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Sandakan produced several war heroes
Published on: Sunday, April 24, 2022
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The Prisoner Of War camp in Batu Lintang, Sarawak where most of the colonial officials from Sabah were interned.
THE Funk brothers – Johnny, Alexander and Paddy – were members of the North Borneo Volunteer Force (before the war). Their family home was near where the Allied Prisoners Of War (POWs) were interned from July 1942. This enabled the brothers to establish secret contacts with the POWs which saw them providing help and serving as conduits between the POWs and the hospital in Sandakan. 

When their activities were betrayed to the Japanese in July 1943, the brothers were arrested and severely punished by the Japanese Army; Alex was executed while Johnny and Paddy suffered great physical and psychological torture.

The brothers first came into contact with the POWs in September 1942. Alex, who was the youngest, made the initial contact with Captain Lionel Matthews, the POW officer who was the camp’s intelligence officer.

Matthews had requested assistance in food, medicine and radio parts. With radio parts supplied by Johnny and others, a radio was assembled by the Australian POWs and was put into operation.

Apart from supplying radio parts, the Funk brothers were also instrumental in establishing links between the POWs and Dr V. Stookes, a World War I British fighter pilot. After completing his medical studies, Stookes came to North Borneo to work as an estate doctor on the Kinabatangan River. He owned a seaplane which he used for his medical services. With Stookes’ help, more medicines were made available to the POWs.



Dr Stookes (holding can). Stookes was a doctor and World War One fighter pilot who decided the only way to escape future wars was to come to Borneo. However, another war caught with him. He was executed by the Japanese. He is seen with his sea plane that he bought after meeting filmakers Martin and Osa Johnson 

during their 1935 visit. He used the plane to start a flying doctor service in Kinabatangan, possibly the first in the world.


It was Alex who took on the task of collecting the medicines from Stookes before passing them over to the POWs.

Among those involved in helping the POWs was Heng Joo Ming who was an overseer at the airstrip which the POWs and the locals were building. One day in 1942, Heng Joo Ming confided to Johnny that he was harbouring a POW escapee, Sergeant W. Wallace. Johnny provided food and money to Wallace, wo later managed to escape to Tawi-Tawi where he joined the Filipino guerrillas.

In January 1943, Johnny was approached by Ernesto Lagan, a police detective who was then working under the Japanese. Lagan wanted to obtain a plan of the former quarters of the Europeans now in Japanese hands. Apparently this was required in connection with a planned general escape from the camp. 

On another occasion, Johnny and Alex went to the POW camp and met with Corporal Abin of the North Borneo Constabulary. They were trying to smuggle a Lee Enfield 303 rifle into the camp. The rifle had earlier been issued to Alex by the Volunteer Force, but Alex did not surrender in to the armoury after the Japanese had landed. 

Alex also supplied Captain Matthews with a 38 revolver. This was the main offence which eventually resulted in Alex being executed.

From early 1943 the Japanese suspected the existence of a radio in the POW camp and began to investigate. In April 1943, the Japanese arrested Dr Stookes’s wife for allegedly helping to spread news obtained from her husband.

After interrogation and torture, they released her as they could find no evidence against her. Johnny Funk was later arrested accused of the same offence and for providing radio parts to the POWs. Johnny was tortured and interrogated for a week before being released. Together with Jonny and his brothers, 102 people (55 civilians and 47 POWs) were arrested by the Japanese over the issue of assisting the POWs. They were transferred to Kuching on 25 October 1943. After four months of continual interrogation and torture, Alex was condemned to death along with eight others. He was shot in 1944.

Mohd Tahir was a constable at Sandakan. He decided to join the underground that was being formed within police circles and took park in assisting a group of Australian Prisoners Of War (POWs) to escape from Berhala – an endeavor which earned him severe beatings and a 3-year prison sentence from the Japanese. 

All hell broke loose when the Japanese discovered the radio in the Australian POW camp. Many were arrested and, as interrogations went on, more nams were revealed. Mohd Tahir and a whole team of Constabulary members, including Jemadar Ujagar Singh, Corporal Abin, Ernesto lagan, Yansalang, Agus, Angkai, Usop Basinay and Corporal Koram were arrested.

During the interrogation, Tahir was placed in a cell with Captain Lionel Matthews, who was the main contact person in the POW camp. Matthews asked Tahir not to tell the Japanese anything. 

During interrogation, Tahir was beaten many times, mainly on his back. He managed to see many of his friends as well as others he recognised. On one occasion, he was interned with Wong Moo Sing, the Filipino Chinese agent. Tahir felt that Wong was resigned to his fate as he had been arrested as a spy and was bound to be shot.

After three months of interrogations Tahir was transferred to Kuching with the rest of the prisoners in October. At Kuching, they were interned at the former post office while awaiting trial.

