THE SANDAKAN-RANAU DEATH MARCH TRACK
The official documents used to compile this article are all held in Australian National Archives or the Australian War Memorial Collection. The transcripts of interviews, along with the videoed and audio recordings with local people, are preserved in the Silver Papers. A fully referenced version of this paper is held in the Archives of the Sabah State Museum.
In 1942-3, following the fall of Singapore, 2750 Australian and British POWs were sent to Sandakan, British North Borneo (BNB), to build an airfield for the Japanese. In 1944, after various transfers to Kuching and Labuan had taken place, about 2,400 prisoners remained at the Sandakan Camp.
In January 1945, with the Sandakan airstrip rendered useless by repeated Allied bombing attacks, the Japanese sent 455 of the fittest POWs on foot to Jesselton, to make use of their labour on the west coast. Another 536 POWs followed in May, and a third group of about 65 in June.
This movement of POWs from Sandakan to Ranau, where they were halted owing to Allied air activity at Jesselton, became known as the ‘death marches’. Only six of the more than 1000 POWs who set off to Ranau survived the ordeal. There were no survivors from the 1400 POWs who never left Sandakan.
Cutting a track:
In late 1944, following the invasion of the nearby Philippines by US Forces, and with all sea lanes denied to them by Allied submarine activity, the Japanese established an overland route between Sandakan, on the east coast of BNB, and Jesselton, on the west. The cutting of this track was to facilitate the movement of supplies and Japanese troops. However, in 1945 it also became the ‘POW death march track’.
Although there was a dry-weather foot-track linking Sandakan to Beluran on the Labuk River, and another linking Kota Belud in the west with Tampias on the Liwagu (Labuk) River, the only way of travelling the middle section – between Beluran and Tampias – was by boat, along the Labuk/Liwagu River system. All habitation between Tampias and Beluran was along this river ‘highway’.
Clearly, small boats rowed or poled along the river could not cope with a mass movement of troops and supplies, especially in sections where there were rapids, or where the river was shallow. A foot track was the only option.
In October 1944, two local headmen were ordered to survey and blaze a track linking the two existing trails. The new track began at Mile 42 on the Sandakan-Beluran trail in the east and ended in the west at Tampias, 124 miles from Sandakan and 31 miles from the village of Ranau, near Mt Kinabalu.
To help protect the numerous village communities from the unwelcome attentions of the Japanese, for the first 100 miles the headmen kept the route well to the south of the Labuk River. However, after the track crossed the Telupid and Tapaang Rivers, which flowed into the Labuk, the trail-blazers moved into the uninhabited and unsurveyed Taviu River Valley. This was a deliberate act, to make life even difficult for the Japanese troops.
Major Harry Jackson, in a 1946 report commissioned by the Australian Army on the death marches recorded:
When the Japanese commenced to make the rentis [track] from Sandakan they utilised the service of a native called Kanak. This man is virtually the headman of the Dusun people in the area . . . Kanak, like the people of Borneo, hated the Japanese and at every opportunity made sure that he did something that would impede them . . . the Japs told Kanak to cut the rentis from the Sandakan end to the Muanad River. He was given the appointment of surveyor because he was considered as the man who knew this portion of British North Borneo the best. He went out of his way to take the rentis through the most difficult path he could find . . . he did not know that the time that hundreds of British and Australian PW would be walking over this track and that many of them would suffer as a result of his actions in trying to sabotage the Japanese war effort. Many was the time that he deliberately arranged for the track to be cut up the side of impassable mountain range and then tell the japs that it was no good and that they would have to find another way. He would congratulate himself that he was responsible for wasting another two or three weeks of the Japs’ valuable time.
His friend Orang Kya Kulang, the leader of the Orang Sungei . . . took over from Kanak when the rentis reached the Muanad area and helped cut it as it moved westward.
As the headmen had purposely ensured that the route skirted all habitation along the Labuk River, food dumps were established at key points along the way. These were at Mile 23, Mile 33, Kolapis River, Muanad River, Mandorin River, Sapi River, Bauto River, Tapaang River (which the Japanese called Papan), Lolosing River and the village of Paginatan, the latter being only habitation between Mile 23 at Sandakan and the village of Ranau.
To replenish supplies at the food dumps, boats were taken from villages on the Labuk up the various tributaries that cut the track. However, once beyond Tapaang, the last of the Labuk tributaries crossed by the track, supplies were carried on foot along the Taviu River section by villagers from Wonod, Malapi, Mankadai and Miruru – all small villages in the Liwagu/Labuk valley. The villagers were also forced to cut and maintain their various sectors, and to supply vegetables and labour when needed.
