The Sandakan March through the Borneo jungle during the last months of WWII was one of the worst atrocities Australian soldiers suffered in the war. To find out what it was like to be on that forced trek — known as a “death march” — Team Outpost set out to retrace it, and invited a few Australian soldiers to come along.
Story by Kevin Vallely, Photos by Frank Wolf | Outpost Expeditions
Private John Skinner awakens on the morning of Wednesday August 15, 1945, to discover he’s the only one left alive at Camp Sandakan. His companion Walter Hancock died during the night, leaving Skinner alone in a place so terrible to him that death would likely be a welcome relief. Three months earlier Skinner was part of the second march to Ranau, which left Skinner and nearly 300 other sick and dying soldiers behind.
I try to imagine his feelings of fear and loneliness on that fateful morning when he finds himself all alone; his memories of family and friends back home in Tenterfield, New South Wales; the awareness that three years earlier 2,434 Australian and British troops were incarcerated by the Japanese Imperial Army, at this remote jungle outpost in North Eastern Borneo, and now the realization that he’s the only one left alive.
It’s just after 7:00 a.m. when Private Skinner is roused from his makeshift bed and marched outside the camp perimeter and up a dirt slope to a slit trench. He is blindfolded and forced to his knees. Even though his hands remain untied, he remains motionless, balanced on the edge of his 31 years.
Then, in one powerful swipe, Sergeant-Major Murozumi slices his sword down upon Skinner’s neck. His life is ended. Just five hours later, Emperor Hirohito’s crackling radio broadcast is beamed around the world. Japan has surrendered: the war is over.
Between November and late February each year, this part of Northern Borneo sees prolonged deluges of rain unload so much water on the landscape it quickly overwhelms the ground’s capacity to absorb it. The monsoon season is nature at its most unrelenting, as torrents of water perform their annual destructive dance with gravity, scouring and eroding everything in their path.
There was perhaps a time when this road I’m on carried vehicular traffic, but its surface now seems more like my furrowed brow, raked and tortured, as I struggle to walk a straight line. Debris from the slope above is scattered over the pitted surface of the route as we negotiate the first day of our trek.
We had lit out from the village of Boto, several hours earlier, and are presently high on a ridge, gazing at the chocolate brown Labuk River as it pushes its way through the dense green blanket. It’s a magnificent place, but I don’t imagine the men who marched here 61 years ago ever noticed.
The Sandakan Death March went down in infamy as arguably the worst atrocity ever suffered by Australian soldiers, but it remains largely invisible on the historical map.
Borneo: The mysterious cloud-covered island of impenetrable jungle where the spirits of head hunters still roam, where super-sized bats the size of seagulls guard the night sky, and prehistoric man-eating crocodiles abound.
Recently, while casually surfing information about the region, I stumbled upon a shocking tale that played out in the jungles of North Borneo during World War II. It was 1942, after Singapore and Borneo had fallen to the Japanese Imperial Army; a POW camp was established just outside of the port city of Sandakan on the North Eastern coast of British North Borneo (the region presently known as Sabah) to intern over 2,400 British and Australian troops.
The Japanese needed to protect their recently captured oilfields on the island, and were prepared to use the prisoners as forced labour to construct a military airfield. Conditions at the camp quickly deteriorated, and in a short space of time, torture, starvation and disease became the norm among the incarcerated.
The momentum of the war had shifted by early 1945. Allied bombing had rendered the newly constructed airstrip unusable, eliminating the need for a POW work force. Anticipating an imminent Allied invasion of Borneo, the Japanese Imperial Army moved the bulk of its forces overland to the West coast, using the prisoners to hump the supplies.
Over six months, the sick and emaciated POWs were force-marched — some as far as 250 kilometres — in three separate groups through dense, primary jungle to the village of Ranau, on the flanks of Mt. Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain.
The track would have severely challenged even the fittest of healthy soldiers, but for men beaten down by disease, starvation and torture, it was a near impossible task. Anyone unable to keep up was executed. And so the bloodletting began.
The Sandakan Death March went down in infamy as arguably the worst atrocity ever suffered by Australian soldiers, but it remains largely invisible on the historical map. The details of the event were so shocking that it was easier for the Australian government to withhold information than go public. It is only in the last few years that the story has come to light, thanks mainly to the unlikely figure of Lynette Silver, a 61-year-old grandmother who has made it her mission to tell the world about the tragedy.
