The Hero of Sandakan – 70 Years On

The Hero of Sandakan

An angry roar erupted from the massed Australian POWs as their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alf Walsh, his hands bound tightly behind his back, was frog marched by Japanese soldiers over to a wooden post and tied to it. Guards levelled their long bayonet-tipped rifles nervously at the hundreds of prisoners who had taken a few rebellious steps forward towards their commander. Captain Susumi Hoshijima, the camp commandant, smacked Walsh hard across his face with the back of his hand, and a hastily assembled firing squad noisily cocked their rifles.

Just minutes before, the assembled prisoners had witnessed the strutting commandant mount a small platform and order an interpreter to shout out the following order that all prisoners were expected to adhere to: ‘1. We abide by the rules and regulations of the Imperial Japanese Army. 2. We agree not to attempt to escape. 3. Should any of our soldiers escape, we request that you shoot them to death.’ Following this, Walsh mounted the platform and addressed his men. ‘The Japanese are demanding that I, on behalf of you all, sign this statement.’ Pausing dramatically under the boiling tropical sun, Walsh squared his shoulders and announced in a loud and determined voice: ‘I am not ordering anyone to do anything, but I, for one, will not sign such a document.’ The prisoners’ chorus of approval was abruptly terminated by Hoshijima’s violent attack on their commander. This extraordinary scene had been caused by the escape of twelve Australian prisoners from the camp shortly after their arrival at a place that is today synonymous with cruelty and death – Sandakan.


Between May and August 1945 the Japanese forced nearly 3,000 emaciated and diseased British and Australian prisoners of war out of three POW camps that had been established years before outside the small town of Sandakan in the northeast of Borneo. Their Japanese guards systematically and deliberately butchered the Allied prisoners during three large death marches into the island’s rugged jungle interior. The Japanese shot anyone who was unable to keep up with the marching columns. This ugly endnote to the imprisonment of Allied POWs on Borneo has largely overshadowed the story of the Sandakan camps before the massacres. They have also overshadowed a story of enormous courage that was displayed by a small group of Australian prisoners who were led by one of the most determined and unbreakable prisoners, a man who paid the ultimate price for his heroic resistance to the enemy under the most trying of conditions.

The Japanese turned the huge island of Borneo into a giant prison for Allied POWs and civilians. There were camps at Batu Lintang, Kuching, Sarawak, Jesselton, and Sandakan and briefly on Labuan Island.

In command at Sandakan was Captain Susumi Hoshijima, an officer with a penchant for brutality, sadism and irrationality in equally disturbing measure. Captain Hoshijima’s greatest nemesis was about to arrive at Sandakan. Lionel Matthews was a 29-year-old decorated captain in the Australian Army Signal Corps from Norwood, Adelaide. Matthews would prove to be a considerable thorn in the side of the Japanese, and a man for whom the words ‘never surrender’ could have been his motto. Matthews had first arrived in Singapore on Valentines Day 1941 as part of the Major General H. Gordon Bennett’s much vaunted 8th Australian Division. The brown-haired, blue-eyed former department store salesman who sported a neatly trimmed moustache quickly impressed his superiors during the Battle of Gemas, one of the bloody engagements fought by the Australians during the retreat down the Malay Peninsula. Then Lieutenant Matthews went out under heavy Japanese artillery and mortar fire to restore communications between his brigade headquarters and its subordinate units. He also ‘succeeded in laying cable over ground strongly patrolled by the enemy and thus restoring communication between his Divisional HQ and the HQ of a Brigade at a critical period.’ Awarded the Military Cross, Matthews was promoted to captain in January 1942. Captured when General Percival surrendered Singapore in February 1942, Matthews was initially imprisoned at the infamous Changi Camp. Back in Australia his wife Lorna and young sons heard little of his activities, or of his ultimate fate, until 1945.


At Sandakan, Matthews did not view his circumstances as a reason to stop fighting the Japanese. Within a harsh and terrifying environment Matthews began to create an organisation that would eventually pose a serious threat. Hoshijima strictly forbade any communication between the three camps, and anyone who disobeyed this order was severely punished. Matthews first task was to break Hoshijima’s prohibition on inter-camp communication by setting up a secret network. He also began to address the central problems that were faced by the POWs, namely a lack of medicines to treat the various tropical diseases that stalked them more efficiently than their guards, as well as a shortage of food. Matthews’ efforts in smuggling food into the camps through his contacts with locals went some way to alleviating chronic malnutrition. Matthews could only do this by building contacts with the world beyond the perimeter fence, a decidedly dangerous undertaking as he never knew for sure who could be trusted and who would have turned them over to the Japanese in return for cash.

