Koram: The heroic post-war MBE recipient
Published on: Sunday, January 29, 2023
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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Sergeant McLaren (left) off Berhala in a return visit after the war. McLaren is one of the chief plotters of the famed Berhala Eight helped by Koram to escape to Tawi- Tawi thus pre-empted the Death March.
AS for honour and fame, an MBE (Order of Member of the British Empire) award is far and few in Sabah, compared to the joke that “throw a stone, it would probably land on a ‘Datuk’”.     

So, Koram bin Anduat, a Murut, and his apparent heroics is a name and deeds we are sure 99.9 per cent of Sabahans have never heard of.

But in June 1946, Koram was shipped all the way to London to receive his MBE, yet unheard of and unsung till this day, compared to the front page Daily Express report accorded to Tham Yau Kong who received his MBE from British High Commissioner, Charles Ray, on January 4, 2023.     

What is a MBE award?

Briefly, MBE is the third highest ranking Order of the British Empire, after CBE (Commander of the British Empire), OBE (Order of the British Empire), awarded to individuals who have “made a positive impact in their line of work”.

Koram MBE being greeted by George Henry Hall – Secretary of State for the colonies, in London on June 17, 1946.  

Koram’s sole daughter holding a picture of her father, Koram Anduat.

Rare and well deserved latest recognition mainly on his positive impact to retrace the lost Death March route. Tham Yau Kong receives MBE award from 

Charles Ray, British High Commissioner, to Malaysia on January 4.

So, in the case of forgotten Koram, what was his line of work and what positive impact, from the perspective of the British Empire, that earned him the rare honour?

In colonial days, Koram, born in remote Kg Kakutar Sumatalun, Pagalungan, 1915, joined the North Borneo Constabulary (equivalent to police force) as a Corporal.  

A surprise is, when the Japanese took over in December1941, they kept people like Koram 

So what was Koram’s line of work under the Japanese? 

They posted him as a guard to Berhala Island which they turned into an overlay or temporary stopover for the hundreds of British and Australian prisoners of war shipped from Singapore, before barging over to Mile 8 to build the airport.

In the titanic clash between empires, the Japanese captured 80,000 Allied troops after the fall of Singapore and Malaya, bundling thousands to either Burma to build railways or Sandakan to build airport.  

The famed Berhala Eight & their heroic saviour

Knowing full well Mile 8 was really a death sentence, a handful schemed to give escape a go.   

Among them in the six-week overlay in Berhala were experienced escape plotters, famously the so-called “Berhala Eight” – Lieutenant Rex Blow, Lieutenant Charles Wagner, Sergeant Rex Butler, Captain Raymond Steele, Lieutenant Leslie Gillon, Sapper Jim Kennedy, Private Robert “Jock” McLaren and Sergeant Walter.

McLauren, for instance, broke jail from Changi, Singapore, made it as far as Kuala Lumpur before he was betrayed and recaptured.

Major Rex Blow – the man who recommended MBE award for Sergeant Koram.

Amazingly, this time these eight succeeded in giving their captors the slip and, managed it at all odds – three paddled while five took a “kumpit” to Tawi Tawi 250km away, which saved them from eventually becoming part of the infamous Sandakan- Ranau Death March that wiped out 2,428, including all the 641 British PoWs!

The heroic local collaborator is none other than Koram bin Anduat whose “heart” was British/Aussie Prisoners-of-war though his “job role” was a police guard under Japanese occupiers.  

Historian Professor Danny Wong noted that Koram and colleagues apparently were ‘extremely loyal’ to former commandant of North Borneo Constabulary, Rice Oxley, who himself fell detainee in Berhala.      

Falling captives in Berhala included big and famous names like Governor Charles Smith and Harry Keith, Conservator of Forest.

Loopholes and opportunities to escape   

Was a successful escape a Mission Impossible? The Berhala Eight noticed loopholes and opportunities to make it. 

One was, the toilets were outside the barb-wired camp setback 160 metres from the beach.

Going to toilet was a perfect excuse and opportunity go outside the camp and hide in island’s naturally dense forest, when needed.

