This diorama is dedicated to a man named Private Leslie Thomas Starcevich, known as Tom to the family, and ‘Starcey’ to his mates. He is my cousin’s great uncle, or my uncle’s uncle, who won the Victoria Cross in WW2. Born in Subiaco, Western Australia on 5th November 1918, he enlisted in the 2nd/43rd Battalion on 9th April 1941. He arrived in Palestine shortly after. He was wounded in the leg at Ruin Ridge, Tel El Eisa on 17th July 1942 but still managed to carry a shell-shocked mate to an aid post before passing out himself. He returned in time to see the Battle of El Alamein begin on 23rd October. The 2nd/43rd returned to Australia in February 1943 and left for New Guinea in September the same year. Starcey took part in the battles of Lae and Finschafen, fighting a very different enemy with very different ethics. Again, he rose to the occasion when the Japanese were over-running allied positions. Starcevich, operating a Bren gun, was mentioned in despatches for refusing to leave his post because he had the enemy spotted. At this point in his career, Starcevich, a small, sincere and quietly spoken man already had a reputation as a fierce, brave fighter. But his biggest challenge was yet to come.
In June 1945, Starcey went with his battalion to fight the Japanese in British North Borneo. In a report written by the men in Starcey’s company, the terrain of Borneo was described as “…easily the heaviest jungle we had fought in.” Although the Australians were send to Borneo almost as an afterthought, for ‘mopping-up’ operations, the Japanese still had deadly strong-points, traps and ambushes which needed dealing with. ‘B’ company, hacking their way down a narrow path towards a small but heavily defended town called Beaufort, suddenly came to a section of widened track, leading into a T junction. The company, led by Captain John Pollock, moved down the track but came under fire from two enemy machine-gun posts. ‘Snowy’ Porter, the forward scout and best mate of Starcey’s was wounded when the machine-guns opened up. Starcevich, the section’s Bren gunner, coolly advanced through the hail of fire and assaulted each position in turn killing five enemy gunners. The advance continued until fire from another two machine-guns again held them up. After providing covering fire to the rest of the company, Starcevich, without regard for his own personal safety, rushed forward, captured the guns and killed another seven enemy. For these brave actions, he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest order of bravery in the Commonwealth military forces.
Before starting this diorama, it was obvious that I would have to do a significant amount of research to make it historically accurate. The information available on the internet, in libraries and museums was very limited, so I had to do some more in-depth historian work myself.
The first thing I did was to contact some long lost relatives, one of which had taken the time to collect every newspaper article published on Tom Starcevich over the years. Some of it proved helpful, but often the media had over-dramatised the events. One eager journalist even claimed Starcevich accounted for 110 Japanese casualties on that day. That number was in fact ‘B’ company’s ‘kill’ count for the entire campaign! However, I had managed to discover an award winning piece of writing adapted from eye witness accounts from Starcevich’s comrades fighting with him near Beaufort. This document included a map which helped me determine both scale and positioning for the diorama.
In addition, I had a fantastic opportunity to travel to Borneo and visit the actual location in which the battle took place. Taking a taxi from Kota Kinabalu (I have a great story to tell about that journey), I finally arrived in the tiny town of Beaufort. Over the years, the town has remained more or less the same, it’s still just the small jungle village penetrated by the Padas River it was 63 years ago. After retracing Starcevich’s steps down the humid, sweltering, mosquito infested jungle track, I managed to gather a pretty good picture of the exact positions of the machine-guns and the Australian advance.