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<p>Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Australia, B5563, BOX 6</p>

Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Australia, B5563, BOX 6

POW camp guard Suzuki Saburo, war criminal number 524.

Belated Medals Tarnish The True Valour Of The Sandakan Diggers

Some 60 years ago, an Australian POW, a victim of the greatest wartime atrocity ever committed against Australians at war, decided on revenge. One of only six survivors of the notorious Sandakan death marches, the false evidence he gave to ensure a murderous camp guard was put to death is now being used to transform one ordinary digger — who died alongside 2,400 others — into a hero. Critics say it’s part of an extraordinary political attempt to confer Australia’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross, on long-dead soldiers.

Keith Botterill was a haunted man. An under-age recruit from Katoomba who enlisted in the Australian Army at the age of 17, he was a witness to the greatest single atrocity ever committed against Australians at war.

Between 1942 and 1945, 2,428 Australian and British soldiers died while prisoners of the Imperial Japanese Army in the jungles of Sabah, or British North Borneo, as it was then called. Captured after the fall of Singapore, they had been transported to a prisoner of war camp at Sandakan, on the north east coast of Borneo. More than half - about 1,400 - died there of disease and starvation or ill-treatment. One British officer was crucified for stealing food to feed his starving men.

Then in the final days of the war, between January and June 1945, came the death marches.

More than a thousand POWs - many bloated by beri-beri or sick with dysentery, malaria and malnutrition - were forced inland on a mountainous 240-kilometre jungle march to Ranau. Thinking the track was for the Japanese soldiers, the local villagers had deliberately cut it through the most difficult terrain possible - through low-lying swamps, up precipitous mountainsides.

<p>Information supplied courtesy of The Australian War Memorial</p>

Information supplied courtesy of The Australian War Memorial

Half the men perished on the three marches. Many simply lay down and died by the side of the track; those who could not keep up were shot or bayoneted. Worst of all, some were used for meat by the guards. Slices of flesh were carved off their thighs or upper arms and then they were bandaged up and sent on their way, to keep the 'meat' fresh for the next meal.

Those who made it to Ranau died of disease, starvation and ill-treatment. In an effort to cover up the atrocities, the last survivors were put to death by their guards, on the orders of the Japanese High Command, 12 days after the war ended on August 15.

In the end, only six Australians survived.

They had escaped into the jungle, were rescued after the war and made it home alive. Private Keith Botterill was one of them. Another was Lance Bombadier William Moxham, of Parramatta, the son of a well-to-do rural family who had their roots in the early colony.

Unlike Vietnam veterans, who returned to a sometimes scornful public, the six Sandakan survivors were greeted by what Moxham's daughter, Sue, calls "the silence."

There was an official cover-up. The Australian High Command had abandoned a plan to rescue the POWs in 1945. After the war, there was also the shame of surrender and the sheer horror of the story. The survivors were told simply to forget about the war and get on with their lives. The Government "wanted to hush it up," says Sue Moxham, now in her late 50s and living in Sydney.

<p>Photo courtesy of Lynette Silver</p>

Photo courtesy of Lynette Silver

Military historian Lynette Silver.

But in the early 1990s, military historian Lynette Silver began years of meticulous research for what would become the definitive account of what happened in Borneo. Her 1998 book, Sandakan: A Conspiracy of Silence, is now in its fourth edition.

Silver, 66, came to know both Botterill and two other survivors very well. She recorded the stories only they could tell, and she has done more than anyone else to ensure that their heroism and sacrifice, and that of their doomed mates, is remembered.

But she also knows their secrets.

"Both Botterill and Moxham wanted revenge," she says. "They wanted revenge on the guards they felt needed to be punished. And on more than one occasion they gave false testimony to ensure they got their man."

The band of survivors returned to Australia to be greeted with more disillusionment, when the War Crimes Trial for the POW camp guards failed to deliver what they considered to be justice.

Two vicious civilian Taiwanese guards in particular - Suzuki Saburo and Kawakami Kyoshi, who was known to the POWs as the "Gold-Toothed-Shin-Kicking Bastard" - escaped the death penalty in a 1945 war crimes trial, despite being members of a murder squad that killed Botterill's mate Corporal Norm Allie and seven others in the final days of the war. (Despite their names, they were not Japanese; Formosa, now Taiwan, had been under Japanese rule since 1895.)