It was while delivering messages for the Japanese in June 1945 that Domoit Kenitur of Miruru village came across a lone Australian POW hiding in the jungle near the river crossing at Kuporon, in the Taviu Valley. The Japanese had shot his companion.
Domoit took the escaped POW to his village, using a small hunting trail that led across Taviu Hill and into the Liwagu Valley. The villagers hid the POW in the jungle near the village and cared for him until he could secretly transported downstream by raft to Telupid, where he was handed over to a headman who had sheltered four other POWs.
Domoit also revealed that, once the track from Mile 42 to Tampias was cut, the Japanese, who had previously rafted along the Liwagu/Labuk River, preferred to walk. The track was a much shorter and faster route, and there had been many drownings due to the rafts capsizing.
Some villagers were forced to supply vegetables to a large Japanese staging camp and ammunition dump, known as Lolosing Camp, at the junction of the Taviu and the Lolosing/Taguk Rivers. In August 2011, Jadeah Sokina of Mankadai revealed how she made her way to the Taviu River from the old Mankadai village on the Liwagu, using the same hunting trail as Domoit. On reaching the Kuporon River she followed the Taviu upstream to Lolosing Camp. During the rainy season (the first march) she saw white men on the track between Kuporon and Lolosing. They were very hungry and were asking for food, so she gave them some cucumbers. In the dry season she saw Japanese at Lolosing camp slicing flesh from the calves and thighs of live POWs.
Another local man named Umpil, who had ferried Japanese officers across the river at Tampias, was also forced to carry supplies between Tampias and Tapaang. He knew the track well. Not only did he confirm that there was a large camp at the junction of the Taviu and Lolosing/Taguk Rivers, he also revealed that there was a second camp at the confluence of the Lolosing and Taguk Rivers.
The track, used by the Japanese from October 1944 until August 1945 as a supply line and by many hundreds of troops, was very well defined. The entire route from Sandakan to Ranau (and beyond) was marked with mile pegs at various intervals along its length. These pegs were used by the Japanese to record places of death, and after the war by Australian search teams to record their progress and body recoveries.
The claim of an alternate route through the Liwagu Valley:
In 1999 Australian writer Kevin Smith claimed that the death march route passed through Miruru village in the Liwagu Valley: that is, it did not follow the Taviu River.
His claim was in the form of a map that he had drawn, supposedly retracing the death march track. Accompanying this map were creative descriptions of the route, which he later more or less repeated in various other writings.
Smith’s only ‘evidence’, for his assertion that the track (for both marches) passed through the villages of ‘Miru’ [Miruru] and Mankadai, was that these names appeared as places of death for POWs on some Japanese records, recovered and translated post-war. He subsequently assumed that, on reaching the village of Miruru, the POWs had climbed the nearby mountain.
Smith compiled the following description of the first march passing through Miruru village. It is based, in part, ‘on a study of contour maps of the region [Liwagu River] held at the University of New England.’[in Armidale, a regional country town in NSW]
Beyond Taviu, struggling towards Melapi, the prisoners kept moving. At Melapi there was a change of direction as the Liwagu now came from the west out of a narrow valley or gorge, its green sides rising precipitously in places to 2,500 feet above them. The path along the river valley became troublesome, men fell down the steep inclines and had to claw their way back up again. Landslides were common along this part of the Liwagu valley and riverside cliffs were sometimes badly washed away. There were times when the rush of the river would wash away an unfortunate soul who had fallen…………….The columns passed the Miru kampong, but then they found they all confronted a vertiginous climb out of the valley. With a gradient steeper than one in three, it was an all but impossible climb, but they pushed on.
In an article entitled On the march from Ranau he wrote:
From Telupid the track proceeded past Tapaan (Pacan) [sic] towards Mankadai, and on towards Miru. It led in a generally north-west direction, following for some time the Liwagu River which had provided pre-war boat travel between Tampias and Sandakan. The path along the cliffs before reaching Miru was badly scoured away, the most troublesome part of the track, where men fell down the steep inclines and had to claw their way back up again. Mossy, rotten wooden logs spanned some of the deeper, narrow side ravines.
According to Smith, after leaving Miruru village the POWs had scaled a cliff-like mountain range before descending to the Liwagu River again at Tampias.
