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The Rescue of the POWs from Berhala Island

Despite the failure of the uprising, the guerrillas of Sulu maintained their interest in what was happening in North Borneo and it was when the Japanese brought Australian and British PoWs, captured in Singapore, to the death camp at Sandakan that their role became significant.

Sandakan, is situated on the east coast of Sabah, therefore it is very close to the southernmost islands of the Philippines where the guerrillas of Sulu operated.

About 1500 men, the first group of Australian PoWs, were shipped from Singapore on the Ubi Maru in 1942. More men, including the British PoWs, arrived in April and June 1943.

One of the Australian officers was Lieutenant Russ Ewin who was a member of B Company, recalls the voyage from Singapore to Sandakan:

‘I was a lieutenant in 8 Division captured in Singapore and later on sent to various PoW camps. After we had been at Changi for five months the Japanese decided Australians, British and other nationalities would be better used as labour to build an airport at Sandakan, British North Borneo. We did not know at the time, but 1500 of us were placed in a boat to go somewhere where the Japanese said we would not have to work, there would be ample food and so on.

We went on a ship that had been an old tramp steamer and 1500 of us were crammed into two small holds, divided horizontally so that people at the bottom were sitting in some coal dust and people on top had their heads almost against the steel plates of the ship.

The food that we got was almost inedible, very unpalatable, we had a great amount of dysentery, skin trouble and by the time we got to Sandakan I think we all agreed it had been a hell ship for us.’

Before being marched to the camp at Sandakan, the men of E Company stopped at Berhala Island in Sandakan Bay, close to the town itself. The Sulu guerrillas acted. Word reached the senior Allied officers that the guerrillas would supply arms and reinforcements if they created an uprising.

Unfortunately, the senior Allied officers refused to join in the scheme. Perhaps if they knew of the atrocities which lay ahead of them, they would have seized the opportunity presented.

Berhala Island was occupied not only by the PoWs who were housed in the buildings of the old quarantine station,but there was also a leper colony and a small village with a coconut plantation on the northern tip of the island.

Once on the island the men were put to work which meant that a few of the men who yearned for escape had the opportunity to get to know the lie of the land. These men were: Driver Rex Butler, Private Jock McLaren, Sapper Jim Kennedy,Lieutenants Blow, Gillon Wagner and Captain Ray Steele. They scoured the island for suitable escape paths and hiding places. They also realized that assistance from the local guards would be advantageous.

They found assistance from Sgt. Koram, an indigenous member of the constabulary and operative for the underground which had formed around the death camp of Sandakan. Sgt. Koram was friendly with Corporal Alberto Quadra a member of the USFIP and one of their intelligence officers. Koram promised that a boat skippered by the guerrillas would pick them up and take them to the nearest island of the Philippines. This news excited the PoWs as they thought about joining the guerrillas and fighting against the Japanese.

Despite this, McLaren, Kennedy and Butler decided that they should have a Plan B, and scouted what boats the leper colony might have. Meanwhile, they hid food which Koram had brought for them after his trips to the mainland. The food was donated by other members of the underground, as the plan had progressed more members of the underground had to be brought into the arrangements.

Of other members of the Sandakan underground who were involved, three Jemadar Ojager Singh, Ernesto Lagan and Corporal Abin were eventually executed by the Japanese after the underground was discovered. As was Wong Muk Seng, a Filipino spy who had posed as a trader.

Notes were passed between Quadra and the Sandakan underground. As she spoke the dialects of Sulu, Lilian Funk, the daughter of Guy Strattan, translated and passed on vital information between Quadra and the underground. Also, Lilian was in contact with her father and it was he who gave permission for the rescue to be carried out. Quadra had made three trips to Sandakan, at great risk to himself, when planning the rescue.

When it looked as if the plan could be enacted an unforeseen event required a sudden change. Koram told them that three PoWs had escaped from Sandakan camp, two had been recaptured and killed but a third, L/Sgt. Wallace, had escaped and was rescued and hidden by Heng Joo Ming, another member of the Sandakan underground. Koram had always told the PoWs that the Japanese would never allow PoWs to escape, and this latest event would mean that they would be extra vigilant.

Reluctantly, they agreed to include Wallace, but he brought the number of escapees to eight and a boat capable of carrying that number of men was unlikely. There was also an extra mouth to feed, and the rations were limited. So they agreed to split into two parties: McLaren, Butler, Kennedy as one party in a boat stolen from the lepers, and Blow, Gillon, Wagner, Steele and Wallace would keep to the plan outlined by Koram and Quadra.

Stealing the boat from the lepers did not go smoothly. The lepers pursued them and even though the three PoWs got away, they had made enemies of the lepers who created such a din that it aroused the Japanese.

The five PoWs left behind were in greater danger and at first the Japanese stepped up their efforts to find them. The PoWs had to wait ten days, fearful in their cramped hiding place until Koram appeared, but his news was not good. With heightened Japanese efforts to find them, there was no way they could steal another boat and it was too dangerous to try to contact Quadra.

Koram said that they should return to the original hideout as that area had already been searched thoroughly. Koram had also convinced Salleh, the watchman at the quarantine station, to bring food when he himself could not come.

At last the boat arrived with Quadra and four others. I will let Mohamed Tahir, another member of the constabulary and very young member of the underground involved with the rescue, relate some of the events:

‘The night the last of the 2000 PoWs had been transferred to the mainland, Sergeant Koram borrowed a friend’s boat and sneaked back to Pulau Berhala. Then he quietly made his way to the cluster of houses near the shore.

He untied one of the boats belonging to an islander, made a hole in the bottom of the boat and shoved it into the flowing waters of the estuary where it was carried some distance away before it sank out of sight in the deep water.

He stole two more boats, and did the same with them. He then put on a pair of Australian army boots which he had managed to get hold of earlier, and stomped around on the spot on the seashore, leaving a lot of tracks. Then he quietly returned to the mainland undetected.

Early the next day, there was a great hue and cry when the three islanders awoke to find their boats gone. They reported the matter to the Japanese, who went to investigate. When they saw the boot prints in the mud they concluded that the Australian PoWs must have taken the boats and escaped from the island, and they immediately mounted a search at sea. They never realized that the escapees were still on the island.’

The kumpit (native name) was large and carried sacks of rice in the hold. This was a deliberate choice by Quadra and his wisdom was rewarded when they were stopped by a Japanese destroyer. The PoWs were told to lie in the hold, the planks were replaced and sacks of rice placed upon them. Fortunately, the Japanese did not board the kumpit and they sailed on.

Earlier, the PoWs were alarmed at the direction that the kumpit was sailing. What they did not know was that the waters of Sulu are irregular and only the best sailors know how to navigate them. The PoWs smelled betrayal, but my Aunt Bermina Strattan (about 9 years of age then) said that there was no chance of that, all the crew were loyal guerrillas.

At last they arrived at Tawi-Tawi. Freedom.

All eight Australian PoWs were reunited on Tawi-Tawi, they were inducted into the United States Infantry Philippines and went into action. Butler was killed on 18 August 1943, and Lieutenant Wagner was killed on 21 December 1943.