In 1945, 2434 Allied POWs were marched at gunpoint through the Borneo rainforest by their Japanese captors. Only six would survive. More than 60 years later, I set out to retrace that event and to help bring the story home.
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. When I approached authorities in Borneo with my idea of retracing the Death March route, they told me it would be a first since the war, 61 years earlier.
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.
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.
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.
“Nothing,” Paul replies.
A moment later, Frank yells, “Two hundred meters out.”
“Nothing,” Paul says. “Wait a moment, I think I see—”
We all hear it before we see it—the deep, resonating thud of wave against cliff. I strain my neck over my left shoulder to see Bear Island ringed in steep cliffs, huge waves, and little hope. Our island refuge is no salvation at all.
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.
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.
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.