He claimed that the following is a description of the ascent up the mountain near Miruru village during the 2nd march by Nelson Short, one of two survivors on that march to reach Ranau. It is taken from a 1983 interview with journalist Tim Bowden.
I went over the top of a cliff. I fell and rolled down and down. I thought I was never going to stop . . . I was carrying a little mat with me and I come to rest on this rock and it saved my life. I crawled back up again and got back onto the march with them, but there were some terrible . . . the precipices you know, little paths you had to go around and everything were shocking, shocking country through there.
Short, however, was not describing cliffs in the Liwagu valley. He was describing the climb from Lolosing Camp on the Taviu River along a 20-metre-high cliff-like bank, followed by a steep, zig-zagging ascent from the camp site at the junction of the Lolosing and Taguk Rivers – the route confirmed by local people and described, logged and mapped by three separate post-war war graves recovery teams as they searched for bodies.
There is no doubt that the search parties were following the original track. Accompanying these teams were survivor W H Sticpewich, headmen and trail-blazers Kanak and Kulang, Umpil, another local man Zudin who had walked the route many times, and Orang Tua Gingga, headman of Malapi village on the Liwagu River.
The only cliffs near Miruru village are on the far side of the Liwagu, where the village was situated until the 1970s. Smith does not explain how and where the POWs supposedly crossed this river to begin with, or how and where they recrossed it, so that they could cross it again at Tampias in small boats – a fact well documented. Note: The route on Smith’s map does not correlate with his written descriptions.
Villagers Domoit and Jadeah attested that there was only one track, that they saw POWs between the Tapaang River and the summit of Taviu Hill, and that the track did not pass through, on go anywhere near, the villages of Miruru and Mankadai. This first-hand evidence was confirmed by Umpil and Zudin, and by Zudin’s wife, who lived at Miruru village during the war. Another local man disclosed that his grandmother had also supplied vegetables to the Japanese at Lolosing Camp.
In 2005 the Sabah Society, prior to organising an historic walk from Sandakan to Ranau, supplied trekking expert Tham Yau Kong with a copy of Smith’s map so that he could recommend a viable route. Tham used the map in good faith unaware that, some months before, Lynette Silver had offered a wartime map of the route to the Society – an offer not accepted as the organisers wished to follow existing sealed and estate roads. Following Smith’s map, the walkers entered the Liwagu Valley, instead of the Taviu. After marching through the present day villages of Mankadai and Miruru, they followed a village road back to the highway.
At the end of the walk Mr Kan Yaw Chong, of Sabah’s Daily Express, asked Lynette Silver to comment on the route the marchers had followed into the Liwagu Valley. Mr Kan, who was assigned to cover the Sabah Society walk, had written about the death marches since the early 1980s, had met and interviewed three of the six survivors, and had a deep understanding of the story.
No comment was published on the deviation into the Liwagu valley. Silver felt it was inappropriate at the time to reveal to footsore and weary walkers that they had been led astray by a faulty map.
Tham Yau Kong did not discover that the wartime map existed until the walk was almost over. Disappointed that he had inadvertently led the group into the wrong valley because of incorrect information provided to him, he was determined to find the correct route. With the assistance of Silver and a copy of the wartime map, he immediately began months of field investigation. With the help of local people who had walked the track, he and his team of expert jungle guides located the key sites marked on the wartime map and in March 2006, the route was reopened.
Where was the place the Japanese called ‘Miruru’?
Tham Yau Kong and Lynette Silver established that names ‘Miruru’ and ‘Mankadai’ on the Japanese records do not refer to villages of these names, which in any case were not where they are today. Miruru was on the far side of the Liwagu River, at the junction of the Miruru River. Mankadai, also on the far side of the Liwagu, has relocated to the floor of the valley, closer to the main road.
In 2011 Domoit revealed that ‘Miruru’ was simply the name given by the Japanese to the area near the junction of the Lolosing and Taguk Rivers, in the section of the track assigned to the villagers from Miruru – hence the reason for the name. The same applied to the sectors known as Mankadai and Maringan.
The mountain that the Japanese troops and POWs climbed was not a mountain range in the Liwagu valley near Miruru village, as Smith claims, but a steep ridge following the Lolosing River, up the side of what today is known as Taviu Hill on the northern side of the Taviu River.
At their war crimes trial in 1946, Japanese officers on the first march referred to this area as Milulu or Miruru. It appears on death records as the place of death for some POWs, and has been translated variously by Allied translators as Mirr, Miru, Milulu and Miruru. Note: Body recovery records prove that the place nominated on Japanese death records as ‘Mairu’ refers to ‘Malio’ River, east of Telupid.