At over 130 million years old, Borneo’s rainforest is among the most ancient and diverse in the world, home to a myriad of unique, natural riches. Since the early ’90s, this former schoolteacher has immersed herself in the story, travelling frequently to Borneo, scouring military archives from Australia to Japan, delving into anything and everything associated with the march. Without her labours, much of what happened would remain a mystery. When I approached her with my idea of retracing the Death March, she thought it would be worthwhile. We’d be the first to attempt it in 61 years.
Tham Yau Kong greets us at the airport, his strong handshake a measure of his physical strength. A fourth-generation Malaysian of Chinese descent, Tham is a stocky man, with sad, deep-set eyes, and a shy demeanor. But his quick tongue and easy smile keep you fixed. And he is passionate about his home.
“Mr. Kevin,” he says, “they said it was too difficult to find but they forget we live here. The jungle’s our home.”
Recognized as one of Sabah’s premiere trekking guides, Tham and his team had begun cutting the trail four months in advance of our arrival. Working from charts compiled by post-war Australian Army recovery parties, which plotted the exact location of each body found on the route — creating a rather grisly trail of bread crumbs, if you will — and from a map drafted by a military war grave photographer in 1946, Tham and Lynette were able to plot the exact route of the march.
“I would talk with Mrs. Lynette several times a day from the trail,” explains Tham. “We would be in constant contact, comparing details.” Thanks to their efforts, after being lost to the rainforest for the past 61 years, the Sandakan Death March sees the light of the Borneo sky once again.
I’m sitting waste deep in the crystal clear Maliau River after the first day’s trek, and I’m cooked. It isn’t so much the trail’s steepness or even its difficulty under foot — it’s the heat, the all-encompassing blanket of super-baked humidity that sucks out every last drop of moisture. Standing up is sweaty enough, but once I start to move I leave a trail like a slug. And a slug is pretty much what I feel like right now.
There’s some satisfaction in knowing I’m not alone in my discomfort. Nine members of the Australian military accompany me. News of our plans to recreate the march had travelled fast; and last minute negotiations saw three Air Force and six Army personnel join us on our inaugural march. My initial misgivings about group dynamics are quickly dispelled, as I realize that the Australians are open and friendly and are as eager about the trek as I am.
In fact, their selection of personnel to come here was based on merit, and was undoubtedly considered an honour. Their battalion is presently stationed in Penang, Malaysia, and has been training in this environment for months. The fact that they’re as baked as me is reassuring.
The island is only one of two places on earth where orangutans live wild, is home to more than 2,000 types of trees, 600 species of bird, and more than 200 types of mammals, including 44 that are unique to the island. Darwin described it perfectly as “one great untidy luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself.” At over 130 million years old, Borneo’s rainforest is among the most ancient and diverse in the world, home to a myriad of unique, natural riches.
Much of Sabah’s remaining rainforest is part of a protected reserve, but this wasn’t always the case. After the war, huge tracts of virgin jungle were harvested to satisfy a ravenous overseas market, resulting in a radical transformation of the countryside for short-term gain. The harvesting was eventually halted, but not before thousands of acres of rainforest were decimated. One-third of the rainforest that the original death march route travelled through has since met with the logger’s saw; it was subsequently replanted with oil palms — an ever increasing mono-culture in the region — and the original forest of the area is now completely gone.
Orders from Tokyo had been explicit: “…it is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces.”
In the late hours of our first camp, as I lie awake listening to the piercing cry of the jungle, I’m consumed by thoughts of what the marching POWs would have been going through, what they would have already endured just to get here. Although it wasn’t made clear to them at the time, they were to be used as pack animals for the Imperial Army’s retreat to Western Sabah. The POWs would be marched along a freshly hacked trail through the heart of the jungle. They would be pushed, prodded and beaten; those unable to continue would be killed.
Orders from Tokyo had been explicit: “…it is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces.” The command had ruled that the prisoners had to die, and the Imperial army decided they would die with a purpose. But when, on the January 26, 1945, the Sandakan camp commander Susumi Hoshijima announced that a select 500 of the fittest POWs would march West to a site with more food and better living conditions, it created a stir.
Richard Murray was already a defeated man, yet he was selected for the first march. You would never have guessed that the enlisted man had been a welterweight boxer champion five years earlier. His charisma and warm smile may have been intact, but his Celtic good looks had melted from his frame. Would his wife and son back home recognize him? Murray had somehow escaped the ravages of disease that swept the camp — with this lucky break, he might survive after all.
Millipedes as thick as my index finger march defiantly down the trail, and ants the size of a child’s toy watch us with amusement.