To serve the Camp’s basic energy need, there was a wood-carrying party.

McLaren, Kennedy and apparently Butler quickly joined it. The idea was explore and move around the island for possibilities.

Sure enough, McLaren saw a boat at the leper colony, and marked it out as his backbone asset for his group of three, Kennedy and Butler to paddle away.  

But five other guys – Major, Rex Blow, Steele, Wagner, Gillon and Wallace, formed a second escape group. Escape to where? 

One shocking submarine incident 

Both groups contacted a willing and trustworthy Koram whose advice was – “run to Tawi Tawi.

But here is an incident that shocked the daylight out of Koram.

One day, while hook-and-line fishing off Berhala, an American submarine suddenly popped up beside his boat, Professor Professor Danny Wong ( my ex-student) reported in his article entitled “Corporal Koram The Amazing  Resistance Fighter”.

“The men from the submarine asked Koram to deliver a letter to any white man he sees.  He was also asked to tell those who were trying to escape to join the guerrillas in the Philippines,” Prof Danny noted.

But nstead of taking the letter to the two groups of intending escapees in Berhala, Koram took the letter to the PoWs at Mile 8.

This is worth a mention because the American Sub escape offer apparently inspired three PoWs at Mile 8 to give it a go on April 30, 1943 but two were quickly recaptured and shot. 

However, one named Sergeant Wallace Walter succeeded, hid by sympathisers and made it to Berhala alive on 30 May and became one of the Berhala Eight! 

The submarine episode sounds amazing but not strange because US Navy used subs heavily during WW2, with 263 deployed on war patrols, claimed 1,392 ships totalling 5,585,440 tonnes, sank 30pc of Japanese navy in addition to 4,779,902 tonnes or 54pc of Japanese shipping in the Pacific. 

Working for Japanese but sympathetic to the PoWs 

But the Berhala Eight was also made possible because the Japanese kept Colonial essentials such as policeman Koram and Dr James Taylor, the Principal Medical Officer, Sandakan and the police force.

So Dr Taylor kept his job, so did Koram, to render care and interest for their compatriots.

In their respective roles, of course Taylor was sympathetic to plight of the top Berhala civilian expatriates the likes of Governor Charles Smith, Harry Keith the Conservator of Forest and more.

In policeman Koram, Taylor found not only a positively reliable messenger but also courier of medicine, food, money etc.   

But the day Koram extended his network to Mile 8 PoWs called “B Force”, particularly smuggling parts for PoWs intelligence officer Lionel Matthew to make a radio, the Kempetai or Japanese Military Police got wind of his dangerous liaison via their ubiquitous informants.

He was arrested twice, beaten, jailed two weeks with a stern warning: “One more time, you will be shot”.

The day that triggered Berhala Eight 

Koram lied low for a while. But when shipment of 500 Aussie Pows codenamed “E Force” including jail break schemer like Sergeant McLaren from Kuching arrived Berhala aboard the steamboat Kata Maru in April 1943, the Japanese still found Koram’s role as guard essential. 

This time, Koram was asked to spy on the PoWs. Did he do the spy role well? No, it’s the opposite.

Come June 4, 1943, the Japanese Army brought into Berhala a large barge and ordered the PoWs to be prepared to be transferred to mainland Sandakan the next day.

The Berhala Eight decided that’s it: Go!

That very night, on the pretext of going to the toilet outside the camp, they walked out in pitch darkness and hid in Berhala’s known thick forest but split into two groups. 

Next day June 5, McLaren, Kennedy and Butler stole the boat from the Leper colony McLaren had marked out weeks before during a wood party walk around and started paddling, arriving in Tawi Tawi on June 14, 1943.

Fifteen days later, the other five – Major Rex Blow, Steele, Walter, Wagner and Gillon arrived in a “kumpit”.

The cunnings of Koram who pulled off a fast one 

But the morning after the first three had left, the lepers reported to the Japanese loss of their boat.

The Kempetai mounted a search for the missing eight.

