Friday, February 14, 2014

15 and going to War

My great uncle, Keith Davey Ferguson, was under age when he enlisted in the AMF under his elder brother's name on 8 June 1940. It's unclear what motivated Keith to join the services but he was accepted and was known as "Geoffrey Charles Ferguson" until 4 November 1940 when the records were changed to reflect his true identity. 

His attestation form lists him as a bootmaker, single, born in Melbourne but living at 46 Camden Street Fairfield, New South Wales.

His initial posting was to the 6th Infantry based a Parramatta before moving to Tamworth to under go training. On 2 February, 1941, he embarked at Sydney on the HT "QX" for Singapore where he arrived on the 18th.

At some point his parents learned of his enlistment and contacted the army to attempt to have him returned as he was only 15 and 8 months of age when he enlisted and not the 20.5 to which he had attested. However, the army assured them that he was going to be nice and safe in Fortress Singapore. 

Well we all know how that worked out. Singapore fell on 15 February, 1942. Keith had been stationed out of Singapore during the Malay campaign at Port Dickson, in modern day Malaysia. By this stage he had been promoted to Acting Corporal, not that he was going to enjoy the privileges of rank for very long.

Initially listed as missing, it is probable that Keith was taken prisoner on Singapore as part of the general surrender. However, his records show a significant lapse in time between the fall and him being listed as a POW (17 November 1943), but this may just be the natural lag due to capitulation. In any event it must have been torture for his parents.
PoW Notice
When he made it to Sandakan is not clear but by 8 July 1942, transport of prisoners for their 10 day journey had commenced. Official records list him being interned at the camp by 16 October, 1944. As many prisoners were held in Changi before being moved to Borneo, it's possible that this is what happened to Keith.

Keith was able to survive as a POW in some of the worst conditions of the war until just weeks before it ended. The official records list his death occurring on 14 July, 1945. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were less than a month a way, and with them the end of the war on 15 August. 

I've found no records that report on Keith's experiences as a Prisoner of War. He was allowed to send the occasional card but these were more like form letters, with boxes to tick but no room (or opportunity) to report on what was really happening. 

However, as a prisoner at Sandakan and a victim of the notorious death marches (as a participant or one left behind), there are lots of records from war crime trials that give some inkling to the horrors he witnessed and experienced.

An interview of L/Bdr Moxham, one of the few survivors of Sandakan, gave the following description of conditions. He was reporting on another POW, W.O. John Kinder:

"In February, 1945, 470 prisoners were marched from Sandakan to Puginatang, the march lasting 19 days. After approximately one month at Puginatang the prisoners were marched to Ranau, arriving there early in April. John Kinder was then in reasonably good health. He was in charge of the party during the marches and at Ranau. He did a good job right through and got several bashings from the Japs. for protesting about ill-treatment of them men.

"About 15th April Kinder became sick with dysentery. He recovered but was in low condition. Later he suffered from malaria and subsequently with dysentery again. Whilst suffering from both diseases he died on June 10th. I was with him when he died and buried him myself. I put a cross on his grave and marked his name on it.

"When Kinder died there were only 35 survivors of the original party of 470. We all suffered from malnutrition and bad treatment generally. Only one other man and myself survived ultimately." [NAA: A705, 166/22/357]

There were two Sandakan Marches that resulted in the deaths of over 2300 Allied prisoners of war, including Keith Davey Ferguson. Given the date of his death, it appears Keith perished following the final march to Ranau that had begun on 9 June, 1945. 

"Approximately 250 people were left at Sandakan after the second march departed. Most prisoners were so ill that the Japanese initially intended to let them starve to death. However on 9 June 1945 it was decided to send another group of 75 men on a final march. The remaining men were so weak that none survived beyond 50 kilometres (31 mi). As each man collapsed from exhaustion, that man was shot by a Japanese guard. All remaining prisoners left at Sandakan who could not walk either were killed or died from a combination of starvation and sickness before the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945." [Wikipedia]

The rationale for the marches were to move supplies but also to evacuate before the Allied landings.