The Japanese on the first march also supplied to war crimes investigators a stylised plot of the route from Sandakan to Jesselton, nominating sites that supplied vegetables, provisions, or provided a long term ‘stayed place’ or a medical aid station for the Japanese. The sites nominated between Bauto and Ranau were Papan (Tapaang River), Miruru and Paginatan, all of which were listed as key places for the provision of supplies and vegetables. Although the plot is merely a guide, it does indicate the approximate direction of the route. ‘Miruru’ is shown south-west of Tapaang River, with Paginatan roughly due west. Miruru village was well to the west of Tapaang. The document, held in Australian Archives, is very faint and fragile, but the relevant section is shown below.
As only the Japanese used the term Miruru, it does not appear on any Australian documentation relating to the post-war searches conducted along the death march route, or to any place where bodies were recovered. The Australians refer only to Lolosing and Taguk (‘Miruru’)in their diaries and recovery paperwork.
There are three separate maps held in Australian Archives showing very clearly that from the Telupid Crossing the track had followed the Taviu River, not the Liwagu. The most detailed map, drawn in 1947 by a team recovering bodies along the track, (the original of which belongs to Silver and was the one used by Tham for his field investigation), shows and names several of the tributaries of the Taviu River that had to be crossed – Baba, Tararangang [sic], Tundom and Lolosing – tributaries that are all identifiable today. The map also shows that a steep climb began near the junction of the Tovio [sic] and Lolosing Rivers, and ended just before the Monkilau [sic] River. The cartographer, Corporal Robertson, who gave Silver his original map, stated that the map had been ‘Prepared from information provided by Kanak, Lieutenant Brazier of War Graves Liaison Unit and Japanese Officers’ Reports’.
A second map, prepared by a team gathering information for war crimes is more crudely drawn, but shows the same route along the Taviu River. It is also clearly marked that this is the route of the first and second death marches.
A third map, showing Japanese troop concentrations on 26 June 1945 at key points along the track, was prepared from information supplied by local agents for a behind-the-lines intelligence team. Miruru village is not marked, but the Labuk River is, and it is not near the track route. The map shows the track from Bauto, across the Telupid river to the crossing point near Tampias.
Umpil and Zudin provided detailed verbal descriptions of the route the POWs followed, including the names of rivers crossed, and the ascent from Lolosing. These two men also physically pointed out the route from Tampias to Telupid River, to Lynette Silver and Tham Yau Kong.
During his research Smith evidently failed to locate any of the archival maps, one of which has been prominently displayed since March 1999 in the pavilion at the POW Park at Sandakan. He also apparently failed to find the war graves diaries or to interview any of the local people who knew the death march route. He has therefore, since 1999, persisted with the flawed assumption that the various forms of Miruru, shown on the death records, referred to the village of that name in the Liwagu Valley.
Recording and mapping the actual death march route, 1945:
The Australian body recovery teams carried out three searches of the track between 1946-47. The section between Telupid Crossing and Tampias was searched in May 1946, September 1946 and May 1947. Distances, times and notes on the terrain were logged in the search teams’ diaries, along with place names that correlated with detailed maps that they also prepared.
Key points (mostly river crossings, as the track passed through no villages) and the distances from Sandakan (in miles) were recorded: (Spelling is that used at the time)
POW Camp (8), Gum Gum River (17.25), Mile 21.5, Duson River (33), Mile 42 (nr Kolapis R), Muanand River(49.5), Mandoring River (60), Sapapayu/Sapi Rivers (63), Batas Dump (66), Tuaninting River (70.5), Celo River (76), Bonkud River (80), Boto Dump (82.5), Boto River (84.5), Gumbaron River (89.5), Melio (Maliau) River, Talupit River (96.5), Taipahung (Tapaang) River (98), Baba River (102), Tararangang River, Kuporon River, Tundom River (108), Lolosing Camp (113), Monkilua River (118), Lowoi River (118), Tampios Crossing (123.5), Paginatan (128.5), Segindai (134)
Nalapak (143), Muruk (147)
Ranau POW Camp, (155), Ranau Jungle Camp 2 (at mile 110.25, Tambunan Track)
The first search moved from east to west. The second and third travelled in the opposite direction. Daily diaries, and reports, logged the progress of each party. The following précis has been taken from these reports and three diaries, two of which are hand written. Copying of the hand-written diaries in any form, other than hand-transcription, is not permitted by the Australian War Memorial.
