Brits Retrace Borneo Death March

It's quite possibly the toughest hike in the world, and it had never been completed in its entirety until last weekend when 14 British soldiers emerged from the Borneo jungle after retracing the steps of the infamous death marches forced on prisoners of war towards the end of World War II.

Only six Australians survived three marches that claimed 1,781 Australian and 641 British troops as the Japanese who feared an allied invasion attempted to transfer POWs from Sandakan on the northeast coast of Borneo in what is now Malaysia’s Sabah state to camps in the interior.

All were malnourished, many were afflicted with malaria or beriberi. They were lucky to get 85g of rice a day, were beaten along the way and most who survived the 264 kilometer journey later shot or bayoneted.

The atrocities were considered too great for public consumption and were hushed up by governments in London and Canberra for decades after the war. The truth remained largely hidden until five of the surviving six Australians began to speak openly about what happened in 1985.

"It was emotional, reflective and at times we were close to tears as you realize what happened here 66 years ago," said Captain Dave Appleby.

In more recent years the trek has been transformed into a pilgrimage for veterans of all wars and people wanting to pay their respects to the fallen along the Sandakan to Ranau route. In doing so, many have attempted to complete the historic trail but the journey has proven too arduous and no one has completed the full trek until now.

As the chief guide, Tham Yau Kong, of the British expedition explained, there was always a reluctance to take hikers, particularly the unfit, into the uncharted jungle.

"Never had any of the numerous Death March groups done it, we kept it sacred only for a group where everyone is very, very fit and this well-trained British group is very, very fit," he said.

The team, led by Major Claire Curry and Captain Chas May, hiked up to eight hours a day for almost two weeks, departing on VJ day, Aug. 15, and reached the summit of Taviu Hill, which was the toughest part of the hike.

The 70-degree slope was waterlogged and slippery from torrential rain and the team had to form a human chain to drag each other up and over the summit. This was followed by a three-hour hike through waist-deep water teeming with leeches.

The odd snake was avoided; however, the razor sharp undergrowth was a constant problem. Each night the bagpipes were sounded and each morning a bugler played The Last Post and Reveille.

"It was an honor and a privilege to be the first from the British military to walk the route and honor the fallen," Maj Curry said. "The cohesiveness of the marching contingent was outstanding. It was exhausting and the group had to dig deep."

The expedition was put together by Major John Tulloch, a retired veteran of many conflicts including Vietnam, where he served with the New Zealand army, and Northern Ireland, where he served with the Royal Artillery Regiment.

Tulloch came to North Borneo in 1999 to commemorate the fallen. After some basic research he realized the vast majority of British soldiers who perished were from his own Royal Artillery Regiment and this made it all the more personal.

"I suppose the poignant moment was in 2004 when I had done my research into the various books that were out there, counted up and realized that 400 out of the 641 British POWs were from my regiment. How did I feel? I felt sick that we had no memorial to them, no monument, no recognition.

"None of the serving regiment knew about it and indeed the majority of the retired regiment were unaware and I just set my sights, something had to be done," Tulloch said.

It was a difficult task, raising funds and finding sponsorship. But eventually a team of 14 was assembled from the ranks of the regiment to undertake the march and construction began on a stone memorial dedicated to the fallen from Tulloch's regiment.

Most of the marchers have experience in current conflicts, most recently Afghanistan and Iraq, where Curry flew helicopters during the second Gulf War.

"The team did well. Tired and emotionally drained, realizing what they had done and achieved with the full realization of what an extraordinary type of person those POWs must have been to achieve that distance. The team were physically tested, mentally tested and emotionally tested," Tulloch said.

The journey from Lolosing near Sandakan takes an established tracks but as it winds towards the foothills of Mount Kinabalu as secondary jungle gives way to remote, primary rainforest.

Here environmental laws forbids any cutting of the undergrowth. As a result the expedition took a difficult line, retracing the journey along a ridgeline considered the most dangerous part of the trip.

"To be able to just hear the bagpipes sounding off in the distance as they made their final approach towards the memorial, it really was quite stirring," said Tulloch.

Over recent years the pilgrimages made to commemorate the death marches, usually on Anzac Day or Victory over Japan Day, have been largely Australian affairs. But Tulloch is hoping the efforts of his team will also raise the awareness of what happened here under Japanese occupation within the British consciousness.

The final stage of the expedition was completed on Aug. 27 at the Kundasang War Memorial, in nearby Ranau, where Tulloch unveiled a stone memorial dedicated to the soldiers of the Royal Artillery Regiment who perished in the death marches.

Aug. 27, 1945 was the day the last POWs were murdered by the Japanese 12 days after the war had ended.