"First reason was because of the war conditions on the east of Borneo namely Morotai, Celebes and Leyte. Also, we knew that the Allied air force were gathering numerous plans at Morotai in preparation and also the operations at Leyte were becoming worse and Australian troops had landed at Tarakan; besides this the Otsuka Unit informed us that the Allies were probably going to land at Sandakan and from other intelligence reports we decided to move the PW. The second reason was that the Japanese strength at Sandakan at that time was about 1,5000 and as their line of defence was very long we did not have enough troops to cover all that area and should the PW be left in Sandakan they would become troublesome and endangered. Third reason. The food supply position had become difficult..." [Testimony of Iwahashi Manabu from "Loss of Australian PoW in death march from Sandakan to Ranau" National Australian Archives: MP742/1, 51/1/269]

On 1st June, 1946, the Federal Executive of "The Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia", wrote to the Secretary to the Department of the Army,  F. R. Sinclair, requesting "any information ... on the loss of some two thousand Australian Prisoners of War in the death march from Sandakan to Ranau, North Borneo between August 1943 and August 1945."

The testimonies and interrogations of Lt Horikawa Koichi, Cpt Yamamoto Shoichi, [ibid] sheds some light on the second death march:

Koichi - 

"Before my group left Sandakan there were other instructions from Army HQ concerning the march. It was about 2 or 3 days after Capt Yamamoto left that a telegram from Army HQ came stating

  1. The March should be hastened.
  2. Report the number of parties departed on the march.
  3. If possible organise the party of the strongest and march as soon as possible.

Cross-Examined by Prosecuting Officer

Q. Did Capt Yamamoto reprimand you for leaving 9 prisoners at Boto.
A. No I was not reprimanded.

Q. How many of the POW in your party were wearing boots when you took them over at Sandakan.
A. I do not remember exactly but I think around 40% of the total were wearing leather boots. 

Questions by Court

Q. Do you know what happened to the POW which you left at Boto
A. Yes

Q. What happened to them.
A. I started back from Toran and on the way I met the Japanese soldier whom I had left behind and I heard the position from them and at Paginetan I met for POWs that had caught up. I heard their story and from there I went back to Boto, and I made sure of their story.

Shoichi - 

Q. How many prisoners died on the march?
A. I do not know the exact figures but I think more than 100 died on the march.

Q. What did they die of?
A. They died of malaria, beri beri, and blood poisoning from infected wounds and scratches. The latter I believe was caused because the prisoners march bare-footed.

Q. Did you know they were bare-footed when they started to march?
A. About the middle of Jan I received orders from Army HQ to send 400 POW to Tuaran which is 23 miles from Jesselton. The purposes of sending these prisoners was to make them carry ammunition and equipment require at Jesselton. I myself decided that the prisoners were not fit to carry ammunition and equipment, but my orders were to march the prisoners to Tuaran. I did not give the prisoners shoes because I had not enough to supply them, and as soon as the orders for marching came I had to carry them out, and had not time to do anything about the shoes.
Q. What happened to prisoners who got too tired to walk?
A. Those that could not walk the other prisoners helped along.

Q. What happened when they could not go any further?
A. The soldiers watched over them and if any fell out they guarded them?

Q. What happened to them?
A. The soldiers would take them to the next camp later. I put out an order not to harm the prisoners but whether they were beaten I do not know.

Q. Did you put the order out because you knew the soldiers were harming the prisoners?
A. I did not see such things. I put the order out because I thought it was right according to the Prisoners of War Regulations.

Q. Did any of the prisoners die on the track or at the staging points?
A. Some died in the camps and some on the way.

Q. How many were shot?
A. Some were shot but I do not know the exact number...

Q. Were prisoners left to die when they fell out?
A. Those who could not work I abandoned.

Perhaps the most understated piece of testimony during the inquiry comes from the questioning of Col. Takayama Hikoichi, Chief of Staff of the 37th Army:

Q. It is said that of over 2,000 prisoners at Sandakan, six are now alive; As a senior staff officer what have you to say about that?
A. I think that is a very regrettable business.

