(AWM 041488)
Bombardier Richard 'Dick' BRAITHWAITE
NX45378 2/15 Australian Field Regiment

Escaped from the second
Ranau Death March in June 1945

 

LONG AGO IN BORNEO

DEATH MARCH FROM SANDAKAN

By J. R. BRAITHWAITE (One of the six survivors)

 

During 1942 and 1943 the Japanese moved about 2,000 Australian prisoners in two groups from Singapore, and about 750 English prisoners, to Sandakan, in British North Borneo, where until early 1945 they were employed in building an aerodrome. When this work finished and Allied landings in Borneo became increasingly imminent, the Japanese began moving the prisoners who still lived many of them were already dead of starvation, disease and ill treatment, and about 200 had been transferred to Kuching to Ranau, about 140 miles inland from Sandakan. only six men who took part in these marches to Ranau survived the end of the war. All were Australians. This is the remarkable account of one of them.

We were ordered from the camp on the morning of 2nd June, 1945 (approx.). The huts were fired. Stretcher cases were carried, about 150 men, and we were penned in that area all day with no shelter: Catalina's flew over frequently at heights low enough for us to see a crew member standing at the open door. About 5 P.M. orders were received for all men able to walk to proceed to a new camp at the 18 mile peg, stretcher cases to be brought by truck later. (I understand that they were massacred).

Along the highway buckets of rice were issued to each party, with instructions to make them last seven days. We marched all night. During the march, several bashings occurred; a few tried to leave the column, and shots were fired. Though I did not see any case, I believe several men were killed.

The going was tough with heavy loads and all being in poor condition. I weighed about six and a half stone and was among the fittest. Some were hobbling on rough crutches, others were badly swollen with beri beri, malaria was rife as also was dysentery, and few were without tropical ulcers in some cases the bone showed from knee to ankle.

About 10 a.m. on 3rd June we stopped for a meal and a rest in a small canyon in the jungle. Here we were attacked by our planes. About 5 p.m. we moved off again, following a bridle track where, in most cases, we were up to our knees in mud and had to proceed in single file. The Japs were forcing the pace, using their rifle butts freely. About midnight a halt was called. Our rations comprised half a cup of cooked plain rice.

We moved off early on 4th June. These days were hazy to me, even just after my escape a matter of plugging and struggling through the mud, through the creeks, up the slippery clay hills, barefooted, and slipping back to the tune of the rifle butt. The party's numbers were dwindling and the sound of shooting from the rear of the column was becoming more frequent. A rear guard was killing off anyone who could not keep up with the pace being set.

On 5th June, after many appeals, we were allowed to rest all day and night and started early next morning. I was struggling up a sharp, greasy incline and could not hold with my feet to obtain any traction, when a guard, holding his rifle by the barrel, swung in true baseball style and flattened me then came at me with the rifle butt. Had I not been able to turn my head in time it would have caved my face in. The blow glanced off my mouth; he tried again and I received this one in the ear, and am now entirely deaf in this ear. He then belabored my body with rifle and boots. I was semi conscious but remember him fossicking through the gear I was carrying. I was left lying at the side of the track, but I managed to recover sufficiently to continue before the end of the column passed me. Any who lagged behind his party was compelled to keep going until he caught up with it again, therefore missing out on the infrequent rest periods, for by the time one caught up, the party was on the move again, if not before. The guards knew the members of their parties and helped them along with kicks and blows from their rifles.

Next day we came to a broad, fast running river, which I later found out to be the Lubok. Here the Japs had a rice store, but we were forced to cross the river by a bridge of single log width with wire hand rail. From memory this was over one hundred yards long and, after a number had passed over with muddy, bare feet, the crossing became extremely hazardous, particularly in our weakened state. At least three of our men lost hold and were drowned no attempt being made to help them. We camped the night there and were allowed to bathe in the river, but had to be downstream from the guards.

On the morning of the 8th I felt that I was getting to the stage when I could not carry on. My party was the last to leave that day, so anyone who fell behind a few hundred yards was finished. Several who could not stand on their feet had to be left sitting against trees. We had proceeded only a few hundred yards when we heard burst of machine‑gun fire behind us.

