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Stick to known Death March route
Published on: Sunday, October 02, 2011

I READ with great interest the letter from "History Buff' (Forum 25.9.11) regarding recent claims made by an Australian tour operator about the Sandakan-Ranau death march route.

I will leave it to others to comment on matters relating to the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea.

However, as I have spent the last 20 years researching the history of Sandakan and the death marches and identified and pioneered the current route with Tham Yau Kong, I feel that I am qualified to speak out on this particular subject.

In 2010, the Australian operator referred to undertook a trek with TYK Adventure Tours, a small company owned by a local operator, Tham Yau Kong. After recording the route on a GPS, the Australian announced that he intended to conduct his own treks.

In order to promote and attract business he then registered, as his internet domain name, a name that was identical (apart from a hyphen) to that used by TYK since 2005. He also downloaded, without permission, historical material copyrighted exclusively to me, onto his own website.

His next move was to make statements on his website, and in the Australian media, that people walking along the Death March track had all been following an incorrect route. The correct path, he claimed, passed through the village of Miruru, in the Liwagu valley. His "proof" was a map that appeared in a self-published book in 1999.

In 1945, POWs marching from Sandakan to Ranau followed a jungle trail, the majority of which was cut by local headmen. Believing that the track they were cutting was for use by the Japanese, the headmen had deliberately routed the track away from all habitation until it reached Paginatan, 26 miles from Ranau.

Keeping well clear of the Liwagu-Labuk river system with its numerous small kampongs, the track crossed the Telupid and Tapaang Rivers, before following the southern banks of the Taviu River until Lolosing, where it ascended to the summit of what we now call Taviu Hill.

At the end of 1945, Australian army teams walked the death march track three times, searching for the remains of dead POWs. Two teams moved from east to west. The other, travelling in the opposite direction, was led by survivor Bill Sticpewich who had also walked the track as a POW.

Diaries were kept, reports compiled and the location of each body found was meticulously noted.

Local people, to whom a bounty was paid for located remains, were keen to help.

The teams also carefully mapped and recorded the route in great detail, including the distance between each river crossed, especially in the Taviu valley, which was uncharted and unexplored territory.

The word "Miruru" appears nowhere on any Australian archival record, and the village by that name is not marked on any recovery or investigation map. "Miruru" does, however, appear on a few Japanese "place of death" records. While some Japanese records are very accurate and can be relied upon, less diligent recorders were often extremely inexact.

They not only used broad-based "locality" names to describe a place of death, they also "re-named" existing geographical features, including Taviu Hill and a tributary of the Taviu River, both of which they called "Miruru" - a word that means "parallel".

The incorrect 1999 map in the self-published book has been drawn by the author on the flawed assumption that "Miruru" refers to the village in the Liwagu Valley of the same name.

The Sabah Society, in turn, gave this 1999 map in good faith to Tham Yau Kong, whose task was to assist with the Society's commemorative march from Sandakan to Ranau in August 2005.

It was not until the walk had concluded that Tham learned from me of the existence of the archival maps, which showed clearly that the original route had not passed anywhere near Miruru village.

A map of the route, charted in 1945 and taken from archival sources, is in the Commemorative Pavilion at the Sandakan Memorial Park, where it has been on public display for the last 12 years.

A similar map has also been displayed at Kundasang War Memorial Gardens since 2006.

The most superficial search of Australian archives, or a visit to either of these establishments in Sabah by anyone interested in the Sandakan story, would have revealed the fallacy of this assumption, which has led directly to the current situation.

The Australian tour operator, now aware that there is a problem, continues to use the faulty 1999 map, as well as the Sabah Society map based upon it, as "proof" of his claim that the Death March passed through Kampong Miruru.

Indeed, far from retracting or moderating his claims, he recently tried to add further weight to the validity of his so-called route by claiming in the media that the headman of Miruru is "adamant" that the Death March passed by the village.

Tham Yau Kong interviewed villagers in 2005, and established that no white men had been in the Liwagu valley during WW2.

In May, this year, after the spurious claims regarding the route first emerged, I re-interviewed a key witness on the subject.

After stating categorically that the Death March route did not go near Miruru, he accompanied me to Taviu Hill to confirm the exact path of the POW route. This expedition was video-recorded.

He has since re-confirmed the route to senior members of the Sabah Forestry Department.

In August, this year, I visited Miruru to interview the present-day headman, and his father, who had been employed by the Japanese as a courier to deliver messages along the track. Their independent interviews, and that of another witness in nearby Mangkadai village, who gave the same information, were also video-recorded.

All three informants were adamant that the Death March track had never passed anywhere near their villages, old or new, but had followed the Taviu River - the same information previously given to Tham and myself by other local people who had worked for, or been in contact with, the Japanese.

