LONG AGO IN BORNEO
© 2006, Bill Young. All rights reserved.
Yesterday, Today , and Tomorrow , partitions in time. The past, the present, and the future; like packs of cards, each stack a lifetime. Each life a deck of yesterdays; sans tomorrow.
Riding the Big Dipper of time; where life is but a cents worth that goes in no time at all, and once it’s gone, it’s gone- spent beyond recall, and with no chance of a refund.
I’ve just about spent my fair share of time, and all in all, I’d like to think that it has been time well spent, for as of now, my yesterdays far outweigh any tomorrows that may be in the offing, and that’s how it should be.
At the back of those yesterdays of mine, in Borneo, a group of us sang a song called “Yesterday”. We’d harmonize; all together– one at a time- enjoying the moment, never realizing just how few yesterdays remained to be spent for almost everyone there. For their tomorrows would no longer merge into today and then pass on into yesterday. Their song was ending, but the melody has lingered on, and on. “Oh what a day was yesterday, for yesterday gave me you”
The countdown to the Killing Fields of North Borneo begun early one typical hot tropical day in July, 1942–. The day we left Singapore and sailed off to Borneo; a day so far away– to me, it's as if I’m looking through the wrong end of a telescope. You see, the view is so small and fuzzy. So out of focus.
There we were, one thousand four hundred and ninety four prisoners of the Japanese, out from Selarang Barracks, Changi, and about to board ship at Keppel Harbour. About to steam off to British North Borneo, and enjoy, in the words of the Japanese Command, “A rest camp in an Earthly Paradise“.
Steam off! how true it was of that day, of that ship, and of that journey, steaming off- how true; it was a dirty stinking screamer of a steamer. A rust bucket of a tub called the Obi Maru. We called it many other things- The Obi Maru could never be true / Never to be true could the Obi Maru / -be- We remembered her in many ways during the eleven days we spent sweltering aboard. The old Obi, Dobi, Ubi, Tobi, and Woebi, we had many other less printable, but to us suffers, far more satisfying names.
I recall a thought; I blush at my thinking then- "seeing as to how it's last name was most definitely Maru, so then, Maru would be enough of the name for me to remember. This reasoning I hasten to add, came through the inexperience of youth. Sometime later, and after many raised eyebrows at my constant references to the "good ship Maru," it was carefully explained to me, that, "Every bloody Jap ship is called Maru. The trick is remembering which particular bloody Maru, it is." --"O.K.- O.K." I said, "Fair enough, but, isn't it just like them to call all their flamin' ships by the same flamin' last name, Maru!". Ubi Dooby Do, so O.K., Obi bloody -Maru.
That little thought on the ship's name popped up as I was typing these opening lines. A memory from the deep, coming to life after all those years. Memories have no respect for one's peace of mind and they can be so embarrassing, popping up as they do, without warning. I suppose in the scheme of things they are designed to act as a deterrent to one's ego. Just when you think you're being so clever; up from the deep rises one of those forgettable ones. I have many such disclaimers among my collection; how embarrassing.
For all that and be has it may, I find myself writing more or less by default about this group of men of B. Force. After all, there are not many "Other Ranks- B Forcer's" left, and so I can but try. Try to tell something of this so sad and tragic group; a group chance had selected from among the many thousands of Australian PoW's in Changi, who after an horrific sea journey were to be off-loaded at a town called Sandakan; a town, up in the wilds of North Borneo. A place unknown to most of us at that time, and yet so soon, it was to become a place of devastation for all of us.
On that sun filled first day of arrival, how could we possibly have realized the tribulations that lay ahead, or of the terrible significance that the name “ Sandakan” would have on the future thoughts of thousands of families back home in Australia.
It was not until the manipulators of the Japanese Nation were brought to their knees by the relentless assault of our fighting forces and the monstrous power of the Atomic Bomb, that the world came to realize something of the horrors that had occurred during the Japanese invasion and occupation, of the Far East.
Indeed, in as much as the atrocities committed at Sandakan and Ranau were concerned, many years were to pass before the truth would emerge. Slowly, ever so slowly, those layered yesterdays were to be peeled back by the recalcitrant knife of bureaucracy, until finally they laid expose for what is now recognized as one of the most tragic events in our Australian Military History.