The Japanese allowed Matthews to command a small group of prisoners who were permitted outside unsupervised by guards to collect nuts. A grove of palm-oil trees behind the local police station became Matthews’ connection point to the local underground resistance movement. The police put Matthews in touch with local British doctor Jim Taylor, one of several medics and dentists that the Japanese had not interned because their skills were desperately needed. Although under close watch, Taylor risked his life smuggling medicines to the camps, along with another civilian, Lillian Funk. This intrepid lady had wisely converted some of her assets to gold, pearl, foreign currency and gemstones just before the Japanese had captured Sandakan, and she had sewn these valuables into the hems of her clothes. She sold what she needed to purchase food and medicines for the POWs, and also maintained a link with Philippine guerrillas.

Matthews organized a group of twenty trusted officers and NCOs into an ad hoc intelligence-gathering group. Using sympathetic local intermediaries, Matthews’ group made contact with British civilians being held in an internment camp on nearby Bahara Island. Natives often entered the camps to perform various menial chores, and British and Australian working parties outside the camps also had contact with locals. At the civilian camp on Bahara Island was Charles Smith, the former Governor of North British Borneo. Smith immediately realised the value of Matthews’ intelligence work and appointed him secret commander of the North British Armed Constabulary, a native police force that remained in operation under Japanese control. Many of its officers and men remained loyal to the British. Many locals were of Chinese descent, and their treatment by the Japanese was harsh and discriminatory, engendering great hatred. Many were happy to help the British war effort if it meant an end to the Japanese occupation. Matthews built up a dossier of intelligence concerning the organization and deployment of Japanese forces in North Borneo, their strengths and bases, supply situation and details about the local geography. Matthews intended to pass all of this valuable information on to the Allies in the hope that it would assist them in eventually liberating Borneo.

The gathering and caching of firearms was another of Matthews’ efforts, the intention eventually being to launch an insurrection most probably timed to coincide with an Allied invasion. Matthews’ group needed information about the progress of the war, so using their network they managed to smuggle radio parts into their camp and constructed a simple wireless receiver. It was a mission fraught with danger, but two Australian officers, Lieutenant Rod Wells and Lieutenant Gordon Weynton, put together the crystal detector, valves and headphones.

The job of getting a signal on the basic wireless took weeks of effort, but one day through the crackling static came a familiar English public school voice that confidently announced: ‘This is the BBC’. Barely able to contain his excitement, Matthews ordered the delicate set wrapped in a waterproof groundsheet and carefully hidden inside an unused latrine pit. A system of nocturnal radio monitoring was set up, whereby news was carefully written down by the listeners and then distributed to the POW officers, who in turn passed it on verbally to their men, raising morale.

Matthews knew that it was important to demonstrate to the locals that the war was turning against the Japanese, to secure their continued support for his secret activities. Russ Ewin was tasked with passing the latest bulletins to the resistance. ‘The police station was the contact for me. I would report each day to Lionel. If he had anything to be taken out of the camp, I would take it,’ recalled Ewin. The risk of being caught on one of these missions did not bear thinking about. Ewin would most probably have been horribly tortured by the Kempeitai and then shot. ‘It usually was the news,’ said Ewin of the packages that Lionel gave him, ‘and it was rolled up tightly in a wad of paper sealed with sealing wax. When we came to the police station, I would just nod my head slightly, and the police sergeant, Sergeant Abin, who I had met, would just watch my hand and I would open it and drop the news. He would pick it up afterwards…’

This operation went smoothly, but what he heard on the radio emboldened Matthews to pursue another plan that unfortunately proved to be his undoing. Any uprising that was going to be made by the remaining fit prisoners, the members of the Constabulary and other sympathizers needed to be carefully timed. Matthews knew the prisoners needed a radio transmitter so they could communicate directly with the Allies as their current wireless was only a receiver. The process of smuggling the parts into the camp began, but the fundamental weakness of Matthews’s organisation was the large number of people involved outside of the wire. Unfortunately, one of the Chinese sympathizers who procured radio parts, Joe Ming, was betrayed to the Kempeitai by a disgruntled contact. The Kempeitai moved with their customary swiftness to destroy the ‘resistance organisation’ and brutally tortured Ming and his family until they broke and started talking.