Joining him on the march was Keith Botterill, his brother-in-arms. The two had met on the day of their enlistment, and had stayed close ever since. Through the fighting and the defeat in Singapore, the subsequent incarceration in Selarang, on the tortuous ocean voyage to Sandakan, and in the hell of the POW camp, the two had been inseparable. That they would be together on the march was a great relief to both. They set off at dawn on January 31 with hopes of something better.
Awaiting them on the trail a few kilometres outside the camp was a mountain of gear that belonged to 47 Japanese troops of the Yamamoto Butai. Bags of food, equipment, ammunition and even a dismantled mountain gun were added to their kit. If the added weight wasn’t enough, the rubber slip-on shoes issued to them that morning were worse than useless. The bulk of the men were walking barefoot by the end of the day. At least they had some food.
Over the first few days, heavy rains and knee deep mud took its toll on the POWs and Japanese soldiers alike; by the morning of day four, a young Australian NCO declared he could go no further. His beriberi was so far advanced that his grossly distended limbs would no longer function. He was shot.
For the following week the march was tough but bearable; the Japanese soldiers enforced a 10 minute rest every hour, but they also coaxed the POWs to keep going with “just one extra mile” toward the end of each day. The prisoners fell into a dazed routine. Escape would have been easy — just slip away into the forest unnoticed — but the prospect of trying to survive alone in the jungle was too frightening.
Everything changed when the group reached Boto on the twelfth day. The deeper they pressed into the jungle, the leaner the Japanese re-supply drops along the route. When the 49 prisoners arrived at Boto they were presented with nothing more than six cucumbers and a sprinkling of rice. At the next drop in Paginatan, many days of trekking and a mountain range away, the rations were only slightly more.
Millipedes as thick as my index finger march defiantly down the trail, and ants the size of a child’s toy watch us with amusement. The yapping of ornery, underfed dogs is always an indication there’s a household close by. We occasionally stumble upon native families, out on the land, tapping into whatever they can, to survive. As an expression of their traditional beliefs, the native people build their homes on stilts, in order to be above the spirits that they believe travel on the ground.
It’s a pragmatic architectural feature, providing cover for their animals and protection from flood. But the spiritual element can’t be overstated. The native people believe there are a lot of restless souls here. I believe it too.
With three days to go before we reach Paginatan, we have hit the trail early, trying to hammer out a decent chunk of ground before the heat takes hold. As a result of staying true to the original route, we often find ourselves completely exposed to the sun, as we follow the rarely used dirt tracks that meander through the countryside. The Australian soldiers are suffering through it without a word of complaint — at least not until Paddy collapses later that afternoon.
Lance Bombardier Patrick Shanahan is my Wikipedia definition of what a soldier should be. Of medium height and build, with good looks and a commitment to the task that’s nothing short of admirable; he’s capable of measuring the company line while discussing the larger picture. Today, he’s lugging the extra weight that one of us always must: the emergency gear—satellite phone and the like — a load far exceeding everyone else’s, but he’s game. That he skipped lunch should have been an indication, but considering our noontime fare, we weren’t that surprised. It’s only later in the day, as begins to careen along the road do we realize something is up. Shortly afterwards he collapses.
Paddy reminds me of POW Richard Murray in a lot of ways. Both are the product of tough, working class upbringings where justice is often decided by the fist; each with a wild side that, on occasion, has gotten them into trouble. Their genuine concern for the people around them makes steadfast friendships easy, creating unfaltering respect among the soldiers they serve with.
This is evident when Paddy goes down. The group breaks into action, with Bombardier Kenny Tunney quickly assessing that Paddy is suffering from serious heatstroke and must be cooled immediately. He is taken to a nearby river, stripped to his shorts and doused with water. Keeping close to his fallen friend, Tunney discusses an evacuation strategy with lieutenant Mike Squire while barking orders to the three younger men in his command.
These three are part of a larger group of seven under Paddy’s command; Paddy in turn answers to Kenny. The boys affectionately call Paddy “Mom” since his role is to care for the welfare of the men while Kenny is “Dad” because his role is to ensure the squad’s work is done.
Paddy isn’t coming around and medical assistance is called for. Fortunately, we’re near the end of day and a vehicle makes it to our location, whisking him away to hospital where he will require five bags of glucose I.V. Even with the best of modern equipment this is no picnic. Imagine what it was like for the POWs. When they realized they had somehow to continue on to Paginatan without food, it broke them.
Richard Murray recognized the seriousness of the situation and positioned himself at the back of the group so he could assist the stragglers. Despite his efforts the men began to die. Ambulance man Arthur Noakes died at 8 a.m. on the second morning out of Boto, while David Humphries and Donald Palmer, unable to continue, were shot dead one hour later.