When they were first asked to explain the disappearance of almost 2,500 of our men from Sandakan, the Japanese Governments response was that, "Most of those men had died from malaria."
In this assertion they had hoped to submerge the foul nature of their deeds; the massacres; the death marches, and of all their other appalling acts against humanity under the weight of bureaucratic pomp and circumstance– and they almost got away with it.
That they had come close to succeeding with their lie is shown by the fact that hundreds of sorrowing relatives were to receive communications from our government at the wars end, to the effect that their loved one had died in Borneo; from the effects of malaria.
How well I remember those first days of freedom; those first minutes, those first hours of being free, and with it, the thought of going home; home at long last. Feelings that held within them such a mixture of joy and bewilderment, of rapture and anxiety; it takes a fair amount of time to get into the swing of being free, of becoming accustomed to the many sides of freedom.
It wasn’t until the reins of life were firm again in my hands, that I was able to start making inquiries as to what had happened to my friends; there were so many, too many blank spaces. Where? Why? what on earth could have gone wrong in that far off jungle camp.
Throughout the years of inquiry, piece by piece, little by little; like scraps of a jig-saw puzzle, a mosaic of tragedy has formed. A picture of those last terrible months at the camp, and of the final horror, that period of death, and terrible destruction that had taken place in and around Sandakan, and on the infamous Death marches, terminating at the town of Ranau, there in the shadows of Mt. Kinabalu.
During those early post war years I had thought that perhaps one or two of the many Officers who had accompanied us on the voyage, would have had something to say about their time at the camp, something to write about of their own particular recollections.
I had supposed that their education and authority would have given them a larger overview. That their more privileged position regarding the why and the wherefore would have enabled them to shine some light of understanding onto the events that took place.
Before the officers were sent down to Kuching, they formed what they termed "The Sandakan Association." and over the years I had thought to hear of some investigation or publication by this association. Between them, the members must have had many recollections of the camp worth bringing to the general notice. Perhaps they have already done so, and it is me that has failed to find it.
Fortunately, in recent years there have been three excellent books published. One dealing with the war crimes trials held at Rabaul and on the Island of Labuan; this book tells for the first time (to my knowledge) of a proposed rescue operation that had been planned and then for some reason abandoned. The other two books, are also well researched and presented, and give a comprehensive account of the atrocious conditions at the camp, during those final days leading up to the death marches. They come with a roll listing all concerned.
So now here I am reflecting upon this and that; speculating on what might have been- what if only. My memory of those days are stored deep within me; they lay a collection of old dog-eared yesterdays, slowly dissolving in the lime-pit of time. These then are the gleanings of one of the few “O Rs” left remaining from B Force. Starting from when we first went aboard the Obi Maru at Singapore, until Jimmy and I were retaken outside the camp in February 1943.
On embarkation, we were packed in; crammed in; stacked in, shoulder to shoulder. If you were under four feet tall, well then perhaps you might find enough room to lie down. Otherwise it was a case of "Knees up Mother Brown" with the bloke in front using your knees for a back rest. To move about, was impossible, not to move, was also impossible, and to do either, was agony. Breathing at the best was stressful; to be carried out, more or less by numbers. The crush of bodies in the holds being so great that whatever the amount of air that managed to make it's way down to the bottom of the ship's hold, one thing for sure it was never enough. It was never fresh, it was so humid it was almost rain, so polluted it was almost mud. In the days ahead, amid the steamy heat of the tropics, there came a time when what and how we breathed ceased to matter; breathing itself was all that mattered, and to that end we soon found that we were fast becoming acclimatized
From what I remember we were fed twice a day. Down it came, "Manna" from on high; spilling out from a cut down steel barrel. Pigs swill ah la cart. Soggy green rice. Sour, sticky, putrid, Lime Green Rice. Oh! for the taste of it, Yuk, what muck. We soon came to realize, through constant agonizing bouts of dysentery, that twice a day was more than enough of that stuff.
