Reading for War
An Ordinary Man and his Exceptional War: The Jock McLaren StoryBy Alistair Pope May 21, 2021
A Taste of War
Robert Kerr, aka ‘Jock’ McLaren was born in Kirkcaldy in Central Scotland in 1902. This meant that by the time the war ended in 1918 he was too young to enlist … except he is listed as serving as a Private on the nominal rolls of the 51st Highland Division in France in 1918. It is not known if he took part in the defence against the German Spring Offensive (when the 51st was pushed back), but he was with the 51st for the final 100-Day offensive that ended the war.
Jock McLaren returned to Scotland and completed his studies as a Veterinary Surgeon, but like many war veterans he was restless. In the late 1920’s he immigrated to Queensland, where he married a local girl at the age of 36 and settled into the quiet life in Childers as a rural veterinarian.
The Clouds of War Returning
An apparently inevitable war with Japan was looming so he joined the Citizen Military Forces in early 1941 and then transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. In WW1 he had been too young to fight, but now at 39 he was too old for a combat unit! As a veterinarian with some medical knowledge, he was posted to a Field Workshop in the ill-fated 8th Division in Singapore. In February 1942 he became a prisoner of war (PoW) in Changi.
This is where the story should have ended (as it did for most), but McLaren had other ideas as he found life in Changi intolerable. With two others he successfully escaped and made his way north through Malaya. On this journey he developed an abiding hatred for the occupying Japanese Army as he came across the massacred bodies of many Chinese families. Unfortunately, he and his companions were recaptured after being betrayed to the Japanese by some Malay villagers. They were extremely lucky to be returned to Changi as several other escapees who were recaptured were summarily executed.
With little opportunity for a second escape from Changi, McLaren volunteered to join a group being transferred to a Forced Labour Camp in Borneo, with their ultimate destination being the infamous Sandakan Camp in which thousands died, with only a few surviving the war.
A Second Escape
McLaren again escaped from the PoW camp on Berhala Island by leading several Australians to steal a boat from a leper colony that the Japanese soldiers were loath to visit. In this small craft they ‘island-hopped’ north by paddling with a shovel for more than 450km until they reached Mindanao in the Philippines, arriving in June 1943. There they made contact with the legendary American Reserve Officer, LTCOL Wendell Fertig who had established a guerrilla band that had carved out a base in the deep jungle. Fertig had just managed to establish contact with the American military and proven their continued existence. A submarine was dispatched to provide Fertig’s group with weapons, medicine and communications – and evacuate the escapee’s. McLaren elected to stay on with Fertig’s group as a reconnaissance Patrol Leader, Coastwatcher and whaleboat ‘Captain’.
On one distant patrol Jock diagnosed himself with appendicitis. If the infected organ was not removed – and quickly - he knew he would die. He prepared for the operation by entwining coconut fibres for sutures, strapping a mirror to his knee to see what he was doing (albeit in reverse!) and then cut out his own appendix with a penknife, all without painkillers or anaesthetic. Finally, he stitched up the incision himself. As he said later, “I knew I had appendicitis and that if I did not do something I would die. The operation took four and a half hours. It was hell, but I came through all right.” Just two days later, he was on his feet once more and fleeing from the approaching Japanese.
Fertig was a maverick who did whatever he thought was necessary to harass the Japanese, no matter how unusual or extreme the idea may seem. He even ‘commissioned’ an anti-Nazi German ‘soldier of fortune’ into his band. He was an innovator who thought outside of the conventional warfare box so when McLaren proposed a particularly audacious plan, Fertig approved it. Jock and two Filipinos sailed their 8m whaleboat (which he had cheekily christened ‘The Bastard’) into the middle of a Japanese controlled harbour in broad daylight, machine-gunned the vessels there and mortared the docks before turning around and fleeing at a desperately slow speed. The amazing thing is that he repeated this exploit, causing the Japanese to improve their static base security leaving less manpower for patrolling and anti-guerrilla operations.
McLaren also assisted in keeping the Japanese from encroaching too close to Fertig’s Base Camp by regularly carrying out harassing raids on their bases and ambushing any patrols entering their domain. This ordinary man, by circumstances and through his own initiative had become an extraordinary warrior.
Yet his greatest success in his personal war resulted from coast-watching near a Japanese controlled port and army camp. As the war drew closer to the Philippines, the Japanese Army began consolidating their forces by withdrawing their army from some of the outlying islands. McLaren spotted a troopship and sent a report that it was moving large numbers of soldiers between islands. A nearby American submarine sank the vessel, drowning most of the 3,000 troops on board.
McLaren's numerous land and sea guerrilla actions so disrupted Japanese operations that (without any apparent self-awareness about how they were perceived by the Filipinos after all the atrocities they had committed) the Japanese placed a reward of 70,000 pesos on McLaren's head. Finally, on 20th April 1945, McLaren was withdrawn from Mindanao, transferred back under Australian command and assigned to Z Special Unit.
In late June 1945, McLaren and four men were parachuted into the jungle near Balikpapan on a reconnaissance mission ahead of the 7th Division’s amphibious assault that was due to take place in July. One man was seriously injured on landing and another was killed in an ambush. McLaren and the other two men were able to complete their reconnaissance mission and report the Japanese dispositions. McLaren took part in one last operation by successfully leading an eight-man section on a reconnaissance mission behind Japanese lines in Borneo. After the war in the Pacific ended, he remained in Borneo to help re-establish the civilian administration before returning to Australia in November 1945.
Awards and the Final Tragedy
On joining Fertig’s guerrillas, and after Australia was made aware of his operations, McLaren was promoted to Sergeant in 1943 and awarded a field commission promotion to Lieutenant in 1944. He finished the war a year later as a substantive Captain. It was not until after the war in 1948 that the awards he so richly deserved finally caught up with him and he received the Military Cross and Bar (MC & Bar) and a Mentioned in Dispatches (MiD). He also received the US Silver Star from General MacArthur.
As is often the case with those who have lived close to the edge for so long, returning to normal life proved difficult, so he accepted a position as a government veterinarian in the highlands of PNG. In 1956 he bought a coffee plantation in Wau.
Jock McLaren was the stuff of legends. Thousands of Japanese had tried but could not kill him, but like Achilles, he was not immortal. In an ironic tragedy he backed his vehicle into a dead tree near his home on 03 March 1956 and was killed by a piece of rotted timber falling on him.
- Richardson, Hal (1957). One-man War: The Jock McLaren Story. Adelaide: Griffin Press. OCLC 640747238
- Bastard Behind the Lines, The Extraordinary Story of Jock McLaren’s Escape from Sandakan and his Guerrilla War Against the Japanese by Tom Gilling, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2021
Internet websites: various, including:
- https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-most-epic-thing-anyone-has-ever-done (Hazel Lockey)
- https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/22531010?searchTerm=8th+Division+Changi (Trove)