The older man at Miruru revealed that, although there had been white soldiers in the village during the Indonesian Confrontation in the 1960s, the only white man who had been in the village in WW2 was a POW whom he had "rescued" from the track near Kuporon and then passed to the headman at Telupid.

I knew of this incident, as a report to this effect is in Australian archives.

The man further demonstrated his intimate knowledge of the death march route by naming the rivers appearing on the archival map as rivers that needed to be crossed, and confirmed the location of the Japanese camp site at Lolosing (also marked on the map and which I have visited).

The correct route up Taviu Hill (also previously checked out by TYK, my husband and myself) and that, from the summit, the track went directly down to Tampias.

He stated that there was definitely no diversion into Miruru, and seemed astounded that anyone could possibly think that the death march passed by the village, saying "other side, other side" and pointing in the direction of the Taviu Valley. He also stated that, apart from small hunting trails known only to the villagers, no connecting paths linked the Liwagu Valley to the Taviu Valley during WW2.

His son, the present headman, categorically denied that he has ever met or spoken to the Australian tour operator, whom he knew was in the village recently. Indeed, he stated that he refused a request by the operator for an interview. He is, therefore, understandably angry and upset that his good name and reputation as a man of standing in the community have been used and exploited to give credence to such bogus claims.

The route of the Death March has never been a secret. Anyone with a copy of the archival map who has intimate knowledge of the river systems can retrace the route, which is what Tham Yau Kong did in late 2005.

The path currently followed by TYK trekking groups is as close as possible to the original track, keeping in mind environmental, land ownership and other considerations.

This is especially true for the climb up Taviu Hill.

This section of the track is now the subject of a new claim by the Australian tour operator, who states that it had been "lost" and that he has recently "discovered" it. This sector has never been "lost".

Although identified and assessed by the TYK team and myself, and featured on the TYK website in early 2009, it was not offered to general trekking groups as it passes through highly protected Class 1 forest, which cannot be disturbed in any way or entered without permission from the Forestry Department.

As this area is also very prone to flash floods, and there is a seven-hour "no escape" trek to reach the summit requiring a high level of fitness, until 2011 it was considered unwise to attempt to use it.

TYK parties always ascend Taviu Hill by a parallel route that is safer, and less environmentally intrusive, while still giving trekkers an insight into the hardships faced by the POWs.

However, on 21 August this year, with the necessary permission obtained, weather conditions dry, and a trekking group that was superbly fit and very environmentally aware, the TYK team guided a group of British soldiers up the Lolosing route.

The intention to use this route was announced on 12 August. On 22 August, the day on which the Daily Express reported that the soldiers had completed the climb the previous day, media in Australia and Malaysia reported that the Australian tour operator had "found" the "lost" Lolosing route on 13 August.

To support his assertion, "breaking news" was posted on the operator's website, along with several photos. These images depict the route he claims to have "found" by "slashing" his way through what is Class 1 protected forest, on an expedition that he alleges had "the support" of Sabah Forestry.

It appears, from the photographs, that this "lost" route is an old, overgrown logging track, leading to an oil palm plantation along the Taviu River.

It is worth noting that on 15 August, just two days after his alleged discovery, this same operator tried unsuccessfully to attach himself to the British team in order to climb Lolosing - the route he claimed, on 22 August, to have "found" on the 13th. I suspect that the sole reason for his eagerness to join the UK military group on this particular sector was to find out where to go.

As "History Buff" notes, the various claims regarding the Death March route have certainly generated publicity for this man and his company.

Not one claim, however, is supported by historical fact. In summary: 1) The historical facts surrounding the Sandakan Death Marches have been available to the wider public since the 1998 publication of my book "Sandakan a Conspiracy of Silence", a work that took six years to research and complete.

2) The map of the Death March route, as documented by the army recovery teams in 1945, has been on public display at the Sandakan Memorial Park since 1999, and at Kundasang War Memorial since 2006.

3) The claim that the death march track passed through old, or new, Miruru village is not correct.

4) The claim that a section of the track has been "lost" is also incorrect.

For environmental and safety reasons a parallel track is used for trekking parties.

I will continue to give my wholehearted support to the promotion of Sabah as an ideal, safe and interesting destination for Australians.

I also reaffirm my numerous offers to my historical expertise at any information seminars that might be organised, for the benefit of local guides and accredited local operators, who wish to know more about the Death March story.

I have no financial or commercial interest in any business, either in Sabah or Australia, which derives income or any other benefit from treks or tours in Sabah. My interest in this particular matter is simply to ensure that the history of this tragic and unfortunate chapter in Australian history is correctly and faithfully recorded for posterity.

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