Apparently the lime had been added in the fond hope of preserving the rice; indeed, it wasn’t at all successful, not at all. A witch's brew of toads, and snails, and puppy dog tails, couldn't have been any worse. The rice had gone off well before the lime had, so leaving us with a lethal brew of limed rice stew. The damage that that yellow green rice did towards our enjoyment of that particular tropical cruise, was far and away beyond measurement.
Dysentery is a coot of a thing at any time. On board the Obi it was somewhat more so. Apart from the obvious pain, what gave us the "shits" about our particular run of the runs! was the run it caused on the makeshift toilet system; a very basic disposal system indeed. Provided as it was, by a miserable lot of people, it extended out over the water, in all its glory; a four pooper timber platform. Little grass huts, scabbed onto the side of the ship, and where we'd sit on the plank, four white bums hanging out above the sea, and grimly holding on to the rails while timing our "disposals" to coincide with the surge and roll of the waves. At the same time we’d be trying our damnedest not to fall through the hole in the floor and on into the sea. The poem- "I must go down to the sea again." kept popping up into my mind- "To the lonely sea and the sky" -Sitting there it was bleeding obvious that the old Obi was not one of those romantic tall ships; it certainly needed more than a star to steer her by. Our bottoms, hanging so close, as they did to the sea, were more likely to become "Old Salts".
A four man dunny for some eight hundred men, would be inadequate under the best of circumstances. In our case it was more so, with spades. Most of us were sick as dogs; greyhounds, what with all the running we had to do, not to mention climbing those bleeding ladders. The only way to get to the dunnies was hand over hand, up those so and so ladders. Clambering up to the top deck was a job and a half; most of the sick were unable to manage it, even with help. Consequently the ships hold became somewhat of a cesspool.
So it was, we rode a "Checkerboard of nights and days, where destiny with men for pieces played” Except with us it ran amuck, throwing reason to the wind, pitching and tossing, our little buck-jumping tramp went on with numerous stops and starts all the way across the South China Sea, on up the west coast, and along the top end of Borneo, where, showing signs of its great age, it collapsed along side the old timber wharf of Sandakan, there to disgorge it's cargo of exhausted, sea tossed slaves of Nippon.
The town, for a capital city, was nothing much to write home about. There seemed to be far more shops than people; a large village would have covered it with room to spare. As things turned out, I never did get to see much of it, and now I never shall. The old town became a victim of the war; another one of those unexplained mysteries. It was bombed and shelled out of all proportion to its importance in the scheme of things, and yet even so, the Prisoner of War Camp, with thousands of our men waiting within it, was left to whither on the vine– the last, a phrase used to explain a part of the Allied Strategy, of Island hopping, in order to save allied lives.
As for the camp itself, it was second hand. It had been built by the British administration to house Indian Troops, but circumstance intervened, and it became an intern camp; first for some Germans, and then a few Japanese were held within- but for such a shockingly short time. Perhaps some of those looking on as we passed through the gates, must have thought it was but "Poetic justice"-. Certainly our Japanese guards looked as if they thought as much. Although they went and carried their sense of poetic justice far too far; crowding as they did, us lot of fifteen hundred, into a place that was built to hold a few hundred, or so– so!
That it was British built, was obvious, it had the stamp of British military, firmly planted, right on down to the boot straps. Each of the huts ran line after line, straight and orderly; duplicating each other, spaced evenly apart as laid out in the manual. Each hut had three rooms, with raised timber sleeping platforms along each side. Two windows at one end, and a doorway opening onto a narrow verandah at the other end of each room, completed the picture.
All the frameworks were of sawn 4" by 2" timber, while the flooring was made from 6" by 1" floor boards. The roofs, walls and partitions, were covered in "Atap" -that is to say, three feet by two feet lengths of palm-leaf covering, laid tile like, layer upon layer.
All up, there were 24 such huts making up the five rows in the main body of the camp, where we other ranks resided. The officers were housed in six somewhat similar huts; although they were tarted up a little more, and built off to one side, at the top end of the camp.
There were a few other huts, a couple over on the opposite side from the officers were used as sickbays, while down and across from them stood the cookhouse.