In July 1946, the first party (31 War Graves Unit) camped at Maliau and Tapaang Rivers. They then moved into the Taviu Valley to camp at Baba River and then Lolosing Camp, before ascending the mountain. Beyond the summit was the Monkilua River and, six miles beyond that, was the river crossing at Tampias.
The 31 War Graves Diary recorded the following. It covers the stretch from Maliau River (a tributary of the Labuk) to Baba River (Taviu valley), up the steep climb from the Taviu River at Lolosing, to the summit near Monkolua and the Tampias crossing:
TOD (time of departure) Melio (Maliau) 0640. TOA (time of arrival) Taipahung [sic – Tapaang] 1600
TOD Taipahung 1300. TOA Baba 1630.
TOD Baba 0700. TOA Tundum 1630.
TOD Tundom 0700. TOA Lolosing 1430. Difficult. Track cut round side of steep hills with streams close at foot. Recoveries unlikely because bodies would roll down hill and wash away.
Information from local coolies is Lolosing was a large Jap Camp to which many Japs proceeded after the war. Considerable dump of equipment and explosives here.
TOD Lolosing 1100. TOA Monkileha [sic] 1510. Very steep country rise today, estimated 1500 ft and total height over 3000ft. Track cut into side of hills and zig-zagged. Drops like precipices.
TOD Monkileua [sic] 0700. TOA Tampias 1500.
In September 1946, Warrant Officer Sticpewich joined the second search. This party moved from west to east. He had four local people with him who knew the track well – Kanak and Kulang, Umpil from Tampias, Zudin from Bolisok in the Liwagu Valley – plus villagers from the Liwagu who had been employed along the track.
Zudin had belonged to a blow-pipe gang that made frequent forays into the Taviu valley, where he and a small band patrolled the track between Tarangag River and Lolosing, picking off Japanese stragglers.
The prowess of Zudin and his team was so formidable that Ueno Itsuyoshi, a Japanese private recuperating from illness and exhaustion at a Japanese rest camp near Bauto in mid-1945, was warned on his recovery not to travel alone lest he fall prey to ‘wicked locals’ – the blow-pipe gang.
Sticpewich and his party went from Tampias to just beyond Monkolua for the night, then on to Taguk and Lolosing [‘Miruru’] where Sticepewich recorded there was a ‘Jap Camp on the rentis’. He also noted that the area was ‘very mountainous’. After stopping for the night two miles beyond Lolosing (on the Taviu River), they moved on to Kuporon Crossing, where they saw two rhinos.
Another local headman now joined the party. He was Orang Tua Gingga, of Malapi village on the Liwagu River, who had information to offer as the search was now near the Baba River, in the area of the track for which he and his village had been responsible. He was able to point out the location of two bodies he had found on 7 August 1945, while harassing the Japanese moving along the trail.
After camping at Mile 58 from Ranau (near Tapaang River, about 98 miles from Sandakan), the team continued to Telupid Crossing, Gumbaron River and the supply base at Bauto, which was at Mile 79 from Ranau (82.5 miles from Sandakan).
On the third and final search in May 1947, Sticpewich, Kulang and Kanak again moved from west to east, following the same route as the previous search parties.
After leaving Monkolua at 0900, the party continued towards Lolosing. Sticpewich reported that the track was in bad condition with banks fallen away and log bridges missing along the zig-zagging path. Reaching Lolosing Camp he and his team dug up two hand bombs and several mortar bombs, which they exploded. He also noted that the path down to the Taviu River from the Lolosing-Taguk junction followed the creek, but was 66 feet from it, on the top of a steep bank.
After camping out on the Taviu River they moved on to the Tararangag and Baba Rivers, before heading for the Telupid Base camp, at the junction of the Telupid and Labuk Rivers, 1.25 miles from the actual track.
At no time did Kanak or Kulang, who were with the three search teams, ever lead the parties into the Liwagu Valley. Zudin and Umpil, with parties 2 and 3, also followed the same route along the Taviu Valley, as did the headman of Malapi, a village that Smith claims the POWs passed by as they entered the Liwagu valley.
All local informants stated repeatedly in interviews conducted between 2005 and 2016 that there was only one track, which went through the Taviu Valley and climbed Taviu Hill via a steep, slippery and difficult route that ended at a place referred to locally as ‘Nakanon Sambaan’, near the present-day Forestry Station, east of the Monkolua River. Two of the informants physically pointed out the route. It is the same route recorded on the archival maps, and recorded in the diaries. All eyewitnesses were vehement in their assertions that no Japanese or POWs were ever in the Liwagu Valley or anywhere near Miruru or Mankadai villages.
