscathed. More than 2000 men lost their lives.

With Java now almost certain to fall, chaos and confusion erupted as terrified people sought passage further south to Australia and elsewhere.

The roads leading to and from the port were blocked with floods of people trying to escape by sea. Pilots all over Java prepared to move out their aircraft and as many military and civilian personnel as possible, principally through Australia. Even though Darwin had been bombed on 14 February 1942, to the people trapped on Java just about anywhere else seemed safer. Dutch flying boats were hidden at isolated rivers and dams, waiting for the cover of night.

When Smirnoff arrived back from an evacuation run to Sydney the night before, he was unaware that the Japanese had already landed on Java. In the early hours of the morning, invading forces had launched a three-pronged assault on the island. Poorly resourced defenders had no chance of fending off the attack and the Japanese were now marching on Bandung and Batavia. As soon as Smirnoff had landed, military officials ordered him to hide his aircraft until the next day as they attempted to coordinate the mass evacuation of the island. His Douglas DC-3 Dakota, the Pelikaan, had been refuelled, flown to a concealed airstrip and camouflaged. At daybreak, after a few hours' nap, Smirnoff and his crew — co-pilot Johan 'Neef' Hoffman, radio operator Jo Muller and aircraft mechanic Joop Blaauw — had returned to Andir airport, flying under cover of cloud. They were still awaiting further instructions.

There was no news on exactly how close the invading forces were but they weren't far away. Every hour the Allied forces could keep the Japanese at bay increased the chance of escape for those few lucky enough to be squeezed on board a ship or plane before the inevitable occupation. It was just a matter of time.

By now, the twilight had been lost in the stormy, blackened sky which blurred the passing of day to night. One by one on the hour, aeroplanes had taken off into the thunderous sky, yet still Smirnoff stood on the tarmac under the metal wings of his aircraft. Agitated people continued to argue with harried officials for places on planes. Against orders, some pilots with empty seats dashed off to get their families. Smirnoff was glad that Margot was safe and settled in Australia.

The clouds burst and heavy drenching rain pelted down, helping to drown out the sound of gun fire which had become louder and closer. Having completed their pre-flight checks the crew sought shelter in the cabin. The Japanese invasion forces were moments away and they were beginning to feel that the Pelikaan might well be the last plane left on Java.

Finally, at around 11.30 p.m., the Pelikaan's passengers made their way across the tarmac and mounted the stairs. Young and fresh-faced, Dutch Air Force Pilot Sergeant Leon Vanderburg was relieved to receive the phonecall ordering him to the airport for evacuation. He had been fighting on the front-line and watched all too many friends fall to the Japanese. The Allies had sent many pilots to defend Java, but there were few serviceable aircraft for them to fly. He hurried to the airport and quickly spotted the DC-3. He shook Smirnoff 's hand and boarded the plane.

For passenger Pieter Cramerus, it had been the most terrifying and eventful day of his life. When he and his commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Johannes Beckman, had driven north from Bandung to Kalidjati Air Base early that morning they had no idea the Japanese had landed. The road had seemed uncannily quiet as they made their way north past the Tangkuban Parahu volcano and on through pineapple and tea plantations. The quiet came to an abrupt end when the pair were stopped by Japanese soldiers and captured. Cramerus had managed to escape, but Lieutenant Commander Beckman was decapitated five days after he was captured.

Reporting to headquarters at Bandung after his escape, Cramerus was told he would be put on the urgent evacuation list and to make his way to the airport.

Dutch naval pilots Dick Brinkman and Heinrick Gerrits also climbed on board, as did a young, fit KNILM (East Indies airlines) employee with white hair, Hendrick van Romondt.

Pilots, mechanics and wireless operators were given priority passage, but leftover seats were given to women and children. Smirnoff advised he could take one more passenger. Charlie van Tuyn, an engineer on a Lodestar, had told his wife Maria to be ready to go with their young son, Jo. When she was advised by the official in the airport that there was a spot for her, she was filled with relief. The official pointed to Smirnoff 's plane and she hurried out the door, clutching her baby boy, towards the darkened outline of the Pelikaan.

As the gracious 25-year-old Dutchwoman approached the plane carrying her wide-eyed son, Smirnoff smiled. He'd spoken to Charlie van Tuyn earlier in the day; he was desperate to get his family out. She brushed aside her blonde hair and thanked Smirnoff for agreeing to take them to safety.

Dutch pilot Daan Hendriksz, already on board, was surprised at the arrival of Maria van Tuyn. He had noted women and children being smuggled onto the other planes, but it was too late to drive back to the plantation to collect his pregnant seventeen-year-old wife, Jacqueline. The night before, he had drifted in and out of sleep. He dreamt the plane he was in was under attack and burst into flames. That everyone around him was screaming. He cried out, waking Jacqueline. Unable to sleep, they had discussed their options. There didn't seem to be any. Staying was dangerous and so was leaving. Then the phonecall came ordering him to the airport for evacuation. Between the premonition, Jacqueline's pregnancy and a presumption that the pilot would be unwilling to take responsibility for civilian lives, Hendriksz had opted to leave Jacqueline with her family on the plantation near Bandung. But now, as he witnessed other women boarding the planes, he wished he had brought her with him.