The fence surrounding the camp gave further evidence of the well known British thoroughness for this sort of thing. They ran straight and strong from both sides of the main gate posts. Six or more feet high, of steel cyclone wire topped with long strands of barbwire, running on down to the edge of the swamp where they joined two, six strand barbwire fences that were separated by rolls of concertina barbwire; outside of all this, a plank walkway on timber piers ran over the swamp, so giving access to two, seldom used timber guard towers; this then, completed the camp encirclement.
Electricity from a steam powered generator supplied each hut, and several strategic areas around the camp with electric light.
A giant tree commanded the area around the parade ground, and it was from near here that we would muster for work each morning, and where we would receive whatever admonitions, the then "other master race of the world" would wish to give out, to us slaves, duly assembled.
This briefly, is my description of the general setup of the original camp, situated as it was about nine miles from the town of Sandakan. A camp that I grew to know reasonably well over the seven months of my stay.
It was a time when with a group of other young soldiers (we had been nicknamed, The dead end kids ) took whatever opportunity that was ever to come our way, to roam about the countryside; forever on the scrounge, round and about, and outside the wire.
Memory can play mischievous tricks, and the older we get the trickier it becomes. Hand in glove with our old age, it erases from our mind the latest happenings, without rhyme or reason. Names, telephone numbers and the things we mean to do, become so unreliable, we find a need to write it down. Yet, on the other hand, for most of us, the things we learnt, and the things we saw when we were young, we can still recall at the drop of a hat. Sometimes an incident returns so clearly, it seems as if it had just happened.
The pity of it all is that memory can be so indiscriminate; deserting us in the maturity of our supposed wisdom, when we need it most, and yet, it readily returns to recall to mind, the follies of our youth, and with such clarity it beggars description.
I was sixteen when we sailed to Borneo, and it could be said that I did a lot of growing up over there ( ten years worth, in seven months). The men I was privileged to be with, they saw to that. I often see their faces, their brave kind faces together with the camp, with its rows of huts, its boxing ring, down in the hollow. The new hospital hut; we’d built both it and the ring, in the early days. The giant tree, it's branches spread wide like nature’s Eiffel Tower, it overlooked the land for miles around.
W. O. Sticpewich, would be counting us off; making sure each work group was ready, and reporting to the Jap guards that, "all was fine, down the line". The guards yell yosh (Yes) but they still make their own count, "Itchy knees can't see" 1 2 3 4.
The rather tubby figure of Captain Cook and his off-sider, the tall and lean, Lieutenant Good, stand over near the gate. (We used to say, "Why couldn't those two have been "Hyphenated" at least then we would have had a Good-Cook" Anyway no matter what, they’d see us off, off through the gates and past the fence and along the track we’d go. Out to the fast developing airfield, two or three miles away. Hi Ho! hi ho off to work we’d go....
I've heard tell, that when the Japs first asked our Changi "Boffins" for a party of men to go to Borneo, they’d told them, "It would be something of a Picnic, with no work required." and, by the look of the number of Officers and N.C.Os placed on the list, our Boffins must have believed every word the Japs had said. For us privates, it was no picnic. We were left to wonder why we ever called, Private. There was to be no privacy in B Force.
We 1037 privates were to be afflicted with 145 Officers, and 312, N. C. O's. Without a doubt we were the most looked after lot in the history of Prisoner of War Camps.
This "Rank" business, was a bit rank, on the nose even. Especially when the Japs made it clear that the rations were based on the number of men who actually went to work at the airfield. However in spite of a few murmurings, the camp settled down to the grind of work, work, work. While at night, the Officers settled down in there huts, up at the top corner of the camp.
At least, like it was with the food, salutes had to be rationed, otherwise we would never have made it out to work; not if we had to stop and salute every time we saw an Officer; no one would have made it to the gate, and then, who would have worked and earned enough food to feed the multitude!
Escapes were frowned on by both the Japs, and our own Brass. In spite of this, several groups made a try for it. Except for one man, they failed in their attempts, but at least most of them were able to make it home at the end of the war. One group of five from my own Battalion (2nd. 29th.) managed to stay free for a period of five or six months, before attempting to sail back to Australia. That they didn't get far before being recapture, is beside the point, -Better by far to have tried, than to have been left to die, way up there in the jungles of British North Borneo.