The risk of the remaining five being found remained real. Koram used his head.

He hatched a cunning trick to fool the kempetai into believing all the Berhala Eight had escaped and gone. 

Quoting Bayanihan News, writer Patricia Hului writes: 

“On the night of the last PoWs had been transferred to Sandakan, Koram borrowed a pair of boots from one of his Australian friends.”      

“Then he quietly ventured to the cluster of beach front island houses, untied one of the boats, made hole in the bottom and shoved it into flowing estuary waters where it was carried some distance away before it sank out of sight in deep water. 

“He stole more boats and did the same with them. He then put on a pair of Australian boots he had borrowed earlier and stomped it around the seashore, leaving a lot of tracks. Then he quietly slipped back to mainland Sandakan without being detected.

“Early next day, three islanders reported to the Japanese they lost their boats. When the investigators saw the boot prints on the mud they concluded the Australian PoWs must have taken the boat and escaped from the island, and immediately mounted a search at sea, not realising that the five were still hiding in Berhala’s forest.”

Koram’s cunning deception caused captors to look away to the wrong place. 

Kumpit escape for the bigger group 

But this time, the five escapees needed a bigger boat to Tawi Tawi. 

Apparently, local guerrillas chipped in a kumpit, Rex Blow, Steele, Walter, Wagner and Gillon were instructed to lie on the hold, then planks were placed on them with sacks of rice on top.

“There was one nerve wracking moment when a Japanese destroyer stopped by to check but did not board the kumpit, so by June 24, 1943, all the Berhala Eight had successfully escaped to Tawi Tawi where they joined the guerrillas there.”

The performance that sparked an MBE 

If prevention is better than cure, then this is a positive impact big time from Koram who enabled the Berhala Eight to pre-empt the Death March where no one survived except six who escaped during the Death March.

But even so, there is no direct mention that Koram was awarded the MBE because of his heroics in the Berhala Eight saga. 

However, in one obscure paragraph, Prof Danny Wong reveals who and why was behind it:

“Rex Blow was so impressed by Koram’s performance that that he recommended him for an award.”

What was he so impressed about? 

Koram’s fighting spirit, this time. 

A year or so after Berhala, Koram found himself working under Major Blow who became a leader of Merotai-based Agas IV – part of a series of clandestine Allied operations aimed at gathering information is Sabah, including the plight of the PoWs, and establishing resistance groups.   

Koram became part of a team inserted in Semporna in July 1944. 

This time, Major Blow saw with his own eyes the true manhood of Koram on the in the battle field:

“Koram formed a very effective partnership with his Australian colleagues. Although the mission was essentially intelligence gathering, the team was also involved in several attacks on Japanese positions. 

“Koram’s qualities as a guerrilla fighter were very impressive. On many occasions he successfully led teams of local guerrillas to attack the Japanese. Rex Blow was so impressed by Koram’s performance that he recommended him for an award,” writes Prof Danny Wong.  

An MBE’s unsung village, monument and graveyard visited 

There it is, Major Rex Blow recommended Koram be honoured and recognised as a “Member of the British Empire”.

Which gave Koram an opportunity of a life time to visit London to receive it on June 17, 1946. 

A very interesting and certainly substantial war time story actually, that a  Murut from a totally unsung village named Kakutar Sumatalun, Pangalungan of sub District Pensiangan is deemed worthy of an MBE.

The riverside graveyard of Koram Anduat in Kg Sumatalun.

The hefty concrete monument in the compound of Pensiangan Sub District in remembrance of Koram (MBE).

Today, Koram is remembered with a hefty concrete monument erected on the grounds of the Sub District Office of Pagalungan.

Koram’s graveyard is set by the bank of a river in his village Kg Kakutar Sumatalun, which another recently Member of the British Empire Tham Yau Kong and myself visited on December 4, 2021, led by Pensiangan Murut community leader, Ansom Putiang. 

The best part of that visit was to meet Koram’s one and only daughter, who is in her 70s but never married and also met Koram’s newphew, Philip Antogi.


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December 20, 2014