At Kuching, Tahir was interned with Ujagar Singh. Ujagar’s hand had been broken by the Japanese during interrogation but he received no medical treatment. In March 1944, the men were taken to court and sentenced. 

Tahir’s involvement was regarded to be minimal and he was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment with hard labour. However, Ujagar Singh, his cellmate, was sentenced to death.

Jemadar (warrant officer) Ujagar Singh or Ojagah Singh was a member of the North Borneo Armed Constabulary. He was executed by the Japanese at Kuching. 

When the Japanese took over Sabah, European control over the Armed Constabulary also came to an end. Major A. Rice-Oxley, the pre-war commandant, was interned by the Japanese on Berhala island along with the civilian internees.

With the absence of European officers, the local policemen at Sandakan were led by three local junior officers: Inspector Guriaman, Sergeant Major Yansalang and Jemadar Ujagar Singh. The Japanese believed that these men were loyal to them. Instead, they remained loyal to their European occiers and the Allied cause.

While detained at Berhala, major Rice-Oxley requested the three to co-operate with Dr James taylor, the principal medical officer who was allowed to remain free in order to carry out his duties at the Sandakan civilian hospital.

Ujagar Singh who was stationed at the Mile 8 police station was also responsible, along with other junior officers, for providing guards for the civilian internment centre on Berhala Island.


One of the primary tasks of Jugara and Guriaman was to place trusted men on guard duty so that they would be able to assist the POWs and the civilian internees without being exposed to  Japanese informants and collaborators. 

The Japanese had already put in place a network of spies and informants, including some in the Constabulary. Thus when Ujagar and Guraiman organized the roster, they ensured only the most loyal and sympathetic policemen were allocated to duties that look them regularly to Berhala Island and the Mile 8 station. These included Corporal Abin, Corporal Koram, Corporal Usop Basinau, Police Constable Mohd Tahir Matusin and several others.

With these men in place, food and medicine were smuggled to the civilian internees and group of POWs on Berhala Island. Supplies were also made available to the POWs at Mile 8.

Ujagar was also involved in helping eight Australian POWs escape from Berhala Island.



Cpl Koram: Resisted Japanese



Alex Funk: Executed. (Below) Ujagar Singh: Tortured and executed after breaking his bones. He is the grandfather of Yayasan Sabah Deputy Director Datuk Sam Mannan.



He was also one of the major contributors to a fund that assisted the POWs to escape.

Ujagar also assisted in mapping possible escape routes by providing a map taken from the Constabulary office to Abin, who then passed the map to Matthews. The map showed the main installations and buildings in Sandakan.

The underground network was destroyed in July 1943 when it was betrayed to the Japanese, who then discovered the radio used by the POWs to obtain news from the outside world. Ujagar was arrested along with Corporal Abin, Corporal Koram, PC Mohd Tahir and Detective Ernesto Lagan. Koram, however, managed to escape.

Ujagar was mercilessly tortured by the Kempeitai, who were furious that he had betrayed their trust. According to witnesses, “the stubbornly brave black-bearded Sikh, emerged frominterrogation with a broken elbow. He was refused any medical treatment to his injury, right up to the time of his execution six months later,” by firing squad after a trial in Kuching on Oct 19, 1943.

There was no mention of any payment of compensation to his widow or family at the end of the war. His position in the Constabulary prevented the Australian government from providing financial compensation to his family.

Peter Lai came into contact with the British and Australian POWs through his work as a young hospital dresser, Peter assisted Dr James Taylor, the principal medical officer who was allowed by the Japanese to continue serving in his position.

Through his dealings with the prisoners Peter Lai was moved by their sufferings and humiliation at the hands of the Japanese and he decided to help them.

When news of the imminent Japanese invasion reached him, Dr Taylor immediately began hoarding medical supplies. He gave Peter specific instructions about the whereabouts of the medical supplies and how they should be dispensed to those in dire need. Peter bravely took up the challenge and told the secret to only a few trusted friends.

Initially, their tasks were concentrated on the civilians internees at Berhala Island until they were moved to Kuching. Then Peter and his friends began to help the POWs. They managed to deliver much-needed food, medicine and other supplies to the POWs.

Peter kept his involvement in this mission a secret even from his wife and family.

Late one night, he arrived home with four bedraggled Australian soldiers. They had escaped from the prison camp and were in dire need of food and temporary shelter. He had no choice but to bring them into his home. Gabriela, his wife, was shocked, but readily provided them with food, clothes and medical care. The soldiers were on their way to meet Corporal Koram and his colleagues who would later smuggle them out to the Philippines.

Unfortunately, everything changed one day. Someone had betrayed them. Peter was arrested on 29 July 1943. He was jailed 18 years but, fortunately, the war ended soon after.

Peter and most of the detainees were eventually shipped to Kuching. In the group were Apostol, Felix Azcona, Jakarullah, Khoo Siak Chiew, Ernesto Lagan and several others. 