Lawrence McLeenan and Norman McLeod made it a few kilometres beyond camp that morning before they too succumbed. The reason anyone made it to Paginatan at all was thanks to locals who would occasionally come out of the jungle to give them tapioca and sweet potato. Before Murray’s group reached the village one more soldier would be shot while another would disappear into the jungle, never again to be seen.
A more somber tone pervades the second night’s camp as we realize that this march is something to be reckoned with. Sleep doesn’t come easy. I lie awake in my tent longing for a whisper of wind, as I count the heartbeats from the throbbing in my feet. Years of expedition racing has left me with many physical souvenirs, of which sensitive feet is but one.
Sunrise seems to flash in an instant out here, bringing with it a cacophony of breakfast chatter from every bird and insect in the area. The air is cool and pleasant as we break camp and head into what’s expected to be our toughest day.
It’s only a few kilometres before we hit the Tavio River and start following it upstream. The river isn’t flowing very fast, making it easy to wade through it. The further we push up river the more lush and impenetrable the jungle grows. The original marchers followed a route just up the side of the steep river bank, but for us it’s simpler, and indeed more fun, to wade our way through the current. Post-war recovery teams wouldn’t find a single body along this section because the Japanese soldiers had kicked the corpses of the dead down the slope and into the river where they were swept away.
After a couple hours of trekking through the water our group rests at the base of a massive old-growth tree. It’s distinctive for the series of giant buttresses that radiate from its trunk, and because it marks the start of our most arduous climb.
I clamber up the riverbank grappling with a series of vines, and immediately find myself in a natural environment that’s more claustrophobic than anything I’ve ever experienced.
The Tavio hill was a notoriously difficult section of the trail, the final resting place for a number of the Sandakan marchers. Reconnaissance teams in 1946 felt this section was too difficult for their recovery efforts, and never searched it, leaving behind the remains of an unknown number of dead. It had remained untouched until Tham and his guides scouted a route through it four months ago.
I clamber up the riverbank grappling with a series of vines, and immediately find myself in a natural environment that’s more claustrophobic than anything I’ve ever experienced. The jungle has already reclaimed Tham’s earlier exploratory route. Tham begins once again slashing ahead, following an almost invisible path that only he can make out.
A leech finds a home on my cheek. No more than the size of a large grain of rice when they first latch on, these thirsty bloodsuckers will swell to the thickness of a pencil when given the chance. A few years back, a friend of mine had an unfortunate encounter with a leech while racing the Eco-Challenge here in Sabah. As he was making a quick pee stop an intrepid leech landed on his penis and, before he could flick it off, made its way up his urethra. Poor bastard.
The POWs called the jungle a green cage and you can see why. Surrounded by an impenetrable web of vegetation, we’re hooked and grabbed, scraped and poked, as we struggle to find our way through. I’m looking intently for any evidence of the soldiers that died here, but the jungle has erased any indication of their passing. I’m so engrossed in my efforts that I don’t notice the viper beneath my feet. It’s a small, luminous green snake with a distinctive triangular head—as beautiful as it is deadly. Half of our group has passed it without noticing. Intrigued, we huddle around it.
Then Tham intervenes. “Very dangerous snake,” he says gravely, motioning us to step back. “If it bites you, you die in three minutes. There’s no antidote.”
I’m surprised at how quickly we reach the summit. The damage: five leeches, a couple of cuts, and my poor aching feet. Not bad. The remainder of the afternoon is an unfortunate parade down the non-existent shoulder of a well-travelled local highway. Like much of Southeast Asia, the drivers here enjoy exploring the limits of vehicular performance and we often find ourselves leaping out of the way of some overzealous motorist who has decided to overtake a slower vehicle on that blind corner.
We’re doing well until big Russ Galloway is clipped in the elbow by an errant side mirror. At 46, Russ is the oldest guy in the group, but you’d never know it. His 6’7” frame, carrying a body that’s a physiological showcase of muscle, utterly astounds people, but his charismatic presence holds even greater sway. Fortunately, the mirror was the loser in battle, but the incident has made us all the more wary. It’s another hour before we find the large gravel pullout which will be our camp for the night. The area, about the size of a football field, is home to several tractors being used for local road construction.
As I enter the site I see a tiny man and his wife sitting quietly beneath a tarp on the far side of the machinery. We trade friendly nods and after finding a sliver of shade beneath a tractors wheel, the elderly fellow comes over and presents me with a fresh cucumber. A shiver runs through me as I thank him for his gift. Richard Murray, Keith Botterill and the other PoWs would have still been trying to survive on those six cucumbers at this point. I take my knife out and cut a piece for everyone.