POW and Japanese references to the exhausting climb from Lolosing Camp to Monkolua River, via ‘Miruru’:
As Nelson Short revealed in his 1983 interview, the climb from Lolosing Camp to the top of the hill was ‘shocking country’ and very tough. Survivor Keith Botterill, who was with Group 3 on the first march, recorded that his party lost five men from exhaustion on the steep climb up the mountain, about 5 miles from Tampias [actually six miles]. (Note: Death Records confirm that five men from Botterill’s group died on 13 February 1945, the day they climbed the mountain.)
Survivor Bill Moxham, with Group 6 on the first march, reported how some men in his party had to be left behind at various staging camps. At a war crimes trial held in Rabaul in 1947 he told the court that, after leaving two POWs at Bauto, ‘the next one we left was at the foot of a big range. There was a food dump there and I think the name was something like Malulu’. He reported finding a POW named Rod Richards, beaten and left for dead on the climb, who was marching with party 5, one day ahead of Moxham’s. He was helped along by Moxham but died the next day (17 February) between the top of the hill and Tampias.
Note: The date of death and place of death for Richards on his supposedly ‘certified’ death certificate is incorrect. The Japanese when making out the death record transcribed, in error, the date and place of death for Herbert Ewing, who was with Group 1 and died near Segindai on 11 February 1945. On the field records, his name is below that of Richards. Richards’ actual date of death was 17 February 1945.
The Japanese on the first march also referred to this difficult section, which they called ‘Milulu’. Japanese Lieutenant Shokjiro Tanaka, who was with Group 6 in the party ahead of survivor Bill Moxham, recorded: ‘Every afternoon of those days it rained heavily. Especially on Feb 15 it rained all the day and before Milulu we met a heavy rain and the path along the cliff [along the vertical banks of the Taguk/Lolosing River] was washed away everywhere. We fell down and crept up the cliff several times.’
Another officer, Abe Kenzo, who was with Group 9, recorded ‘As I came near to Milulu the road became steeper and the march became more difficult’.
A third officer, Hirano Yukihiko of Group 2, the party ahead of survivor Botterill, stated that ‘many dysentery patients came out among the group at Papan [Tapaang River] and some of them died there. After one day’s rest we were joined up by the deseased [sic] patients’ party which came following us, and we started for Milulu. The road grew steep in the vicinity of Milulu, but was less muddy. At Milulu each of the group was given 300 grammes of rice and 200 grammes of vegetables. After arriving at Paginatan I despatched a number of soldiers to fetch a party of deseased [sic] patients that had to stop at Tampias.
Note: Hirano referred to leaving some ill patients (POWs and soldiers) behind at Taapang. Other officers made similar reference to leaving the sick behind at other places, such as Bauto, and then allow them to come on if they recovered sufficiently. This practice negates any chance that POWs on the first march were diverted by the Japanese officers into the Liwagu valley, as each group followed the party in front, moving from food dump to food dump along a well defined track, marked with mile pegs.
As part of Smith’s ‘evidence’ that the 2nd death march went into the Liwagu Valley, he quoted the words of Nelson Short (see above). Sticpewich was on this march, which moved in one large group. As Sticpewich did not enter the Liwagu Valley, neither did Short.
Short’s vivid description does not refer, therefore, to any cliffs near Malapi or Miruru, but to the precipitous path on the high bank above the Lolosing/Taguk riverbank and then the steep, zig-zagging climb to the top of Taviu Hill, described by the recovery teams and locals and cut and maintained by the people of Miruru village.
An analysis of the dates and places on which POWs from each group on the first march died, shows that they were indeed marching one day apart, and moving from food dump to food dump. As some Japanese officers (but not all) in charge of the groups ‘certified’ death records for those who had died at ‘Miruru’, it has been possible to isolate the dates on which POWs climbed the mountain: Group 1 on 11 February, Group 2 on the 12th, Group 3 (Botterill’s group) on the 13th, Group 4 on the 14th, Group 5 (Richard’s group) on the 15th and Group 6 (Moxham’s group) on the 16th and so on.