I have read and heard it said that, 'The escapes caused, “repercussions". If they did, and of that I very much doubt, then those so called repercussions didn't filter down to our part of the camp. Maybe the Japs gave the Officers a bit of a serve, if so, ah well, tough; besides, at the finish, whatever the blokes did or didn’t do, it ended up causing severe repercussions.
On the subject of disobedience, our C.O. Colonel Walsh, gave us a fine and brave demonstration, on just how to go about it. I remember it well. We were assembled on the parade ground; by the Big Tree, the Colonel was standing on a box, the Jap brass were close by, as he read aloud to us from a "Form" the Japs had had ready for us to sign. That it was an insidious document became apparent; among other things, it stated that whoever signed, wished whoever tried to escape, to be shot, or words to that affect.
It was then that the Colonel showed all of us the majesty of contemptible disobedience, as with a sweep of his arm he threw the paper down at the feet of Captain Hoshijima and his coterie, while declaring in a clear ringing voice, 'I for one will not sign this'. -Well! what a surprise, and the Japs weren’t the only ones. None of us had expected this; not from the little Colonel. The reaction was electric. Ripples of movement from the Jap soldiers all around us, screams of anger from the Jap brass above us. A hairy moment was upon us.
They dragged the Colonel out beside the fence and a firing squad of Japanese riflemen formed up in front of him. And in all this confusion, Colonel Walsh was the only calm person evident. And to me a mere youth, he showed how a good Officer performs his duty.
They never did get around to shooting the Colonel. After much haggling and of Officers rushing here and there. Of the Jap, Hoshijima, jumping up and down, screaming fit to burst, they came around to changing the wording of the form. This we all signed, and then went about the business of trying to stay alive. At least it could be said of that incident, that no one there died of boredom.
Then the time came when they were no longer winning and their dreams of conquest went swirling in the malevolence of defeat. When this realization came, it brought about the count down to the cutoff point of yesterday, for the men of B Force, and the others who had joined in with them, the Australian E Force, and the British troops. Of those two thousand four hundred men, only six men, all Australians, would survive.
I have a copy of the Unit Rolls that Lt. Col. A. W. Walsh kept. They contain the names of every member of B Force. Typed on old, Naval Message Forms, the cover bears the Colonel’s signature and his Army number (VX 40155). Whenever I take it out, and read the list of names, I see the Colonel at his moment of defiance, and whenever I turn the pages, I see the names of all those dear honorable men that I was privileged to know.
I hope that you, the reader, will be able to feel something of those times, and of the suffering of those Men; the 1800 Australians of -B and E Force and of the 700 Englishmen who had joined them. All of whom perished, way up there in the jungles of North Borneo...
British North Borneo...July 1942 - August 1945. - October 1944.. Roll call; 2400 men. -1,800 Australians - and 600 British; PoW's.
The first death march commenced on the 28th. of January, 1945. 470 men started out, 157 died on the journey; leaving 313 to arrive at Ranau, a small village the best part of two hundred, terrible death ridden miles from, Sandakan. Of these 313 men, only six were left alive on the 28th. of June 1945. They were, Botterill, Moxham, Stacy, Grist, Bird and the Englishman, Frost.
On the 24th. of May 1945, 537 men started out from the camp at Sandakan, on the second death march. 352 of these men were to die along the track. Two men, Owen Campbell and Richard Braithwaite, made successful escapes; Owen being rescued on the 23-7-45 and Richard on the 15-6-45. The remaining 183 men arrived at Ranau on the 25th. of June 1945.
The final, third death march of 75 pitifully sick men, left the Sandakan camp, on the 9th. of June 1945; they were never seen again and there are no known records of whatever did happen to them.
Deaths in and around the camp at Sandakan.. 1,318
The Japanese burnt the camp to the ground in an effort to hide their crimes.
Deaths during the three marches 588
Deaths at Ranau 501
There were six survivors; all Australians: Sticpewich, Botterill, Nelson, Campbell, Braithwaite and Moxham.
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