For Matthews and some of his men the game was up. He had long known the terrible risks that he was running, but his sense of duty had outweighed any concerns that he may have had for his own personal safety or survival. ‘He was in a position where he could have escaped on numerous occasions by means of help of an organisation set up by the Chinese but he declined, electing to remain where his efforts could alleviate the sufferings of his fellow prisoners.’ The Allied conspirators that had been named by Joe Ming, including some local men, were removed to Kempeitai headquarters in Kuching. For three long and terrible months Matthews and his friends were horribly tortured. They endured vicious beatings, including the infamous ‘water treatment’. They were hung by the arms for long periods and had their fingernails pulled off with pliars. One of their number, Johnny Funk, whose wife Lillian had sold gold and pearls to buy medicine for the prisoners, recalled: ‘They had four bungalows which were used for torture rooms. One form of torture was to make you kneel on a plank specially carved like spikes. They then placed a heavy plank behind the knees and two Japanese got on each and worked it like a see-saw.’ The Kempeitai was inventive in the methods it employed. ‘Another torture was carried out by a Jujitsu expert. He flung you all around the room. He badly twisted limbs and used his boots freely,’ said Funk. ‘I was also jammed in a specially constructed chair, in a cramped position. For half a day I was whipped around the head.’

Captain Matthews and the others managed to resist all Japanese efforts to make them talk. All the Japanese had by way of evidence was the ‘crime’ of possession of an illegal wireless set and some vague notion that these men had been plotting against the occupation forces. The Kempeitai arrested and tortured fifty-two civilians and twenty POWs, accounting for virtually Matthews’ entire network and a good proportion of the local underground as well.

Those arrested ended up in Kuching. Gordon Weynton was found guilty of ‘spreading rumours’ and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Lieutenant Wells received twelve years hard labour, to be served in solitary confinement. Both officers were transported to Outram Road Jail in Singapore to serve out their sentences, saving them from the Sandakan Death Marches in 1945. As for Matthews, his fate was sealed the moment he was captured. The court sentenced him to death by firing squad.

On 2 March 1944, alongside eight of the other ringleaders, Matthews faced his execution with great courage. ‘He left Australia nearly 16 stone and he was only 6 stone at the end’ said his son David of the father he never knew. Matthews declined a blindfold and looked his Japanese executioners square in the face. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross for his immense courage and resourcefulness in captivity, the very highest award available to Commonwealth citizens for valour that was not performed in battle.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Surrender

The Man Who Wouldn’t Surrender


Mark Felton

Roy Pagani tore along a jungle trail as fast as he could go. The heat was stifling and sweat poured down his face. The vegetation was alive with the chirruping and squawking of insects and birds. Mosquitos buzzed around his head as he panted and hurried on. The Japanese would not be far behind and capture was not an option. The young British soldier was determined to walk a thousand miles to India.

Pagani was born in London in 1915 and joined the army in 1933. He had served in India before going to France with the BEF in 1939. Because he spoke fluent French he found work as an interpreter. After evacuation from Dunkirk, Pagani joined the elite Reconnaissance Corps. Ordered to Singapore, Pagani’s unit saw action in the last desperate battles around the city before being ordered to surrender on 15 February 1942 with the rest of General Percival’s army.


Corporal Pagani approached his commanding officer, Major D.R. Lullineux, on the 15 February and told him that he wanted permission to escape. Lullineux readily gave his permission and also wished him good luck, for the odds of getting away were extremely slim. Pagani went to the burning docks where he found several motor launches. He desperately tried to start the engines on several, but to no avail. Night began to fall. Then he spotted a 15-foot sampan and jumped aboard. The native craft had a rudder and small sail, but no engine. As Singapore burned, the sampan slowly moved across the calm water. Pagani slumped over the tiller and peered into the darkness, struggling to stay awake. He realised that if he was to stay on course he would have to go ashore and get some rest. He landed and promptly fell into a nervous sleep.

Pagani awoke refreshed the next evening and continued south. Travelling by night to avoid detection he worked his way through a chain of small islands. Before dawn on 17 February Pagani landed again. In the evening Pagani sailed south to another jungle-covered island and made contact with a local Chinese merchant, who kindly provided him with rations. Before dawn on 19 February Pagani beached his sampan on Moro Island where he discovered a small party of British soldiers. They had been sent to assist fugitives escaping from Singapore to get to Sumatra in the Netherlands East Indies. ‘The British soldiers advised Pagani to go to Sumatra because the chances of surviving an open ocean voyage to Australia in such a small boat were slim.’

‘During the second night he was caught in a terrible storm. He lowered the sail and secured the boat. But as the storm intensified waves repeatedly broke against the side of the boat.’ For hours Pagani was tossed about like a cork on the roiling ocean as the wind howled and salt spray lashed his face. Then the storm abated. Peering into the growing light Pagani espied low-lying land a mile away. He hoisted sail and tacked the sampan into the mouth of a wide river. ‘After creeping up the river for several hours he finally saw a small group of men. They waved that he should come ashore. They were British soldiers…He had made it to Sumatra…’

Pagani, along with thousands of others, crossed Sumatra to the east coast port of Padang where evacuation ships were arriving to take them to India. For nearly two weeks Pagani waited to board a transport as the Japanese headed for the port. On 15 March, with Japanese infantry close by, Pagani joined a motley assortment of beached British sailors. They located a small steam tug and two days later, with the tug full of provisions, they departed. But disaster struck. The Japanese had taken the town moments before and soldiers fired a machine gun across the tug’s bows, ordering it to return.

