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'It was life or death': the plane-hijacking refugees Australia embraced

Luke Henriques-Gomes
·17-min read

Let’s conduct a quick thought experiment: what would happen if one day, in the middle of a civil war on a small island unknown to most, a group of refugees forced themselves on to an air force plane and demanded to be taken to Australia?

To which far-flung detention centre would they be sent? How long would their jail sentences be? Or would they simply be sent back home – possibly to die?

Surely the group would not have been asked a simple question after only a few days in a cell: “Which Australian state would you like to call your new home?”

In September 1975 my grandfather, Abilio Henriques, was among 44 refugees who were asked this very question by Australian immigration officials in Darwin. He had come from then Portuguese Timor, now Timor-Leste, on board the only Royal Australian air force plane ever hijacked.

After he and his colleagues were released, my grandfather was joined by the rest of his family in Melbourne, where he made a career on the tramways. Others who followed the same route included Abel Guterres, later Timor-Leste’s ambassador to Australia, and Feliciano Da Costa, a barefoot, illiterate teenager who had been serving sandwiches and drinks at an airport bar before he scurried on to the plane.

Until now, little has been published about this remarkable journey and the unlikely reprieve these refugees enjoyed when they arrived in Australia.

Newspapers around the world carried stories of the hijack the following day, including a page three article in the Guardian. But the story quickly faded to a footnote as the situation in Timor worsened. The Australian pilots were sworn to secrecy.

My grandfather’s recollections have swirled in my mind for years. What has always fascinated and moved me was that he was allowed to stay.

That he and his mates were offered welfare and housing, found work, raised families, and became citizens after coming to Australia on a hijacked plane, is almost incomprehensible to someone whose job involves covering contemporary politics.

So I decided to try to track down the RAAF crew who flew my grandfather and the others to safety, to say thanks, and to retrace one of the more remarkable stories in Australia’s military and immigration history.

A mercy mission

The story starts in the middle of 1975, with Timor in the midst of a civil war after the fall of the dictatorship in Portugal opened the way for rapid moves towards independence for its colonies.

By early September, Fretilin, a leftwing nationalist front, controlled the capital, Dili, while the UDT, a more conservative group that favoured a continued association with Portugal before independence, had its stronghold in Baucau, 125km to the east.

Waves of refugees fled to Indonesian West Timor. Others made it to Australia by sea, including my mother and my uncle, who arrived in Darwin with about 1,000 others on the Norwegian vessel the Lloyd Bakke.

The Whitlam government was wary of getting drawn into the conflict but it approved the use of RAAF aircraft to help establish an International Committee of the Red Cross presence on the island.

Among them was a Caribou A4-140, crewed by 27-year-old Pilot Officer Gordon Browne, Flying Officer Keirman French, 24, and Loadmaster Bill Crouch. The flying kangaroo on the plane was replaced with Red Cross insignia, and the crew instructed not to carry weapons.

Browne, using notes left to him by Crouch, wrote in an RAAF veterans’ magazine in 2017 how for several days they ran Red Cross personnel and medical equipment from Darwin and Dili, with stops in Baucau and Atauro, the small island north of the capital where the Portuguese administrators had fled.

On 4 September the Caribou flew to Baucau to pick up three nuns bound for Darwin, with the three crew accompanied by their Darwin-based squadron leader and intelligence officer, Stan Harding, and André Pasquier, the Swiss head of the Red Cross operation in Timor.

The town by then was gripped with fear, as Fretilin forces approached from the west.

Refugees who made it to Australia had spoken of massacres in other parts of the island; some claimed bodies had been scattered through Dili’s streets. The Red Cross estimated between 2,000 and 3,000 eventually died in the civil war.

UDT’s depleted forces – essentially untrained men from the surrounding villages – were based at the airport, expecting Fretilin to hit the town with mortars at any moment.

My grandfather, a UDT supporter who worked at the airport’s weather bureau, had learned the RAAF plane would touch down that afternoon.

So he drove off in his Land Rover to pick up some friends including Duarte Freitas, who was a nurse at the town hospital and another prominent UDT member in Baucau. He recalls telling Freitas: “If you want to live, come with me.”

“I left everything,” says Freitas, who went on to work for decades in the Victorian health system.

