WINGHAM’S connections with one of the most horrific and sad war time histories, the Sandakan marches, has motivated Wingham RSL to make a donation for the maintenance of a memorial built in Sabah to commemorate those who died in Borneo.
In 1942, after the fall of Singapore, the Japanese used many of the Australian and British prisoners of war as forced labour.
The sad history of the building of Burma Railway is fairly well known. Lesser known however, is the fate of more than 2400 allied servicemen who were transported to British North Borneo, now Sabah.
In July 1942, Captain Hoshijima Susumi addressed the Australian troops who had survived an 11 day sea voyage in the belly of the ratinfested
Yubi Maru tramp steamer from Singapore, and were standing on parade at the edge of the Borneo jungle at Sandakan.
“You have been brought here to Sandakan to have the honour to build for the Imperial Japanese Forces an aerodrome; you will work, you will build this aerodrome if it takes three years,” he said.
“I tell you I have the powers of life and death over you, and you will build this aerodrome if you stay here until your bones rot under the tropical sun.” ( Jackson report quoted in Paul Ham 2012 “Sandakan” p.p59)
How prophetic were those words because only four men were aliven at the end of the war in 1945.
The camp at Sandakan was eight miles (16km) west of the town of Sandakan and made of squatatap huts.
The men slept on raised platforms made of bamboo.
It was unfortunately built close to a swamp where malarial mosquitoes thrived. It was dominated by a huge tree which had large buttress roots somewhat like the fig trees in Wingham Brush and that tree became a beacon to all in the camp.
With usual Aussie ingenuity an intelligence organisation was established and a radio constructed, parts of which were smuggled into camp by willing locals.
This enabled news of the war to be passed through the camp.
The collection of the required parts and the building required skill and daring.
When the radio receiver was complete the issue of power arose.
The camp had a generator, and with some clever problem solving, the operators were able to tap into the camp’s electricity supply.
However, the voltage was not high enough to work the radio.
It was suggested that the generator operator would organise a power surge to coincide with the time of the nine o’clock news.
On the first night, the operator had difficulty with the setting and the lights flared up and the generator raced and light bulbs almost burst.
However, by judiciously raising the voltage one volt at a time it was barely noticeable.
The extra fuel for the generator was filched from the Japanese vehicles.
Later on the discovery of the radio parts by the Japanese resulted in eight people, including civilians who had assisted them, being condemned to death.
In order to further demoralise the troops, the officers were rounded up and transported to Kuching prison, among them medical officer Hugh Rayson.
This put enormous pressure on non-commissioned officers to maintain discipline.
Illness and tropical diseases such as malaria and cholera were endemic and by January, 1945 only 1900 prisoners were left alive.
Starvation and vitamin deficiency added to the death toll.
The aerodrome had been completed and in January 1945, the Japanese decided to use the fittest 470 prisoners as porters for the Japanese move to Ranau, a nine day 270km walk to the west coast.
Prisoners were given enough rations for four days and if anyone fell by the track with exhaustion and could not go on, they were murdered where they fell.
All in all there were three marches.
Those that were too sick to march were left at Sandakan, with no food or medicine. The camp was burned and they all died.
In Ranau living conditions were appalling.
The weak and starved prisoners were expected to build their own shelters. By July 13, 1945 there were only about 100 men left alive. Throughout all this time medical officer Captain John Oakeshott had tended the sick and dying.
Hearing from a Christian Japanese guard that there was a plan that there would be no survivors and that all men were to be shot, four men decide to escape – Keith Botterill, Nelson Short, Bill Moxham and Andy Anderson.
Captain Oakeshott pleaded with them to do one thing if they survived.
Their first duty was to get justice for the men they had left behind.
The escapees were assisted by members of the Dusan communitym who had also suffered under the Japanese.
Andy Anderson was too weak to survive and he died on July 29.
The three survivors were finally put in contact with allied forces who enacted a rescue.
“On 24th August 1945 ‘Lofty’ Hodges encounters three living skeletons on the ground, their hair matted with dirt, their lips cracked and bleeding their legs bloated but their eyes were shining.” (Paul Ham 2012 “Sandakan” p.394.)
Only one other survivor of the camp at Ranau lived to tell of the horrors of the camp.
Warrant Officer Bill Sticpewich was warned of the plan to massacre all the remaining prisoners by a guard, Takahara Nisu.
Two weeks after the Japanese surrender and the end of the war, Captain Oakeshott and the remaining 10 others were shot.
Wingham has several connections to the soldiers of Borneo.
Curley Walmsley was in a rescue party that found some of the escapees. Keith Botterill lived in Wingham after his return to Australia, and Phil Rayson and Robert Oakeshott are both grandsons of the medicos.
Other members of the Wingham community lost uncles and brothers in the horror marches and worst of all it remained a deep secret for almost 40 years as the Australian Government was loathe to opening the history, perhaps due to embarrassment that they had not tried to effect a rescue in time.
Meanwhile, the people of Sabah built a memorial to commemorate those who died on the march and the people who helped them, often losing their lives in the process.
The memorial is made up of four garden rooms, the Australian Garden, the English Garden, the Borneo Garden and the Contemplation Garden and Pool.
Funding for maintenance of the memorial is mainly from tourists and visitors. It is because of the connection with members of our community to this wartime history that Wingham RSL SubBranch members have recently made a donation to the Kundasang Memorial.