Five hundred British servicemen, along with 700 Australians and Dutch, were taken prisoner and herded into a local barracks. After a few days, the Japanese organised the POWs into groups and shipped them to Mengui, Burma. They were to become slave labourers on the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway.

The railway cost the lives of 90,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs (including 3,585 Britons). Pagani was held in a camp for several months until on 21 October 1942 the Japanese transported the POWs to Moulmein Station and the following day a train took them thirty miles to Thanbyuzayat, the main junction for the Burma-Thailand Railway. Pagani and the others were expected to construct the junction at Konkuita in Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand and would be based at the infamous 18KM Camp for the duration, under the brutal command of Lieutenant-Colonel Nagatomo.

Pagani realised that every day he spent as a slave labourer on the railway would make escape less likely. He quickly formulated two escape plans. The first involved heading ten miles west to the Bay of Bengal. At the coast Pagani would steal a boat and then sail along the Burmese coast to India. If he was unable to find a boat, Pagani’s second plan involved walking 1,000 miles overland through Burma to India. His epic trek would take him through some of the toughest country on earth where tropical diseases abounded, and he could not speak the local languages. ‘Pagani had prepared himself. He was now as brown as a native and his feet were hard for the trip (to pass as a native he would have to travel without shoes). He had a full brownish-red beard. He looked like a Burmese native, and the Japanese would be looking for an Englishman.’

Pagani decided to escape two days later. When dawn broke on escape day, Pagani was already up and he quickly breakfasted on a small bowl of rice gruel before attending the tenko roll call. The Japanese routinely beat any prisoners who reported for sick parade. After a short bashing the offending prisoner was handed a changkul, a native hoe, and ordered out unescorted to join a work party beyond the main gate. Pagani duly reported sick, was beaten, handed a changkul and ordered out. When he was about 100 yards beyond the main gate, with his changkul over his shoulder, he stepped off the track and into the jungle. He would not be missed until evening tenko, and the Japanese would not start looking for him until the following morning.

Pagani reached the coast in four hours but failed to find a boat. As he was only ten miles from the camp Pagani fell back onto Plan B – walking to India. He set off in a northeasterly direction until he reached the railway and followed this north towards Moulmein. He reached Thanbyuzayat, a small village near Moulmein later that afternoon. Quickly donning an Indian pagri turban, he rubbed dirt into his legs and face in an effort to further disguise his European features. He then set off down the village’s main street. Suddenly, a Japanese patrol appeared. ‘He overcame the natural instinct to run and instead casually walked toward a house to urinate. Since his survival depended on passing as a native Pagani followed the local custom.’ The Japanese soldiers strolled by, barely casting him a glance. Shortly after Pagani ducked into an empty shop stall and fell asleep.

He awoke after sundown and set off for the railway line towards Moulmein. As the first light of dawn began to spread across the horizon Pagani came to a small shack set on the edge of paddy fields where he rested until darkness fell. Pagani walked all through the next night until he happened upon another wooden hut at dawn. The Indian inside offered to help him but warned Pagani against entering Moulmein, which was swarming with Japanese. Instead, it was agreed that the Indian’s brother would ferry Pagani across the Salween River.

After crossing the river Pagani trekked for two days until the wild jungle gave way to an ordered plantation look. He crept through the trees until he discovered several well-kept buildings. ‘The place had an unmistakable feel of prosperity. He surmised that the people had prospered under the British and most likely did not look upon the Japanese with good favour.’ Knocking on the front door, a servant instructed Pagani to wait. Then a well-dressed young woman speaking perfect English invited the filthy fugitive into her elegant home. Her father, Po Thin, was a wealthy Karen timber merchant. When Pagani was introduced to Po Thin he recounted his many escape attempts since Singapore and his imprisonment on the railway. Po Thin was impressed, and agreed to help him reach Allied lines. He knew of an eccentric British major who was busy training Karens up in the hills to fight the Japanese.

Pagani eventually reached the small village of Molopa high in the Karen Hills. The village contained an extraordinary mixture of soldiers and civilians. Alongside the Karens were Indians and Gurkhas. A tall native walked towards him smiling and announced cheerfully: ‘Hello old chap, how are you?’ in clipped public school English. ‘The man introduced himself as Major Hugh Seagrim. He grasped Pagani’s hand and in a voice choked with emotion kept telling him how glad that he was that he had come.’ Thirty-three-year-old Seagrim had joined Force 136, the Far Eastern arm of SOE, and been tasked with training the loyal Karens to fight the Japanese. At 6 feet 4 inches tall Major Seagrim had earned the affectionate nickname “Grandfather Longlegs” from the Karens. His sabotage activities had already earned him a DSO and a MBE.


