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Looking for Harry Griffiths's Buffalo

[Harold Griffiths of RAAF 453 Squadron died in March 2004. A few months later, a message-board contributor who styles himself "BuffaloBil" decided to look for the island in the former Dutch East Indies where Griffith crashed in January 1942. This is his report:]


By BuffaloBil

On a recent trip to Singapore, I found myself with a free weekend and as Singapore is as exciting as narcolepsy, I decided to try and track down the site of Harry Griffiths's crash.

One of the major difficulties for anyone trying to locate WWII sites in Indonesia is the fact that all the place names have been changed from the original Dutch to modern Indonesian.

Various sources suggested Harry crashed on "Great Durian Island" - not on any current map of Indonesia. Luckily I have managed to locate a map produced by the US Army in 1944 that gives all the old names and enabled me to identifiy "Great Durian" as the modern island of Kundur in Riau province of Indonesia.

The economic powerhouse of Singapore and consequent high land values has pushed development off shore into the chain of islands including Kundur, owned by Indonesia, just to the south. Consequently, I found there was now a "high speed" (picture a "luxury coach" in Mexico) ferry service to Kundur that would take about two hours. I grabbed passport and ticket, and shot off on Friday afternoon. Strangely, the ferry was packed with single men, no famillies or tourists. In fact I was the only paleface on the vessel. What luck, I thought, the island must be quite unspoiled.

Er ... no. The main economic activity on Kundur Island now is what we in Australia would describe as horizontal folk-dancing ( ie - sex) of the cheapest and most desperate kind. It makes the seedy alleys of Bangkok look like the heights of sophistication and elegance. The only accomodation available was an eight storey brothel maquerading as a $12 per night hotel, where room service had an entirely different meaning to what the nice people at Sheraton generally intend.

In a post 9/11 world and as the only Western European on the island I became the immediate focus of attention for the entire population. A sort of reverse tourist attraction if you will. In Indonesia this sort of attention has one certain result and that is a visit from the semi-military police. In some parts of the country this can be a life threatening event but the boys in brown on Kundur were a very pleasant bunch. They carried out a relaxed but detailled interrogation over a cup of "kopi susu" ( coffee with condensed milk) at a warung (open air food stall) down the street.

Once they decided I was not (a) CIA (b) a pervert or (c) a missionary they were extremely helpful. They introduced me to the local English teacher at the high school who in turn brought me to the central mosque to meet the man who knew everything about Kundur and its history. It was the head Imam. He was 86 years old but fitter than most people half his age. He also carried out a penetrating interrogation but once satisfied took complete control and had police, teacher and stray kids running everywhich way.

There was a long and noisy debate about a suitable fee for their help, carried on in bahasa indonesian and local dialect (ie totally lost on me). Finally, with some ceremony the Imam announced that the fee would be a two hour English language lesson to be delivered at the High School, the following day. Now I was prepared for jungle, swamp, and malarial mosquito but teaching??

Next morning a convoy of motor scooters escorted me up to the school where I was formaly introduced to the staff (approx. one third of whom were Christians it was pointed out) and proceeded to give my best to two hundred wide-eyed pupils and the entire staff of the English Dept.

It turned out to be great fun, the kids were particularly interested in my own family, what music my son and daughter listened to, weather, what we did at work and all sorts of detail about life in OZ. I suspect that generations of kids from Kundur will now speak English with an Australian accent as there was a great deal of work on pronunciation but hey, that can't be a bad thing, can it?

After class the Imam arrived on the back of yet another motor scooter and told me he (now) remembered the plane crash well and would take me there.

An hour and a half by motorcycle then half an hour bushbashing through overgrown rubber plantations and we arrived at the site. I met the sons of the Chinese planter who found Harry semi-conscious in a shed and who were able to walk me through the whole saga from crash to rescue. When I spoke to Harry two years ago he was sure he had wandered for miles in the jungle. The reality was about 300 yards from the crash to where he was found.

The site answered one question that has puzzled me for some time. Many accounts of Buffalo crashes in this area talk about attempts to land in open fields that result in the aircraft somersaulting on touchdown. I think this is due to plantations of a bush called gembira, very like heather, dense and close to the ground. The berries from the gembira plant are used for dyeing batik clothing and plantations are common all over Western Indonesia. From the air the long, rectangular gembira plantations would look like the perfect emergency landing field but the moment the wheels dropped into the tough bushes they would have grabbed, stopped and caused the charactaristic nose over tail crash Harry and others describe.

Unfortunately Harry's plane was recovered by the Royal Navy in Jan. 1942 following his rescue and very little remains to be seen at the plantation. However in the heat and silence, with towering storm clouds building for the afternoon deluge suddenly Harry's lonely battle to survive didn't seem so far away.

Vale Harry! -- BuffaloBil