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The following article appeared in the International Herald Tribune newspaper on Tuesday 23 March 1999.

The Borneo Death March

Borneo Death March

Of 2,700 Prisoners, 6 Survived

An Old Soldier Remembers a Wartime Atrocity

By Thomas Fuller International Herald Tribune

SANDAKAN, Malaysia - Owen Campbell returned to Borneo last week, back to the jungles where half a century ago his best mates were marched to their deaths.

Wearing a row of ribbons and medals across his left breast pocket, Mr. Campbell, 82, sat in the stagnant heat of the jungle and stared straight ahead at a black slab of granite, a memorial to one of the most grisly - yet little-known - atrocities of World War II in the Pacific.

Of the 2,700 British and Australian prisoners of war interned here by Japanese forces, only 6 made it out alive. Mr. Campbell is the last living survivor - and a reminder that when war veterans pass away, a little piece of history dies with them.

''We come here to this place to help ensure that this story is not forgotten,'' Bruce Ruxton, an Australian veteran, told the crowd assembled at the memorial site. ''We acknowledge that great evil was done here, that inhumanity here reached such depths that shame us as human beings even to contemplate.''

Relatively little has been written about the events that Mr. Campbell came to Sandakan to commemorate, in part because so few people lived to tell the story. More attention has been paid to such wartime atrocities as the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and the deadly construction of the rail line linking Burma with Thailand.

Discussion of the Sandakan Death March, as it is known, has been largely confined to Australia, where it has been called that country's worst military tragedy.

''It's not a forgotten story, but no one ever came back to tell it,'' said Colonel Martin Cooper, London's representative at the ceremonies last week. About 900 British soldiers were among the prisoners of war brought to Sandakan. None survived.

Prisoners interned here died slowly. They were starved and beaten.

Toward the end of the war, when the Japanese decided to flee Sandakan, most of the remaining prisoners were marched to their deaths. Those who were strong enough to make it to the end of the trail were executed.

Mr. Campbell and five others survived only because they escaped.

In a sign of the continuing sensitivities and anger surrounding the prison camp and death march, no Japanese were present at the ceremony last week.

''The proud and honourable title of soldier cannot be applied to those men,'' said Bruce Scott, Australia's minister for veterans affairs, referring to the prison guards at Sandakan.

Japanese veterans have travelled here in the past, but never together with their former Australian enemies.

Residents of Sandakan tell of an old Japanese man who came here about 15 years ago and checked into the city's main hotel.

He travelled to the site of the prison camp, stripped down to a ceremonial loin cloth and knelt in front the memorial all day and all night until he collapsed and was taken away by an ambulance.

''Nobody knows who he was,'' said Richard Chung, a Sandakan resident who heard of the man's visit from his neighbours. ''He left without saying a word.''

Mr. Campbell and the brothers, sisters and widows of those killed on Borneo retraced the Death March last week in large, shiny tour buses.

They stopped at various spots along the way, remembering their fallen friends and family with hymns and readings from the Bible. A bugler, tears streaming down his face, played ''The Last Post.''

Together, they stood and sang ''O Valiant Hearts, Who to Your Glory Came.''

All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave To save mankind - yourselves you scorned to save.

The group kept a moment of silence, broken only by cicadas in the trees and other jungle sounds.

The Japanese came to Borneo's steamy jungles less than two months after they bombed Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941, eager to tap the oil buried along the island's north coast.

As the war progressed, the Japanese decided to build an airstrip in Sandakan, a small city on the north-eastern tip of the island. To complete the task, they shipped in Australian and British POWs from Singapore and neighbouring islands.

PRISONERS were held at Sandakan from 1942 until 1945, first building and then maintaining the air strip. But as the war turned against Tokyo, conditions deteriorated in the camp. Food rations were cut and disease spread. Despite the availability of Red Cross supplies, medical treatment was denied to the prisoners.

Fearing an Allied invasion in Sandakan, the Japanese decided to move the prisoners inland, marching them along a muddy, mountainous trail in two waves. Those who could not keep up were executed, sometimes beheaded.

Among those in the second wave of diseased and starving soldiers was Mr. Campbell, a cattle rancher in Australia before he enlisted to fight the Japanese.

Today, Mr. Campbell describes the death march - and the escape that saved his life - with remarkable clarity.

Eighty kilometres (50 miles) into the march, a friendly Japanese guard told him that he and the other prisoners would be killed when the group reached their final destination of Ranau, a village high on a plateau about 260 kilometres west of Sandakan.

The guard was right.

The last survivors of the march to Ranau were made to sit in a group. According to testimony given at a war crimes tribunal after the war, a Japanese sergeant addressed the prisoners: ''There is no rice, so I'm killing the lot of you today. Is there anything you want to say?''

Mr. Campbell's escape began late one afternoon when American reconnaissance planes flew low overhead. The Japanese guards, fearful that the planes would strafe their path, ran for cover.

Mr. Campbell and his four mates took off in the opposite direction from the guards, sliding down a long, steep slope and waiting in the brush for dusk. The hundreds of prisoners and their guards continued their death march without them.

Mr. Campbell and his friends spent the next few days hacking away at the jungle, often crawling through the thick brush. Diseased and skeletal, they marched toward what they thought was the sea.

''I can't explain what forces you to keep going,'' Mr. Campbell said in the air-conditioned lobby of a hotel last week.

''In a situation like that, you seem to get supernatural strength. Don't ask me where it comes from.

''But you don't stop. If you stop and lay down, you'll never get up.''

FOR FOOD, they watched birds and monkeys feed and tried to eat the same things. Whatever was too bitter, they spat out. They ate bugs and crayfish and discovered secrets of survival in the jungle.

''It's a funny place this Borneo,'' Mr. Campbell said. ''If you dig a hole in the ground, in three days you get fish that long.'' He held his arms about 15 centimetres (6 inches) apart. ''Don't ask me where they come from.''

But plentiful fish and wild fruit were not enough to save two of the escaped prisoners.

One of them, Edward Skinner, was so weakened by beriberi and malaria that he could no longer move. Mr. Campbell stayed behind with Mr. Skinner and tended to him for three days, until one morning he came back from a food-gathering mission and found Mr. Skinner's throat cut. Mr. Campbell said he thought Mr. Skinner committed suicide so as to not hold him back any longer.

After seven weeks in the jungle, Mr. Campbell was the last man standing. The two other escapees were killed while trying to hail a passing river boat. A Japanese soldier appeared from inside the boat and opened fire.

''They never had a chance,'' Mr. Campbell said.

He survived with the help of friendly fishermen, who took him to a group of Australian commandos secretly stationed nearby. He was taken to a U.S. Navy ship and nursed back to good health.

His account of the Sandakan prison camp and that of five other prisoners who escaped separately have been crucial to reconstructing the death march. But the information has been slow in emerging.

''We were told we weren't allowed to say anything when we first came back,'' Mr. Campbell said. Some veterans attending the ceremonies said that the Australian government had been reluctant to publicize details about the march for fear of upsetting relations with Japan, an important trade partner.

But if the ceremonies last week are any indication, that attitude has changed.

The group was led by Mr. Scott, the minister of veterans affairs, and several other Australian government officials and was widely covered in the Australian media.

Mr. Campbell, who returned to Australia on Sunday, said he would not come back to Borneo.

And some of the most horrible secrets of the Sandakan death march will die with him.

''I don't intend to tell anybody what actually happened,'' he said. ''I won't talk about atrocities because I don't reckon it's right.

''I never actually told my family what happened. They ask, but I say no. They wouldn't want to know.''

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