Maria van Tuyn was offered the only seat on the DC-3; all the others had been removed to minimise weight. The co-pilot, Neef Hoffman, would join the other passengers and crew relegated to the uncomfortable wooden floor.

Out of the cockpit window, Maria could see only one plane left on the tarmac. It was Charlie's plane, a Lockheed Lodestar piloted by Gus Winckel. As it took off into the night sky, she wondered if he was as anxious about this flight as she was. It would be a great relief to see Charlie's face in Broome.

A ban on communication meant the airwaves were silent, but Jo Muller continued to listen for transmissions. Mechanic Joop Blaauw closed the cabin door as Captain Smirnoff, three crew members, and eight passengers prepared for take-off.

* * *

Lightning flashed around them and the night sky faded to black before the signal came to leave. Just as Smirnoff was about to start the engines, the door burst open and a gust of air swept through the cabin, blowing the cap off Hoffman's head. The group, already on edge, jumped at the intrusion. A red-faced man stood puffing in the doorway of the aircraft. Gathering his breath, he yelled out to catch the captain's attention, stepping over the passengers seated on the wooden floor. The last thing anyone on board wanted or needed was another delay. But the man ignored the agitated passengers and moved towards the cockpit. 'I know you're eager to get going, Captain, but this is urgent.' He handed Smirnoff a package wrapped in white paper with two impressive wax seals on it. 'It's very valuable,' he said. Normally, such a package would have documentation with it, but this was not a night for formalities or questions. Smirnoff threw it down beside him, to the obvious alarm of the red-facedman.

'Take very good care of it. It has great value,' he insisted, without disclosing its contents. 'An Australian bank will take delivery of it in Sydney.' Smirnoff placed it in the little cabinet containing his briefcase and confidential documents, and the man nodded with approval. 'Guard it safely!' the man repeated, then wished the pilot well, clambered back over the passengers and left the plane. The door was again sealed. Smirnoff hoped there would be no more delays.

Simultaneously engaging the starter and primer switches, Smirnoff waited for the propellers to turn four revolutions before the Wright Cyclone engines awoke one cylinder at a time, belching and coughing smoke. The plane groaned and creaked as it taxied into position ready for take-off. To Smirnoff, who had spent so long waiting to get going, the groans of the Douglas sounded like a song. He completed the last minute pre-flight checks before moving down the runway over bomb craters that had been hastily filled in earlier. As he released the brakes and advanced the throttle, the Pelikaan climbed into the night sky. It was now 1.15 a.m. local time. Only one other plane would make it out from Andir airport that night.

The thunderclaps and lightning melded with the roaring of the guns as the defenders on the outer perimeter of Bandung attempted to keep the Japanese at bay, a frightening sound-and-light show as the weather played to the drama on the stage below. Black clouds and driving rain soon cut all visibility. Smirnoff would have to navigate the high mountains around Bandung using only his instruments.

As the plane banked to the south, heading for Broome on the north coast of Australia, Captain Smirnoff breathed a sigh of relief; they were finally on their way.




As the Dakota flew over the Indian Ocean towards Broome, Smirnoff remained on the lookout for Japanese fighter planes. Japan did not want Australia to become a springboard for a US counter-offensive and was considering invasion. Since the bombing of Darwin — with the loss of 243 lives — planes evacuating Allied servicemen and displaced civilians were moved through Broome. In the ten days before Java fell, 8000 Dutch and Allied civilians would be airlifted off the island, with most passing through the once-remote town. Despite unreliable communications, Broome became one of the most vital Allied operational centres in the Pacific War.

When Smirnoff had landed in Broome on his last evacuation run five days earlier, the pearling village had seemed a world away from the chaos ripping through Asia, but as the Pelikaan neared its planned destination on 3 March, the town would face its darkest hour.

* * *

The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, the local Japanese population of Broome, which outnumbered the Europeans, had been interned. It was a disaster for the livelihood of the town, which relied on the skill and experience of the Japanese pearl divers and lugger crews. For the rest of Australia it was easy to hate a distant enemy, but in Broome the Japanese had been an integral part of life for half a century.

They could have sailed off in the luggers but they chose not to, making no trouble as they were quietly rounded up and taken to the jail. The luggers were pulled ashore for the lay-up season. Most would never sail or see the pearling grounds again.

By February the whole north coast of Australia feared imminent invasion and local women and children were evacuated south — but not all agreed to go. Biddy Bardwell operated the Broome telephone exchange and post office. When Inspector Cowie, the local police chief, had impressed upon her the need to leave, she told him in no uncertain terms that if he thought that she, Marjorie Bardwell, would let herself be shipped out of town 'like a common refugee', he had better think again.


Excerpted from The Diamond Dakota Mystery by Juliet Wills, Marianne Van Velzen. Copyright © 2006 Juliet Wills. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


PART ONE Flight, death and survival,
CHAPTER ONE Evacuation,
CHAPTER TWO Destruction,
CHAPTER FOUR Death and desperation,
CHAPTER SIX Beagle Bay rescue,
CHAPTER SEVEN Where are the diamonds?,
PART TWO Diamonds galore,
CHAPTER EIGHT The old pearler,
CHAPTER NINE The beachcomber,
CHAPTER TEN The treasure,
CHAPTER ELEVEN An attack of conscience?,

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