By 2pm, the Caribou flew into Baucau, expecting a quick stop to pick up the nuns before returning to Darwin.

But when it touched down, the crew noticed a white flag flying from the control tower. A crowd of soldiers and civilians were gathered on the tarmac. “I was gobsmacked,” Browne says.

‘I accept your surrender’

When they landed, the Caribou crew discovered to their astonishment that a few hours earlier another Australian trio – Michael Darby, John Whitehall and Bill Bancroft – had swung into the town on a chartered plane.

Their aid organisation, the Australian Society for Intercountry Aid-Timor, had been set up in Dili, where Whitehall and his team of volunteer doctors were helping to treat the wounded Timorese. Darby, a former Liberal party candidate from Sydney, tells me they chartered a plane to fly to Baucau that day in search of a “girl with a hole in their heart” who needed to be airlifted to Australia.

The girl was nowhere to be found, though the newspapers reported her evacuation to Australia with Darby weeks later. Instead, Darby says, he was met at Baucau airport by UDT soldiers who told him they wanted to surrender.

“Being a bit naive, I suppose, I thought, ‘I can handle this, I accept your surrender,’” Darby says.

He claims that with the help of a Timorese airport worker, he radioed Australian officials and told them to send a plane to evacuate people from Baucau. The response, Darby says, was polite, but there was no commitment. They also went to the pousada, a local hotel, to get a white sheet.

Darby puts it this way: “I reasoned that if I got the nuns and the UDT leadership out, then that would end the civil war, which would be a good idea for everybody.”

To say the RAAF crew and the Red Cross were not pleased with Darby and Whitehall’s excursion into diplomacy would be an understatement.

“We had this most unreal conversation,” Whitehall tells me. “I couldn’t believe my ears.”

Whitehall claims that Pasquier said the soldiers couldn’t surrender without authorisation from their leadership. For this reason, their surrender to Darby and Whitehall – Australian civilians – was not official.

Pasquier says that given the International Red Cross’ strictly apolitical stance, he was never properly involved in discussions about a surrender. “I had very little contact with Michael Darby,” he tells me over the phone from Geneva. “I never understood what he was doing in Timor, what his objectives were, what his role was.”

Official or not, the surrender was on.

‘Reluctantly’ hijacked

The RAAF team had no idea about Darby and Whitehall’s diplomatic exploits and they were under strict orders not to take any unauthorised passengers.

But an anxious crowd had gathered around the aircraft and some of those gathered indicated that they wanted to board the plane.

Among those at the airport were the Brandão family of six, including siblings Helder, Maria and Lúcia.

Their father, Albino, had been a local administrator under the Portuguese and had subsequently taken up arms for UDT. He stood out in Timor as a small, fair-skinned man with red hair.

“He was persona non grata,” says Maria Burwood, of the Brandão family, who now live in New South Wales.

She says she saw her dad crying as the situation at the airport became increasingly tense.

“I remember my father waving a gun around at these poor Australians,” she says.

My grandfather remembers levelling threats at the pilots, too. He says he told them that if the group was not evacuated, they would kill the pilots and then kill themselves.

Yet it was a solidly built Portuguese police officer with a big, bushy moustache the Australian crew were most concerned about. During Portuguese colonial rule, Antonio Maria Deus Gil was said to be a feared figure among the Timorese, known simply as “polícia Gil”.

As they later told government officials in a tape obtained by Gil’s lawyer, David Avery, Gil was “hysterical”.

“There was one person I had to disarm twice, and he was called Gil,” Darby says. “He’d taken his weapon, and I’d talked him into putting it down again and putting it back on the pile.”

On the third occasion, Darby told Harding, the RAAF squadron leader: “He’s about to pick up a weapon, do you want me to take action?”

Harding replied: “I told you before, you’re only a fucking civilian.”

So Darby stayed put and Gil went again to the pile of weapons on the ground, grasped a G3 automatic 7.62 rifle, and drew a grenade from his pocket. The weight of his pockets suggested he had a few more, too.

He walked up to the Australian crew, loaded gun in hand. “He had his finger on the trigger,” my grandfather says. “And he said to them in Portuguese, it’s a bit of a nasty word, ‘Eu mato esse cabrão’ [I’ll kill that bastard].” More expletive-laden threats spilled from Gil’s mouth. He was shouting and gesticulating wildly.

