Wednesday, 26 August 2020
Sandakan Death Marches
Things are tough at the moment. This may just be the toughest year that many of us live through. But I caught up with two old mates recently to help put things in perspective. Reg, who's 97, and Bert, who's an amazing 104, are part of that group of people we call 'the greatest generation', World War II veterans. While we're being asked to stay home or wear a mask, they were asked to do so much more. They fought on the Kokoda Track and in the Pacific. At this old age, they still carry with them the physical and mental scars of that time. They still have malaria; they still have nightmares. But Reg and Bert are two of the lucky ones—they made it home. Not everyone did.
Not many Australians know the story of what happened at Sandakan. It's not an easy story to tell. It's a horror story, gut-wrenching horror. Near the end of World War II, the Japanese walked sick and starving prisoners 250 kilometres from Sandakan to Ranau. It was a death march. Men who couldn't keep going were shot or bayonetted. There are stories of men slumping by the side of the track, shaking hands with their mates, saying goodbye, and waiting for the death squads to arrive. It's also a story of extraordinary mateship—not the sort of mateship that we know and understand. It's much more than that. In his book on Sandakan, Paul Ham says, 'Your friend in Japanese captivity is something more—a nurse, a guide, priest, gravedigger.'
Richie Murray and Keith Botterill were mates, best mates. Keith was a working-class kid from Katoomba, and Richie was a labourer from Hurstville. They fought together in Singapore and they survived together in Changi, and at Sandakan and along the march to Ranau. And they planned to escape together. Together they stole some rice and some biscuits for the escape. But, when the Japanese discovered a biscuit bag, they lined up everybody at the camp and threatened to kill them all. Keith whispered to Richie, 'Don't say a thing. They can't shoot us all,' but Richie did say something. He stepped forward and he took the blame. He was taken away, tied to a tree, beaten, bayonetted, and thrown in a bomb crater.
There were 2,508 Australian and British prisoners of war shipped to Sandakan. Only six made it back to Australia—six out of 2,508. That's a death rate of 99.8 per cent. It is the worst atrocity in Australian military history. One of the six who survived was Richie's mate Keith. I've walked the track from Sandakan to Ranau and onto the last camp a few kilometres down the road. It's an eerie place. I'm not a superstitious person, but it felt full of ghosts. It's where, two weeks after Japan surrendered, the last surviving 15 prisoners of war were executed. Tomorrow is 75 years since that terrible day, two weeks after the war had ended.
About 12 years ago, historian Lynette Silver and her husband, Neil, were walking around that last camp when Neil's metal detector went off. Buried under the soil, they found a pile of brass buckles and, on top of them, a button from an Australian uniform. Lynette recognised instantly what it was. It was a Scout symbol, a circle with a dot in the middle. It means finished, or gone home—a message across the void of time.
We promise ourselves every Anzac Day that, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. But how many of us do? How many of us remember them? How many of us even know this story? But we should. And tomorrow we should pause and remember these boys—these poor, tortured souls who never came home. Lest we ever forget them.