It is simply impossible that some hundreds of POWs still alive on the first death march passed, unobserved, through the Liwagu valley, past the villages of Malapi, Mankadai and Miruru, over a nine-day period. It is equally unbelievable that none of the starving POWs made any effort to obtain food from the villages – either as they passed by or camped in the vicinity for the night.
When Keith Botterill was asked why his group did not try obtain any food from locals when they found no supplies left at Bauto and Tapaang, forcing them to subsist on four cucumbers for four days, he replied that they saw no one, and no villages, not even a single hut, between Sandakan and Paginatan.
The body recovery records show that no remains were found in the Liwagu Valley, nor were any reported to searchers, despite it being widely known that good rewards would be paid to those providing such information. The only bodies reported by the Malapi headman were those in the Taviu Valley, along a stretch of the track for which he was responsible
However, the identified body of Corporal Levis, whose place of death was listed as ‘Milulu’ by the Japanese, was recovered by a search team: not from the village of that name but from the Taviu valley, en route to the camp that the Japanese called Miruru. The body of Rod Richards, who did not survive the beating he had received on the climb, was found between the summit of the mountain and Tampias.
An Investigation by the Australian Army History Unit
In August 2011 an Australian tour operator, using the map Smith had published in 1999, claimed in the press that he had ‘found’ the ‘correct route’ of the death march track. He declared that (after crossing the Telupid River), it had gone through the village of Miruru in the Liwagu Valley. He cited Smith as his authority.
As these well-publicised claims were seriously undermining the integrity of the death march story, and as the tour operator was promoting treks via part of this supposed route, Ms Kathy Upton-Mitchell, the Deputy Director of the Office of Australian War Graves (the Government authority responsible for the POW Park at Sandakan) ordered the Australian Army History Unit to undertake a complete and independent audit of all the available evidence to determine the route of the death marches.
Over a period of 4-5 months, the history experts combed the archives in Australia. They also received statements from the local people who had been forced to work for the Japanese and who knew the route of the death march track intimately.
At the end of their independent investigation the Australian Army Historians concluded that there was only one track, and it followed the Taviu River, the route shown on archival maps compiled by body recovery and intelligence gathering teams. They further concluded that at no time did this route pass anywhere near Miruru village, or enter the Liwagu valley.
In any case, such a deviation would be contrary to the policy of the headmen who deliberately cut the track away from inhabited areas – a fact confirmed in archival documents. As the Tampias-Telupid section was ‘lonely’ and uninhabited, with no food supplies or shelter, Harry Jackson, who compiled a lengthy report on Sandakan and the death marches for the Australian Government, did not go beyond Paginatan. He returned to Jesselton, sailed to Sandakan and accessed Telupid by boat.
The conclusions reached by the Army historians, and used to create an official Death March Route Map, were not based on supposition but hard, factual evidence, held in Australian archives. The documents reviewed included
* the three separate maps compiled by body recovery teams, an investigation team and an intelligence team, all independently mapping the route taken
* the detailed daily diaries compiled by teams searching the track for bodies
* the detailed information and records provided by survivor Warrant Officer Sticpewich, who searched the track twice
* the records of each body recovered, giving a precise locations and map references.
The official announcement in April 2012 of the findings and the presentation of a map to government departments in Sabah, was reported in Sabah’s Daily Express.
Wayne Wetherall, the tour operator who placed his faith in Smith’s map, also recognised the importance of the Army History Unit’s official investigation.
On 13 April 2012, before the findings were released, Wetherall posted the following notice on his website:
It is great news the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation (DIGO) has undertaken to develop a topographical map of the Telupid to Tampias sector of the Japanese 1945 Sandakan to Ranau Track.
The correct Sandakan route has been under some cloud since Wayne Wetherall and his team walked what they believe to be the correct route, based on a map produced and researched by Historian and Author Kevin Smith OAM. This on going research by the Department will allow all trekkers to walk with confidence along the most likely route that the POWs walked.
Twelve days later, the map was released. It showed that the route followed the Taviu River.
Despite Wetherall’s commendable comments, the findings of the AHU were evidently not to his liking, as he continued to promote and follow the discredited Liwagu Valley ‘route’.
Smith dismisses the official findings:
Despite being informed of the AHU’s findings, Smith evidently failed to alert the Sabah Museum about the official investigation. In 2016, four years later, he apparently prevailed upon senior Museum staff to include a panel of text, provided by him, which formed part of a display in a small museum at Ranau promoting his ‘alternate route’ through the Liwagu Valley.