Although the deaths in Sandakan ran into the thousands, it was the execution of Captain L. C. Matthews that was a focal point for war crimes' trials after the war. As a prisoner in Sandakan he was part of a group, betrayed by a local, who were communicating with the outside world. He kept notes in a small diary listing people, arms, and ammunition that was subsequently discovered. He and his co-conspirators were interrogated at Sandakan before being moved to Kuching. 

Matthews was found guilty of plotting a mutiny and executed. His final words, spoken to Lt Wells, before being driven off for the firing squad were, "Please tell my wife that I always love her, and tell my sons to fight until we have victory".  His co-defendants were imprisoned - but not at Sandakan - and many managed to survive the war and testify at the subsequent war crimes' trial. The witness statements run to over 340 pages and make compelling yet disturbing reading. (The reference number is NAA: MP742/1, 336/1/1854.)

The testimony of Lt. Alexander Gordon Weyton of Castelmaine Victoria paints a vivid and horrifying picture of the treatment of the prisoners at Sandakan.

"... are two photographs endorsed NB115. I recognise this Japanese as Warrant Officer [Kesao] Ehara [referred to as "The Bulldog" or "The Bully"]. This Japanese was a member of the Sandakan Kempei Tai. Ehara carried out some of the interrogation of me at Sandakan. On one occasion Sapper E. J. Keating, who was also a prisoner of the Kempei Tai, passed me a note and was caught doing so. Ehara brutally flogged Keating for this. Spr Keating was very ill with dysentry and he had a large ulcer on his right leg; he subsequently died at Kuching in February 1944 before the trial. One day in September 1943 I saw Ehara brutally beat an Indian, Ojuga Singh, breaking his jaw. Singh's injury was left unattended and remained until he was executed in March 1944. I also saw Ehara beat Mrs Mavor and Mrs Taylor, wife of Dr Taylor.
"This Japanese [another identified by Weyton] carried a whip with which he used to flog prisoners. He flogged me with this whip and also Mrs Mavor and Mrs Taylor. On one occasion I saw this Japanese brutally beat the late Capt Matthews who was executed at Kuching on 2 March 1944, with wooden clogs about the face and head. At the end of this beating Capt Matthews' face was covered in blood. This Japanese frequently used ju jitsu on prisoners." ["War Crimes Borneo Ill-treatment of Prisoners of War by Kemkei-Tai at Sandakan", NAA: MP897/1, 156/19/152]

Lt-General Baba was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death for ordering the Sandakan-Ranau death march.

Keith's death certificate is clinical and clerical. There's no hint at the life that had been led and lost in the service of his country.

The local community of Fairfield honoured Keith and the other fallen of the area by creating a "Honour Avenue" in the main park. A small plaque placed on an individual stone monument, each associated with its own native tree lined each side of the road into the park.
Obituary from "The Biz" 8 Nov, 1945

Keith's elder brother, from whom he borrowed his name to enlist, also joined the Army and ended up stationed in Borneo as a commando. He returned home safely in 1947.


  1. I have a similar story, except in mine, the cousin got home safe and sound from serving in the Seabees in the Pacific. He made a career of the Navy. But to get in, he had to prove his age, and my grandmother changed the date in the family Bible!

  2. Thanks for the comment Vera. I wonder how the perspective of those who were underage and thus only just out of childhood differs from their older peers when the war was over?

  3. I was saddened to read that Keith didn't make it home but glad that Geoffrey did.

  4. Kylie, Geoff has a good long life, dying in 2003 leaving grandchildren and great grandchildren. His wife was the subject of an earlier blog.

  5. What a heartbreaking story. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. I read this word for word. Very well researched. How very sad. So young and so unnecessary! My grandfather was in the second world war (he returned but died young) and my grandmother to the day she died in 2006 would not buy anything Japanese. My grandfather had told her stories and she could not forget or forgive their cruelty and held it against the race.

    1. My grandparents had a neighbour who had survived being a POW of the Japanese. He lived into the 90s but was never the same man. It must be hard to try and move on. Such things really take a generation or two.