The elderly fellow comes over and presents me with a fresh cucumber. A shiver runs through me as I thank him for his gift. Richard Murray, Keith Botterill and the other POWs would have still been trying to survive on those six cucumbers at this point. I take my knife out and cut a piece for everyone.
We make it to Paginatan the following afternoon and bunk down on the floor of an unused gymnasium. It’s not paradise but it’s far cry better than last night’s tryst with the highway and its noisy truck traffic. Today’s march took us through a little of everything: from a steaming jungle to an overheated tarmac, from a dusty cart track to a wonderfully aromatic tea plantation. There’s a little less jungle travel than I originally anticipated, but this is the reality of the march. After the war, the route was transformed; some of it was reclaimed by nature, other parts staked for human development.
When Richard Murray, Keith Botterill and the group reached Paginatan they saw a vibrant little village of 20 or so huts stretching along the wide Kuanan River. Much to their relief they discovered a well-stocked food drop and a comfortable rest house. Their last few days had been horrific. The following morning they left with some renewed energy, but it was short lived. For Allan Quailey it had all become too much. High on a ridge overlooking Mt. Kinabalu, Quailey decided he would go no further. He was just a day from Ranau.
By the middle of May, less than four months after 452 POWs started on the first march from Sandakan, only 30 were now left alive in Ranau. Botterill and Murray knew it was now or never. They managed to steal a 20 kg bag of rice from a Japanese store and readied themselves for an escape when their theft was discovered. The 30 men were paraded out and lined up. Stealing rice was a capital offence for the Japanese and the men readied themselves for execution. No one said a word.
Richard Murray quietly stepped forward. In Paginatan we meet Paulina, one of the last living connections to this dreadful past.
“They looked so sad,” she says through an interpreter. “When they marched through the village they would look pleadingly at me and say ‘makan?’ (food).” Each night this young woman would risk Japanese retribution as she secretly left out a can filled with food. Each morning it would be empty. She remembers coming out one morning to discover eight wedding rings left for her in the bottom of the can. “They never returned after that.”
The horrors of Sandakan and the Death March still defy description. Prisoners were beaten and tortured, even castrated and crucified, but in Paginatan something more unimaginable occurred. Local people describe how hungry Japanese soldiers culled prisoners from the group, cut off their arms and legs and brought the torsos to their camp for consumption.
Bill Moxham, Nelson Short, Bill Sticpewich, Owen Campbell, Dick Braithwaite and Keith Botterill survived Sandakan. No one else did.
The residents of Sandakan tell an interesting story of an elderly Japanese man who returned to the site of the camp a little over 20 years ago. He stripped down to a ceremonial loin cloth and knelt in front of the memorial. He stayed there, unmoving, for a day and a night until he collapsed and was taken to hospital.
Captured documents, dated as early as January 1944, indicate the hard line of the Japanese command. If their own soldiers proved to be “too obvious an obstruction to the efficient execution of the withdrawal, unavoidable instances, then sick and wounded must be disposed of.” The awkward syntax paints an ugly picture. For every 15 POWs that died on the march, 10 Japanese died as well.
After Richard Murray’s death, Keith Boterill withdrew into himself but remained committed to an escape. On the evening of July 7, he and three companions disappeared into the jungle. Six weeks later they would be rescued. Bill Moxham, Nelson Short, Bill Sticpewich, Owen Campbell, Dick Braithwaite and Keith Botterill survived Sandakan. No one else did.
The route between Paginatan and Ranau proves to be the most beautiful part of our trek. We drift in and out of picturesque villages as we move over the rolling hills of the region. At one point we’re welcomed by hundreds of school children dressed in their blue and white uniforms, all smiling and laughing, wanting their photo to be taken.
The country-side is a mix of jungle and cultivation, set to the backdrop of the great Mt. Kinabalu, a nearly 4,000-metre granite monolith that completely dominates the landscape. Although beautiful to us, the POWs grew to hate the mountain. To them it symbolized agony and pain just as everything else did on this trek.
At the Ranau, paying homage to those who died.Our last hill before Ranau is fittingly brutal. It’s pushing 40 degrees and there’s no escape from the sun. The group spreads apart on the climb. We regroup for our descent into Ranau. We’re going to finish this together. It’s another couple of hours on a dusty track when the village finally comes into view. The pace begins to quicken and the troops start to fall in. It all happens so naturally. I move to the back and observe as the nine proud soldiers march up to the memorial.
And once there, no one says a thing. **