We came to a section where large trees had fallen and blocked a gully, and by the time one crawled over and around these and up the steep, slippery bank on the other side, there was a gap in front and behind. Seizing the opportunity I ducked into the jungle, choosing the inland side to lie low, for I assumed that any patrols would be scouting on the coastal side. I got no more than about fifty feet in, when I heard the guard coming and, as I could not get around or over a giant tree which had fallen, I flattened down where I was. I felt I was in clear view of everyone walking along the track, as this particular section of jungle was more like Australian scrub. I lay there scarcely daring to breathe, with giant ants about an inch and a half long crawling all over me, but I was not bitten. Eventually my throat became irritated and I had great difficulty in restraining a cough. I did cough and the force of it and my trying to smother it, sat me up, and I found myself looking straight at a guard, who unslung his rifle and stood as though he had seen me. After what seemed an eternity, he moved on.

I lay there until late in the afternoon pondering what to do. Eventually I decided to retrace my steps to the river, follow it to the coast and there try to signal one of our planes, which were passing over frequently. Having made the decision, I started back cautiously, for small parties of Japs had been passing by.

Coming to a sharp bend in the track, I almost ran into a lone Jap. A handy sized branch lay to hand and before he even realized I was there, I smashed his head. I kept hitting and hitting and my brain was screaming, though I am sure I made no vocal noises. I dragged the body from the track, down into a gully and concealed it as well as I could.

I then made my way back to the river. The Japs were on the other side, so I kept out of sight and walked parallel with the water until I was out of sight and then, because the jungle was too thick, made my way down to the edge of the river and followed it. There I found foot prints, bare feet, and assumed they had belonged to someone who had escaped earlier. The thought passed through my mind that I'd have company. Soon it was too dark to see where I was going, so I propped myself up against a tree, and dozed fitfully throughout the rainy night. Next morning at first light I continued. My problems were starting, as I had to cross back and forth across the river and my progress was blocked by many types of obstacles. Eventually it became impossible to stay close to the river. Here I came across the remains of a camp fire, and looking around, found where someone had forced his way through with a machete. everything went well for a while, but I would often be sidetracked by animal pads and would finish up at a dead end.

That afternoon a patrol of about six men passed within feet of me. It was then I wished I had done as I had contemplated, sneaking over to the Jap camp and stealing a rifle and ammunition. The Jap I had killed was carrying neither. I moved on until dark and tried to sleep as the night before. Off again at first light and passed another camp site on the edge of the river. I had now reached the stage where I just plodded along with no feeling whatsoever and no longer felt the pangs of hunger.

In the early afternoon I came to a small clearing on the bank of the river. Remains of a camp fire were there, also a few poles as though a tent had been there at sometime. This spot commanded a large sweep of the bend of the river, and here it looked wide and deep. A large tree had pegs driven into it as though leading up to a lookout. I felt this place was too dangerous, so decided to push on. Soon I found myself in a swamp, alive with snakes, centipedes and what have you. Though it was about two o'clock in the afternoon and the sun was shining brightly when I entered this area, this spot was so gloomy that I could not see more than thirty or forty feet in any direction. Often I had lost my direction in the jungle, but at sometime or other would catch a glimpse of the sun to put me right again, but no chance here. I later found this swamp extended two or three miles and it would have been nearly impossible to get through. I was pretty well exhausted and sat on a log to decide my next move. I could not find where I had entered and just put my head down and barged blindly through the thick undergrowth and was extremely thankful upon seeing the sun again. I discovered then that I was heading away from the river, and the problem was to get back to the spot where I had last seen it.

I had reached the decision to make a raft and try to float down the river at night. By traveling in a semi circle I eventually came across a familiar landmark and then the track. It was about late evening, and while there was light I busied myself dragging anything in the way of timber I could handle. I was very weakened by this and had great difficulty, even with the lightest pole. When it was too dark to do any more I settled against the trunk of a tree and down came the usual heavy rain. It slackened after about an hour. Then just as I was dozing I felt a sensation similar to an electric shock, on my feet. I brushed my hand down and found it covered with ants, so I moved to the other side of the clearing, but I could not get away from them.