Corporal Koram, against all odds, managed to wage a personal war against the Japanese Army until peace was restored. 

Koram bin Anduat was a Murut and member of the pre-war Constabulary. He was based in Sandakan.

As the Japanese administration was being put in place, the Constabulary were asked to continue to serve. Koram was soon sent to Berhala Island to guard the civilian internees.

Berhala Island was turned into a detention camp for the civilian internees by the Japanese shortly after they landed. It had earlier been used as a leprosy settlement under Chartered Company rule. 

Shortly after the outbreak of war in December 1941, the Chartered Company had used it to intern Japanese nationals. When the tables were turned, it was used by the Japanese to detain European and some Asian internees.

Apart from Koram, the Constabulary detail on Berhala consisted of Inspector Guriaman, Jemadar Ujagar Singh, Usop Basinau and Yansalang. The group was extremely loyal to their former superior officer Major A. Rice-Oxley, the commandant for the Constabulary and officer in the Volunteer Force. 

The policemen acted as couriers for messages between the internees on Berhala Island and Dr James Taylor in the civilian hospital in Sandakan. Apart from Major Rice-Oxley, also interned on Berhala were Governor Charles R. Smith and other government officials including Harry Keith, the Conservator of Forests. 

Apart from messages, the group also helped to smuggle money, medicines and essential food to the prisoners on Berhala Island. 

Koram was arrested twice by the Kempeitai on suspicion of being a message courier. He was beaten and jailed for two weeks: The Japanese  warned him that he would be shot the next time they caught him for the same offence. Koram was then carrying messages between Berhala and the POW camp. Because of this experience, Koram had to lie low for a while. 

Six months later, Koram was again on guard duty on Berhala Island. This time, the prisoners were 500 Australian POWs who were being transferred from Kuching. The POWs, code-named ‘E’ Force, had originally been captured in Singapore. The men had arrived at Berhala on a Japanese ship, Taka Maru, on 6 April 1943 en route to join the other POWs in the construction of the airfield at Mile 8. 

When Koram returned to duty at Berhala, he was asked by the Japanese to spy on the prisoners. This he agreed to do with the hope of helping the POWs. 

One day while Koram was fishing, an American submarine surfaced beside his boat. The men from the submarine asked Koram to deliver a letter to any white man he saw. 

He was also asked to tell those who were trying to escape to join the guerrillas in southern Philippines. Initially, Koram took the letter to the POWs who were already in Sandakan constructing the airfield. Koram was later asked by Dr Taylor to extend the escape offer to the POWs on Berhala Island. 

While the leading POW officers on the mainland rejected the suggestion to escape, some of their men were eager to make an attempt. On 30 April 1943, the first three POWs escaped from the Mile 8 Camp. Two of them were quickly recaptured and executed. 

The successful escapee, Sergeant Walter Wallace, was hidden and cared for by the Sandakan underground. 

He finally made it to Berhala Island on 30 May, and was asked to hide with other escapees from the POW camp on the island. A shelter was constructed for them by Koram. 

After many anxious moments, three members of the party finally made it to Tawi-Tawi in small boats on 14 June 1943. The other five arrived 15 days later in a kumpit that had been arranged by Koram and his friends. 

Koram was betrayed by three collaborators who had knowledge of his links with the ‘E’ Force escapees. Koram was severely beaten but revealed no information. During a lull in the interrogation he managed to escape through the windows of a toilet and went into hiding. He spent the first few days hiding in the vicinity of the Japanese headquarters; there he survived on Japanese rations. 

After a week, he moved to the reservoir, where he.was cared for by his fellow policemen Apuk and Gatua. After recovering from his wounds, Koram was said to have set fire to the jetty at Sandakan and destroyed a Japanese oil store and a fuel lighter. He then set his mind to resisting Japanese rule through guerrilla warfare.  

Koram’s first guerrilla venture was apparently with the Kinabalu Guerrillas. Some authors mentioned that Koram took part in the Kinabalu Guerrillas’ uprising on 9 October 1943. He and his two police friends were said to have been involved in the burning of the Jesselton godown. When the Kinabalu Guerrillas fell apart in the face of massive Japanese attack, Koram returned to his father’s house in Pensiangan, having become ill. 

Koram was once again arrested by the Japanese on 1 May 1944 in Segama, but managed to escape again. This time; he made his way to Tawi-Tawi where he submitted his reports and intelligence data to Colonel Alendrajo Suarez, the commander of the Filipino guerrilla force under the USFIP still holding out against the Japanese. 

After the war, Koram rejoined the Constabulary and was promoted to sergeant. He was made a Member of the British Empire for his wartime service. Koram continued his service in the Constabulary until he retired in 1955. – From the book Historical Sabah: The War by Danny Wong



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