Despite the language barrier, nothing was lost in translation. The Australians didn’t move. “He was frothing at the mouth,” says French. “They wanted out, they wanted to go wherever we were going.”

My grandfather claims he told Gil: “Keep pointing the gun but don’t shoot.” Whether Gil was in a state to be taking advice is another question.

“I just thought, I’m not going to move, I’m not going to resist or all hell could break loose,” says French.

Gil plonked himself on the tailgate of the plane. It wouldn’t take off unless the refugees went too. “It was a bit tense,” French says, drily. “He’d completely snapped.”

Browne radioed Australia. The situation was deteriorating, he told them. Could they take the refugees too? He asked for immediate instructions.

Every half hour, they asked for an update. There wasn’t one. If they hadn’t been specifically told not to take the refugees, “we could have done it,” Browne says. “But we don’t defy orders, that’s the way we were.”

At the same time, they were running out of light. The Baucau airport sits on a plateau, about 6km from the town centre. The runway runs north-south, enveloped by sea and mountains, and there were no lights on the tarmac.

After about two hours, Gil lost patience. Maybe the Australian crew did, too. Aggressively, Gil motioned to the pilots to load the plane and waved the Timorese on board.

“We were reluctantly being hijacked,” says Browne. “But we had sympathy for them, if I might say.”

The Timorese agreed to leave their weapons on the tarmac and climbed on board, as did Pasquier, and Darby, Whitehall and Bancroft. By all accounts, it was an orderly process.

Da Costa, the attendant at the airport snack bar, might have been the last on board. He had been helping UDT at the airport during the civil war, and feared the arrival of Fretilin. As the passengers climbed on to the plane, he had gone over to bid farewell to some acquaintances. My grandfather and his friend and future colleague on the Melbourne tram network, José Cruz, told Da Costa to jump on the plane, and in a split second, his life changed.

‘We should have crashed’

As Timorese soil disappeared from view, Da Costa thought, “I’ve just left my parents, my brothers and sisters. Who’s going to feed me?’ We didn’t know that social security existed back then.”

For many of the Timorese, it was their first trip on a plane.

When all the seats were taken, about 15 children sat in between them and others sat on the floor. Burwood remembers it as like “being inside a whale”. She threw up violently all the way to Darwin.

While the Timorese tucked into the few rations on board – bottles of water, some lolly bars and cans of spam and pineapple – the pilots were concerned that the plane was overloaded.

The Caribou was meant to carry no more than 32 passengers. Media reports and the declassified government accounts vary, but as many as 54 people might have been on board, including 44 refugees: 19 men, 11 women and 14 children. If an engine failed, they would be in deep strife.

“We got the plane chockers,” says French. “We were so heavy, we should have crashed.”

The crew radioed Darwin again. They told the officials not to worry about getting clearance for further passengers – because they’d been hijacked.

“The silence was deafening,” says Browne. “They said, ‘We’ll get back to you because we need to make arrangements for your arrival.’ We said, ‘Yeah, we bet you do.’”

In Darwin, the airport was closed and other flights were diverted. As the Caribou approached the city after about two and half hours, the officials on the ground were still not ready. Low on fuel, the plane was forced to circle for some time, much to the frustration of the crew, and the Timorese, who were once again becoming anxious. “If you don’t clear us, we’ll be landing into the first floor of the Travelodge,” French recalls saying.

Eventually, they got the go-ahead. It was the best landing French had done in some time. “The adrenaline was pumping,” he says. “We both had low level fuel lights on approaching Darwin, and that’s 10 minutes of fuel.”

A peach lipstick

The arrival of the hijacked plane was splashed all over the front page of the NT News, and made papers as far afield as Akron, Ohio, Tampa Bay, Florida, and Calgary in Canada.

Once on the tarmac, Darby’s trio tried to join the Timorese who were being shepherded on to a bus, but they were swiftly intercepted by the police. When they were interviewed, “Michael and I had this problem with memory,” Whitehall says.

Two days later various newspapers reported that the Whitlam government was “looking into” Darby’s involvement in the affair. Nothing came of the investigation.

The Timorese men were taken to Fannie Bay jail, while the women and children were held at Carpentaria College in what declassified government documents from the time described as “light custody”. It certainly didn’t feel like a detention centre.