No light absolutely pitch dark and I nearly fell in the river, several times. I didn't like the idea of crocodiles. I climbed a tree but the ants followed. All I could do was to stand and stamp my feet. This went on all night. I heard several boats moving along the river and could hear the Japs. I was tempted to call out and give up. Just at first light the ants move back into the jungle a moving carpet of them must have been millions. My feet were raw and bleeding. I heard a boat coming along the river, and peering through the bushes I saw an old native alone in his boat. Having just about reached the end of my tether, I decided to gamble on him. I called in Malay for him to come to me, but he was frightened and stayed on the other side of the river watching me, and I thought, "that's the finish now". After studying me for a while he motioned me to get in.

About half a mile away round the bend of the river on the opposite side to my approach, we came to Akampong. The old man, Abing, took me to his house, and these huts, built on stilts, are surrounded by water at high tide and reached by means of a ladder. That was when I folded. I did not have the strength left to climb and had to be dragged up. They brought me food and told me I must be very careful as the Japs came through frequently and had a big camp at the mouth of the river about three miles away. I was concealed behind a false wall in the hut with there rice store.

Later in the morning I was helped out and found myself in a circle of the village Elders. They had brought gifts of fruit, sweet cakes, etc. I thanked them and offered them around. My Malay wasn't good enough to keep up with them and I was all at sea. Fortunately, a Filipino, Abdul Rasid, arrived and took the lead in the discussion. The natives were anxious for me to get back to my people, to ask them not to shoot the villages up from the air, which had happened on a number of occasions. I suggested they give me food and I would make my way, but they told me I wouldn't make it, so they would take me by boat at night. I asked them what they would do if they met the Japs on the river, and their reply was that they would fight.

I rested all day and about 10 p.m. we set off in two boats, one, a smaller boat with two men to act as decoy in case of trouble. We had to draw in to the edge of the river and drift quietly on a number of occasions as other craft approached. I fell asleep and woke with the sun shining and we were on the open sea. Cooking was handled without any noticeable slowing of the craft.

Just on dusk we pulled into an Island. In the distance I could see a number of large naval craft, and for this reason my friends decided to stay the night instead of proceeding to Liberan Island as originally planned. Throughout the day a number of aircraft had been sighted and these boys were really scared. One fellow, Buang I think, told me that a plane had shot a paddle out of his hands one time.

First thing next morning we proceeded to Liberan Island. Here I was made welcome and had to be taken to the headman's house. Later in the morning, two P.T. boats of the U.S. Navy were sighted, so we rushed to our boat and pushed off, One of the old man, Abing, took me to his house, and these huts, built on stilts, are surrounded by water at high tide and reached by means of a ladder. That was when I folded. I did not have the strength left to climb and had to be dragged up. They brought me food and told me I must be very careful as the Japs came through frequently and had a big camp at the mouth of the river about three miles away. I was concealed behind a false wall in the hut with there rice store.

Later in the morning I was helped out and found myself in a circle of the village Elders. They had brought gifts of fruit, sweet cakes, etc. I thanked them and offered them around. My Malay wasn't good enough to keep up with them and I was all at sea. Fortunately, a Filipino, Abdul Rasid, arrived and took the lead in the discussion. The natives were anxious for me to get back to my people, to ask them not to shoot the villages up from the air, which had happened on a number of occasions. I suggested they give me food and I would make my way, but they told me I wouldn't make it, so they would take me by boat at night. I asked them what they would do if they met the Japs on the river, and their reply was that they would fight.

I rested all day and about 10 p.m. we set off in two boats, one, a smaller boat with two men to act as decoy in case of trouble. We had to draw in to the edge of the river and drift quietly on a number of occasions as other craft approached. I fell asleep and woke with the sun shining and we were on the open sea. Cooking was handled without any noticeable slowing of the craft.

Just on dusk we pulled into an Island. In the distance I could see a number of large naval craft, and for this reason my friends decided to stay the night instead of proceeding to Liberan Island as originally planned. Throughout the day a number of aircraft had been sighted and these boys were really scared. One fellow, Buang I think, told me that a plane had shot a paddle out of his hands one time.

First thing next morning we proceeded to Liberan Island. Here I was made welcome and had to be taken to the headman's house. Later in the morning, two P.T. boats of the U.S. Navy were sighted, so we rushed to our boat and pushed off, One of the old man, Abing, took me to his house, and these huts, built on stilts, are surrounded by water at high tide and reached by means of a ladder. That was when I folded. I did not have the strength left to climb and had to be dragged up. They brought me food and told me I must be very careful as the Japs came through frequently and had a big camp at the mouth of the river about three miles away. I was concealed behind a false wall in the hut with there rice store.