In what appears to be an attempt to give credence to this material, another route (which is different from the one that Smith published in 1999, and also varies from his description) was added to the official Australian Government map, thereby giving the impression that the Army History Unit endorsed the existence of a possible second route.
On 14 June 2016 the Army History Unit confirmed it had no knowledge of the unauthorised addition to its map. As the findings in 2012 show, it does not support the concept of an alternate route.
Datuk Masidi Manjun reviews the evidence:
The Honourable Datuk Sri Paglima Masidi Manjun, Minister for Tourism, Culture and the Environment, who had opened the display at the Ranau museum in April 2016, viewed the archival evidence on 9 June 1916, along with Puan Joanna Datuk Kitingan, Officer in Charge, Sabah Heritage Council, and former Director of the Sabah Museum. The Minister, after being briefed about Smith’s claim, examined the three archival maps, the diary entries detailing the journeys of the search and recovery teams and extracts from statements made by the local eyewitnesses.
DSP Masidi’s constituency takes in Miruru village, so he knows the area well. On viewing the evidence, he concurred with the conclusion of the Australian Government – there was only one route, and it did not go into the Liwagu Valley.
This agreed with the assessment made in August 2011 by Tengku Adlin, at that time Chairman of the Sabah Tourism Board and who had participated in the Sabah Society’s walk. He came to this same conclusion after viewing the map collated by the body recovery teams at a meeting attended by Datuk Irene Charuruks, the then General Manager of Sabah Tourism Board, Lynette Silver and her husband.
Having rejected the AHU findings, Smith now refused to accept the decision reached by Datuk Masidi. On learning that the Minister had ordered the offending panels and defaced map to be removed from the Ranau museum, Smith declared that the decision was ‘political’. Dismissing the archival evidence completely, he stated that he would stand by his claim until such time that ‘honest evidence’ was produced.
According to a government spokesperson, during a meeting with Datuk Masidi on 22 August 2016, Smith allegedly claimed that POW bodies were found along the ‘alternate’ route. However, despite a request to the Sabah government, the evidence to support this claim has not been forthcoming. The bodies Smith allegedly claims were found on the ‘alternate’ route were certainly not located by any of the army recovery teams, and they are certainly not in Labuan War Cemetery, where every set of remains in every grave has been accounted for. So who found them, and where are they now? All eyewitnesses living in Miruru and Mankadai villages during the war have repeatedly stated that no live POWs, let alone dead ones, were ever in the Liwagu Valley.
To add further weight to the already overwhelming evidence that there was only one route, on 14 August 2016 Tham Yau Kong located Tuaty Akau, a 102-year-old man who was employed by the Japanese to cut and maintain the track between Bauto and Tampias – the section of the track in dispute. Despite his great age, Tuaty Akau’s hearing is acute and his memory sharp. He stated emphatically that the route did not go anywhere near Kampong Miruru, a statement repeated to Lynette Silver five days later when she recorded his evidence on audio tape.
On 23 August Sabah’s Daily Express published a transcript of specific questions put to Tuaty Akau by Tham Yau Kong, during his 14 August interview. After tersely stating that the track did not go near Kampong Miruru, he listed the river crossings along the route – the same rivers shown on the body recovery maps, and recorded in the recovery teams’ diaries. The journalist covering the story, Kan Yaw Chong, observed “the historical evidence on exactly where the mid section went looks conclusive, given a direct testimony from an original member of crew that cut the Death March track alongside Panglima Kulang (Beluran) and Panglima Akui (Paginatan), that the track did not reach Miruru.’
For an online report see http://www.dailyexpress.com.my/news.cfm?NewsID=112241
Despite Smith’s ongoing and intractable stance, and his most recent alleged claim that bodies were recovered along an ‘alternate’ track, the archival and other evidence, including statements by six eyewitnesses, shows beyond all doubt that the death march track followed the Taviu River and never, at any time, entered the Liwagu valley, to pass through or by the villages of Miruru and Mankadai – either past or present.
The claim that it did so has no basis in fact, as is evidenced by the failure of those supporting this concept to produce a shred of evidence to support their case, other than to express faulty assumptions based on insufficient research.
The Taviu Valley route, shown by the Army history Unit in 2012 to be the only route, was carefully mapped in 1946-1947 by investigation and search teams, with details logged in diaries by no less than three separate search parties.
With this route confirmed repeatedly by six local people (three of whom are still alive), and endorsed independently as being the only possible route by both Tenku Adlin and Datuk Masidi, those who wish to follow in the footsteps of the prisoners of war can do so with absolute confidence.