“We were just really well looked after,” Burwood says. The refugees were able to pick out clothes and other items. “I remember my Mum being given an Avon lipstick,” she says. “It was this amazing peach colour, so 1975.”

My grandfather’s job at the airport meant he could speak some English. He says he told officials in Darwin that Australia owed a debt to Timor. He was old enough to remember how the Timorese had sided with the Australian commandos against the Japanese during the second world war.

In Canberra, the Whitlam government considered what to do with the refugees. Declassified documents show that the prime minister’s view was that the women and children should be treated as “ordinary evacuees”, while the “wrongdoers should feel the appropriate weight of the law”.

The day after the plane touched down, the immigration minister, senator James McClelland from NSW, decided that all but one man should be granted visas. In the end, they all were.

Gil was charged over his role in the hijacking, but the charges were quickly dropped and he lived in Darwin until his death in 2003.

After escaping the civil war, the Caribou contingent watched helplessly with the 2,500 other refugees who had fled Timor, as Indonesia invaded the island in December 1975.

My grandfather’s dad died of starvation in the mountains after fleeing his coffee farms during the occupation. But even getting information about whether your family was safe was difficult. “My mother found out years later that her brothers had been killed,” Burwood says. “It didn’t lessen the pain.”

Abel Guterres, later Timor-Leste’s ambassador to Australia, believes his journey on the hijacked plane saved his life. “Many of my mates were killed,” he says. “They went to the frontline and died. I would be in the same place.”

After about a week in Darwin, my grandfather got a job at a takeaway shop. Later he worked at a hardware store.

Though life went on in Australia, the weight of what took place that day, and what happened in Timor afterwards, has weighed heavily. My grandfather vividly remembers César Mousinho, the leader of UDT in Baucau, telling him a few days before the Caribou hijacking that he was leaving for Dili, and that he would return a few days later. “I said to him, if you and I get caught by these people, they’ll kill us,” he says.

“Some people still think I’m a coward. That I left Baucau for Darwin and abandoned him. But it’s not true.” Mousinho was captured and later killed in Dili.

‘Good work, boys. This didn’t happen’

There was a case of beer waiting for the Caribou crew when they arrived in Darwin. But they were never officially recognised for their efforts in defusing the situation. In fact, French says when he was interviewed in Darwin, government officials complained that the crew should have kicked the passengers back off the plane once they were disarmed.

Back at the RAAF base in Richmond, NSW, they were told: “Good work, boys. This didn’t happen.”

“That was the end of the conversation,” says French.

Though I didn’t tell them, I was emotional when I spoke to the pilots. Helder Brandão, his sister Maria Burwood and her son, Thomas, felt the same way when they chatted with Browne by phone. Like me, Thomas, a student in Sydney, had heard this dramatic, almost impossible, story about how his family had come to be in Australia, found Browne’s article, and reached out to him.

“In my family’s mind, they are heroes to us,” Maria Burwood says.

I found French’s number deep in the recesses of Google. I don’t know how many pages I sifted through, but the winner was a Gumtree ad he had posted to sell a rug about seven years ago.

French had a stroke just before I finally reached him, though he’s recovering well. He had not spoken about the event since it happened, but his memories were clear. It almost sounded as though he’d been waiting for the call.

“The look on the faces of the Timorese when we landed, that was our reward,” French says.

French stayed in the air force for another three years, becoming a Hercules captain, and then flew for 747s for Qantas before he retired.

Browne stayed in the air force until 1988, eventually rising up the ranks to become a squadron leader. He called me a few days after I contacted the aviation company where he had been a consultant. He had previously had cancer, and it was his last day at the business before retiring. If I’d waited a week, I might have missed him. Their former colleague Crouch died in 2012.

I often think about what might have happened if the pilots had reacted differently. Or if the government had sent the refugees back, a likely scenario in today’s climate. What would have become of the Brandão family, or Feliciano Da Costa, once an illiterate, barefoot teenager, who in June will celebrate his 40th year working on Melbourne’s tram network.

And what about me? Where would I be? Probably not writing this story, that’s for sure. Sitting in my grandfather’s back room, we pondered the question. He was unequivocal: “It was life or death.”