Pagani and Seagrim both realised that the Japanese would be searching for their missing prisoner. Seagrim decided that henceforth Pagani would be known as “Corporal Ras”, so if recaptured the Japanese would not link him with their missing Corporal Pagani. Seagrim delighted in tutoring Pagani on the hill tribes of Burma, and he respected the corporal for his bravery and resolution in escaping from the Japanese. Pagani said that Major Seagrim was the finest officer that he had the pleasure to encounter during the war. Seagrim made Pagani his commander for his southern area of operations – the young corporal became a guerrilla leader by chance. After many raids Pagani was sent by Seagrim on a mission to contact Allied forces in the Prome region on 9 April 1943. The next time the two men would encounter each other would be under very different circumstances.

After leaving Seagrim, Pagani travelled north with some of Seagrim’s heavily-armed guerrillas. His intended destination was a group of friendly Karen villages in the Arakan Yomas coastal region. He would have to cross Burmese territory, including the mighty Irrawaddy River. He discharged his Karen guards except one guide. The next day hostile Burmese captured his guide. Alone once again, Pagani continued on towards the Irrawaddy. Two days later, while resting in a Burmese pagoda, he dashed outside to see a formation of American B-25 bombers on their way to attack the city of Prome, 150 miles north of Rangoon. Pagani felt it a good idea to disassociate himself from the British Army, as the Japanese might still manage to make the link between “Corporal Ras” and their missing Corporal Pagani. Thinking of his baby son, Terry Ashton Melvin Pagani, he decided to re-invent himself as a shot down American air force officer named “Lieutenant Terry Ashton Melvin”.

The next day Pagani arrived on the east bank of the Irrawaddy. He spent a few hours searching for a boat but realised that his only hope was to swim across. The current was strong and unpredictable. Pagani stepped into the warm waters and began to strike out for the western bank in the moonlight. ‘About 150 yards from the bank he was caught in a strong undertow that, coupled with the weight of his gun and ammunition, threatened to pull him under. He dumped his gun and spare ammunition and floated downstream, but the current pushed him back onto the east bank of the river.’

Exhausted, Pagani was spotted by two Burmese in a fishing boat, who picked him up. But a crowd of Burmese ordered the fishermen to hand Pagani over. They wanted to present him to the Japanese in return for a small reward. Amid much commotion Pagani was bound with rope. He managed to break free and dashed for the nearest jungle, but he was shot and wounded. ‘Beaten and bloody, Ras thought of his wife and young son and his promise that he would return home. They would never know what happened to him.’

Pagani was transported downriver to a Japanese guard post and handed over. His wound was perfunctorily treated before he was questioned. He told the Japanese that he was a USAAF officer who had been shot down the night before during a raid on Prome. Transferred to a hospital, he slowly recovered his strength. The Japanese interrogated him in more detail. ‘He explained his native clothing by saying that his uniform had caught fire, and the natives had given him what he was wearing.’ After six weeks Pagani was sent to Rangoon. On arrival Pagani was handed over to the brutal Kempeitai military police.

Placed in a tiny cell with five other prisoners, Pagani witnessed prisoners being brutally interrogated. Pagani was dragged into a room containing two Japanese NCOs, each armed with a bamboo cane. One asked the questions, while the other beat Pagani mercilessly. Pagani stuck to his cover story. Next, he was dragged into a second room where two more interrogators were waiting. One of the interrogators was a junior officer, and in between questions he would beat Pagani with the back of an unsheathed samurai sword. Sometimes he levelled a cocked pistol at Pagani’s head and dry fired it. Finally, Pagani was bundled into a third room where he was tied to a flat surface with his head positioned beneath a dripping tap. After a while each drop of water that hit his forehead felt like a hammer. At some point the questions and the agony abruptly ceased and Pagani was dragged back to his grimy cell to nurse his wounds.