Later in the morning I was helped out and found myself in a circle of the village Elders. They had brought gifts of fruit, sweet cakes, etc. I thanked them and offered them around. My Malay wasn't good enough to keep up with them and I was all at sea. Fortunately, a Filipino, Abdul Rasid, arrived and took the lead in the discussion. The natives were anxious for me to get back to my people, to ask them not to shoot the villages up from the air, which had happened on a number of occasions. I suggested they give me food and I would make my way, but they told me I wouldn't make it, so they would take me by boat at night. I asked them what they would do if they met the Japs on the river, and their reply was that they would fight.

I rested all day and about 10 p.m. we set off in two boats, one, a smaller boat with two men to act as decoy in case of trouble. We had to draw in to the edge of the river and drift quietly on a number of occasions as other craft approached. I fell asleep and woke with the sun shining and we were on the open sea. Cooking was handled without any noticeable slowing of the craft.

Just on dusk we pulled into an Island. In the distance I could see a number of large naval craft, and for this reason my friends decided to stay the night instead of proceeding to Liberan Island as originally planned. Throughout the day a number of aircraft had been sighted and these boys were really scared. One fellow, Buang I think, told me that a plane had shot a paddle out of his hands one time.

First thing next morning we proceeded to Liberan Island. Here I was made welcome and had to be taken to the headman's house. Later in the morning, two P.T. boats of the U.S. Navy were sighted, so we rushed to our boat and pushed off, One of the old man, Abing, took me to his house, and these huts, built on stilts, are surrounded by water at high tide and reached by means of a ladder. That was when I folded. I did not have the strength left to climb and had to be dragged up. They brought me food and told me I must be very careful as the Japs came through frequently and had a big camp at the mouth of the river about three miles away. I was concealed behind a false wall in the hut with there rice store.

Later in the morning I was helped out and found myself in a circle of the village Elders. They had brought gifts of fruit, sweet cakes, etc. I thanked them and offered them around. My Malay wasn't good enough to keep up with them and I was all at sea. Fortunately, a Filipino, Abdul Rasid, arrived and took the lead in the discussion. The natives were anxious for me to get back to my people, to ask them not to shoot the villages up from the air, which had happened on a number of occasions. I suggested they give me food and I would make my way, but they told me I wouldn't make it, so they would take me by boat at night. I asked them what they would do if they met the Japs on the river, and their reply was that they would fight.

I rested all day and about 10 p.m. we set off in two boats, one, a smaller boat with two men to act as decoy in case of trouble. We had to draw in to the edge of the river and drift quietly on a number of occasions as other craft approached. I fell asleep and woke with the sun shining and we were on the open sea. Cooking was handled without any noticeable slowing of the craft.

Just on dusk we pulled into an Island. In the distance I could see a number of large naval craft, and for this reason my friends decided to stay the night instead of proceeding to Liberan Island as originally planned. Throughout the day a number of aircraft had been sighted and these boys were really scared. One fellow, Buang I think, told me that a plane had shot a paddle out of his hands one time.

First thing next morning we proceeded to Liberan Island. Here I was made welcome and had to be taken to the headman's house. Later in the morning, two P.T. boats of the U.S. Navy were sighted, so we rushed to our boat and pushed off, one of the boys waving a white flag.

When we drew alongside, I heard an American voice say, "What do you know? It's an Aussie!" The skipper told me to stay on the Island and they would pick me up in the morning on the way back. They took Abdul Rasid as a guide and shot up the Nips at the mouth of the river.

Next morning they took me aboard and we proceeded to Iawi‑Iawi in the southern Philippines. I asked the date and it was the 15th. June my 28th. birthday! -The names of the other crew members of the native boat, besides Abdul Rasid were: Sapan (owner of the boat), Omar, Sagan, Bhang, Salim and Mangalong. They were really wonderful people!

I understand that the people of Sapi had to evacuate to Liberan as someone informed the Japs of their efforts on my behalf. Also at Sapi when I was there, there were a couple of Javanese, all that were left alive of the 3,000 brought to Sandakan to work on the airfield.


A sword swings
An arm flings
In futile defense
As death sings

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