Pagani’s endurance paid off, and he was cleaned up and sent to Rangoon Jail. The prison held nearly 600 Allied prisoners of war in appalling conditions. One of the prisoners was Major Seagrim. His unit of Karen guerrillas was steadily worn down in combat, and the Japanese had made horrific retaliatory attacks against Karen villages. Seagrim could not abide the cruelties that were inflicted upon his beloved Karens and on 15 March 1944 he voluntarily surrendered himself to the Japanese after he had received assurances that he would be accorded POW status. The Kempeitai did not torture Seagrim as it seems that even the Japanese had some respect for him. On 2 September 1944 Pagani looked up from his work party as a Japanese Army truck drove past. In the back of the truck he saw a tall Englishman and seven Karens. ‘As they started through the breezeway towards the front gate the Englishman saw Pagani, gave him a big smile and waved to him. It was a few moments before Pagani realised that the Englishman was his beloved Major Seagrim.’ The Japanese broke their promise. Seagrim and comrades were court-martialled, sentenced to death and executed by firing squad later that day. Seagrim was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1946.

Pagani spent the remainder of the war labouring on the Rangoon Docks. The death rate in the camp was later determined to have been between 20 and 25% of the white prisoners. Roy Pagani was liberated on 28 April 1945 and later awarded the Military Medal. He finally made it home to his wife and young son.

For more thrilling stories like this, read:

Japanese Jungle Holdouts

Japanese Jungle Holdouts

Mark Felton

Onoda 3

A small, thin, middle-aged officer, his uniform patched and darned, his field service cap emblazoned with the yellow star of the Imperial Japanese Army, stepped forward in a jungle clearing and bowed stiffly before lifting up his samurai sword and offering it to the assembled officials in surrender. The place was the island of Lubang in the Philippines and the date was 9 March 1974. Fifty-one-year-old Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda had finally given up resistance. The last thing his commanding officer had said to him was ‘Whatever happens, we’ll come back for you.’ Twenty-nine years later the Japanese returned. Onoda was one of the last recorded Japanese ‘holdouts’, living relics of a war that had ended nearly three decades before. While the world had moved into the Cold War, Onoda and others like him had remained hidden in the jungle, convinced World War II was still being fought. Onoda 2 When Japan surrendered in August 1945, the Imperial Army and Navy still controlled a vast swathe of Asia including eastern China, Malaya, Singapore, Netherlands East Indies and dozens of far-flung tropical island groups garrisoned by three million troops. Most knew nothing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They were well-armed and mentally conditioned to fight on to eventual victory or an honourable death. Surrender was anathema to them. Orders were transmitted to units telling them to stay in their barracks and await the arrival of Allied forces who would take their formal surrenders. But tens of thousands of Japanese troops never received the order as their communications with Japan had broken down or their units had been smashed and scattered during the fierce battles across the Pacific. Others, including complete units, refused to believe that such a shameful order could have emanated from their divine Emperor Hirohito – these diehards believed it was an Allied trick. They determined to stay in the jungle and wait for their army to recapture the lost territories. Between 1945 and 1961 many of these ‘holdouts’ were caught or convinced to surrender by Japanese officials. What is not widely known is that some Japanese units and stragglers even launched attacks on American occupation forces or the armies of the newly independent postwar nations necessitating dangerous operations to capture or kill them. One of the most notorious was Captain Sakae Oba on Saipan, who continued to lead his 46 heavily armed men in attacks on US forces until convinced to surrender by a former Japanese general in December 1945. On another occasion in the mountains south of Manila on 25 January 1946 American and Filipino forces mounted a joint operation to eliminate a 120-man Japanese unit. In the vicious fighting that followed 72 Japanese were killed. In Lubang, Philippines, a 30-man Japanese unit was brought to battle on 22 February 1946. Eight Allied soldiers died along with an unknown number of Japanese. The following month a further 41 Japanese soldiers emerged on Lubang and surrendered, eight months after the war had ended. On Peleliu a 33-man Japanese force attacked American patrols throughout March and early April 1947 until persuaded to surrender by a former Japanese admiral. Onoda And so it continued all over Asia in the immediate aftermath of the war. In the Philippines in April 1947 a seven-man Japanese heavy mortar team emerged from the jungle on Palawan Island and surrendered, and in the same month on Luzon fifteen Japanese troops finally gave up. Four-and-a-half years after the Americans had captured Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands, the last Japanese soldier finally emerged from the interior and surrendered on 27 October 1947. The last sizeable Japanese unit to surrender was on Mindanao in the Philippines. Two hundred troops were persuaded to give up in January 1948, surrendering well-maintained rifles and machine guns. Holdout In New Guinea, site of the valiant Australian defence of the Kokoda Track in 1942 and the battles around Port Moresby, local police apprehended eight Japanese soldiers in 1950. They were survivors of a division that had been destroyed during the Battle of Finschhafen in September and October 1943 and the retreat of the starving Japanese towards Madang. They had hidden in the dense jungle for seven years. Then, four years later in 1954 New Guinea police captured another four Japanese holdouts, the last survivors of a group of 89 Japanese who had forced marched from Wewak to Hollandia in April 1944. Their companions had all died of disease or starvation in the jungle. During the 1950s, as Japan rebuilt its economy and emerged as a deeply pacifist country, these jungle holdouts were not viewed as fanatics but as victims of the war. The soldiers captured in New Guinea were portrayed in Japan as exotic beings, ‘jungle men’. By 1955 this view had altered slightly, notes historian Beatrice Trefault, and the Japanese viewed them as soldiers, ‘but not just plainly, as living heroes but as a moving image of the fallen soldier, in other words, as ‘dead soldiers’ accidentally and unexpectedly alive.’ Later, as more soldiers appeared throughout the 1970s, the Japanese public’s perception of them changed still further and they began to be seen as heroic examples of endurance and courage to the younger postwar generation. The 1960s was relatively quite and only two Japanese holdouts emerged on Guam and surrendered in 1961. They had held out for an amazing sixteen years. But if the Japanese and the rest of the world thought that the phenomenon was over they were astounded when, in 1972, after a staggering twenty-eight years in hiding, a single holdout turned up alive on Guam. Corporal Shoichi Yokoi’s discovery hit the headlines around the world. Yokoi, of the 38th Infantry Regiment, had fled into the jungle in July 1944 along with many other stragglers following the American victory. As we have seen many of these troops surrendered in the 1940s, ‘50s and early ‘60s, or they had died of injuries, illness or starvation. Yokoi and two comrades had constructed an underground hiding place and subsisted for years on a diet of seafood and coconuts. Sometime during the 1960s the two other soldiers who were with Yokoi moved away and later died of starvation. Yokoi stayed hidden, putting his pre-war tailoring skills to use by making himself a new uniform out of tree bark. Two local hunters fishing on the Talofofo River in January 1972 discovered him. Yokoi, like many other holdouts, had seen leaflets announcing the Japanese surrender dropped by American aircraft in the 1940s, but he believed them to be a trick and decided to stay in hiding. His unaltered wartime psyche was demonstrated when he was returned with considerable media coverage to Japan. He stated: ‘It is with much embarrassment that I return.’ Yokoi said that he wished to return his rusty and useless Arisaka rifle to ‘the Honourable Emperor. I am sorry I did not serve His Majesty to my satisfaction.’ Yokoi’s rehabilitation was swift and impressive considering that he had spent almost three decades subsisting in the jungle. He married, became a TV presenter and even ran for parliament in 1974. In 1991 he was granted an audience with Emperor Akihito during which he said that he regretted having failed to serve the Imperial Army well and was overcome with emotion. Yokoi died in 1997. The Japanese government became so concerned that other middle-aged men like Corporal Yokoi might still be in hiding in Southeast Asia that they created a special unit to look for them from officials at the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. The most famous holdout of all emerged from the jungles of Lubang and surrendered in March 1974. Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda was very different from Yokoi because he had continued a violent guerrilla campaign that caused several deaths and substantial military and police operations for thirty years. ‘Every Japanese soldier was prepared for death, but as an intelligence officer I was ordered to conduct guerrilla warfare and not to die,’ said Onoda in 2011. ‘I had to follow my orders as I was a soldier’. He took a small team of Japanese soldiers into the island’s interior and waged an aggressive campaign that last almost 30 years. Along with Corporal Shoichi Shimada, Private First Class Yuichi Akatsu and Private Kinshichi Kozuka, Onoda constantly moved his command every five days to avoid capture, the men living off bananas, water buffalo, wild boar, chickens and iguanas. Occasionally Onoda and his men would emerge from their mountainous jungle hideouts to shoot cows owned by local Philippine peasants. This was always risky because the gunfire attracted local police and on several occasions the Japanese holdouts were fired at. In 1949 Private Akatsu decided to leave the group after an argument. Onoda thought that he would starve to death but Akatsu managed to survive for six months on his own before he surrendered to a Philippine Army patrol. Later Onoda discovered a note from Akatsu that stated that the war was over and the Philippine troops were friendly. Akatsu led soldiers into the mountains in 1950 in an attempt to locate Onoda’s group and persuade them to surrender. They never found them. Onoda considered Akatsu to be a traitor and working for the enemy. In 1952 the Philippine and Japanese governments made a further attempt to locate and capture Onoda’s group. Letters and photographs from the holdouts’ families were dropped over the jungle. ‘The leaflets they dropped were filled with mistakes so I judged it was a plot by the Americans,’ said Onoda. In June 1953 Corporal Shimada was shot and wounded in the leg by local fishermen when the group was on one of its regular village raids. Onoda and Private Kozuka nursed Shimada back to health but the corporal was killed during a firefight with searchers on 7 May 1954. Onoda and Kozuka continued to raid local settlements for supplies, often burning the harvested rice and shooting at local peasants. It has been estimated that Onoda’s depredations killed or wounded around thirty Filipinos over the decades. On 19 October 1972 the two holdouts were busy burning rice stocks in a village when armed police arrived. During the following gunfight Kozuka was hit twice and killed. Onoda fled into the jungle vowing to kill anyone who came after him. A Japanese student and adventurer, Norio Suzuki, set out to find Onoda in 1974. It seemed unlikely that he would succeed where governments and armies had failed, but camping alone within Onoda’s ‘territory’ he managed to strike up a hesitant friendship with the Japanese officer. Suzuki persuaded Onoda to come to a parley in a jungle clearing to meet with Japanese and Filipino representatives. At the meeting Onoda stated that he could not surrender until he had received a direct order from his superior, and he went back into hiding. Finally, on 9 March 1974, Lieutenant Onoda met with former Major Taniguchi, his old commander on Lubang, who ordered him to hand over his samurai sword and surrender with honour. Hiroo Onoda, still the punctilious officer that he had been in 1945, immediately obeyed. Onoda was very well armed and surrendered his sword as well as a functioning Arisaka Type-99 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, several hand grenades and a commando dagger. On his return to Japan Onoda became something of a celebrity. He was different from other recently returned holdouts – he had been an officer and he had not stopped fighting, however misguided his resistance had ultimately been. This living relic from the war may have impressed modern Japan but the modern Japanese did not impress Onoda. ‘Japan’s philosophy and ideas changed dramatically after World War II. That philosophy clashed with mine so I went to live in Brazil.’ Now aged 90, Onoda lives in Japan but spends three months of every year in Brazil and was honoured with a medal by the Brazilian Air Force in 2004. In 1996 Onoda controversially returned to Lubang and donated US$10,000 to a local school, perhaps as recompense for the harm he and his men caused during their three-decade terror campaign. When asked why he held out for so long, Onoda’s single-mindedness was plain: ‘I became an officer and I received an order. If I could not carry it out, I would feel shame.’ Within months of Onoda’s capture reports started to filter in from Morotai in Indonesia where locals had reported Japanese soldiers hiding in the forest for decades. The Japanese government set up loudspeakers around the island’s mountainous interior and blasted the area with the wartime Japanese national anthem. Then, in October 1974 an Indonesian Air Force pilot spotted a small hut hidden in the jungle. Two months later Private Teruo Nakamura of the 4th Takasago Volunteer Unit emerged from hiding armed with a functioning rifle and his last five rounds of ammunition and surrendered to local troops. He had no idea that the war was over and had long believed that he would be killed if captured. He had built a small hut in the forest set on a 20-by-30 metre fenced field. Nakamura, a native conscripted Formosan chose to return directly to Taiwan. His capture did not excite the Japanese media – Onoda was a Japanese officer whereas Nakamura was a conscript from a former Japanese colony. Nakamura died of lung cancer in 1979. Since Onoda’s surrender reports have continued to surface almost up to the present day of Japanese holdouts. In 1980 it was widely reported that a Captain Fumio Nakahira had been discovered on Mindoro after 36 years in hiding. This story proved to be a fake. In 1989 on the Pacific island of Vella Lavella locals reported that old Japanese soldiers had been pilfering food and supplies for decades. These stories were probably hoaxes designed to lure rich Japanese tourists to the island. In 1992 on Kolombangara, an island north of New Georgia that was bypassed by American forces in 1943 during the island hopping campaign, locals reported two or three elderly Japanese holdouts. Although searches of the mountains and jungle were conducted, no evidence was found. Most recently, in 2001, holdouts were reported on Guadalcanal, but again no concrete evidence has been discovered since the last Japanese surrendered there in 1947. Many Japanese soldiers undoubtedly remained in hiding throughout Asia and the Pacific into the 1970s and they were never found. Perhaps a few managed to survive into more recent times until disease, accidents or old age carried them off. We may never know the full extent of the Japanese holdouts phenomenon, nor fully understand why Japanese soldiers behaved as they did, but clearly the Japanese soldier remained a formidable, tough and single-minded adversary, even many decades after defeat.

International Media Coverage for Zero Night

Just a few of the fantastic press articles and features on Zero Night from around the world:

The Mirror: The Crate Escape

The New Zealand Herald: Kiwis’ over-the-top World War II great escape immortalised

The Daily Mail: Douglas Bader’s great escape from the Nazis to be made into a movie

The Scotsman: New book reveals even greater WWII ‘Great Escape’

Kirkus: Zero Night by Mark Felton

The Blaze (US): Unsung Nazi Prison Camp Escape May Have Been the Boldest Breakout During World War II, Book Claims