In a particularly sickening chapter of the Borneo horror story, Corporal Allie volunteered to stay behind and tend the weak and the dying when the fittest men marched on, little realising that the Japanese had already decided to shoot them all.

Six months later, back home in Australia, Botterill and Moxham were outraged to learn that Suzuki and Kawakami, who had been captured by the Allies, had been sentenced to just 15 years for the murders.

Called to give evidence at another war crimes trial in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, the following year, Botterill was determined the guards would not escape the noose again.

It was the trial for the murder of Gunner Albert "Neil" Cleary of Geelong, a 22-year-old prisoner who was tortured and later died at Ranau after a failed escape attempt. Botterill and Moxham lied to the court, claiming Suzuki was one of the three guards responsible. A reading of the trial transcript also leaves the strong impression that Botterill exaggerated his evidence to ensure that all three guards were found guilty of murder.

Who could blame him?

It worked. Despite no evidence of a direct killing, the three were hanged on October 18, 1946.

“I would hate to see the credibility of the tribunal now destroyed by a decision that was flawed or in error. If it loses credibility in one area it will lose credibility in all areas.”

Little did Botterill and Moxham know that their actions would help turn Cleary into an Australian military hero.

In the years since, Cleary, an ordinary digger whose death, while tragic, was no more heroic and far less gruesome than many others, has been elevated beyond his mates. If Gallipoli has Simpson and his donkey, Sandakan may soon have Cleary.

Ever the populist, the late Bruce Ruxton, the longtime president of the Victorian RSL, played his part.

In 1985, Ruxton built a memorial at Ranau, close to the spot where Cleary died, and included on it the brief, horrific details of Cleary’s death. Although built to remember all those who died on the death marches, it has become known as the Cleary Memorial.

In 2010, 65 years after he died, Gunner Cleary was awarded a Commendation for Gallantry, for which he did not qualify under the rules set during World War II for recognising prisoners of war.

This year, the myth of Gunner Cleary may well reach its apotheosis.

His name - along with a dozen others - has been put forward to be considered for a Victoria Cross. It is an award reserved for the bravest of the brave, given only for the most conspicuous acts of gallantry in the presence of the enemy.

<p>Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, PO3861.001.</p>

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, PO3861.001.

Gunner Albert Neil Cleary, c 1940

A decision will be made by the end of the year.

It is possible that Australian officials might then decide that the VC, conferred only 98 times in the nation's 111-year history, should be conferred a further 13 times - and in a single year of peace time. Critics say Cleary has become part of an extraordinary political attempt to make new Australian military heroes, out of long-dead soldiers.

* * * *

“It was a combination of the severe illness, poor treatment and a lack of medical attention that killed him. The same thing happened to many others. It’s ghastly but it’s not what I call killing while escaping or execution.”

In 1952, Britain's King George VI decided that no further imperial awards arising out of service during World War II would be made.

The RSL - the Returned and Services League in Australia - says that unless new, authenticated evidence can be produced, there should be no more medals.

The Department of Defence in Australia does not support any further recognition for World War II prisoners of war.

However, not everyone agrees.

John Bradford, a history buff from Adelaide, has been on a personal campaign to have World War II soldiers, and particularly sailors, as well as prisoners of war, formally recognised for their wartime efforts.

Moved by the Cleary story, it took the retired Department of Defence scientist nearly 10 years of effort to secure a result in the Cleary case. He was assisted by the formation of the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal, the independent body that since 2008 has been charged with handing out the medals to those military personnel who otherwise have been overlooked for awards.

In 2009, at the initiative of the Federal Government, the Tribunal held an inquiry to consider whether Cleary and other World War II prisoners of war of the Japanese should be given a posthumous military gallantry award called a Mention in Dispatches, or MID.

Under the rules set down by the Imperial POW Committee in 1943, such an award could be granted only to POWs in one circumstance.

They must have been "killed while trying to escape".

But that's not how 22-year-old Gunner Albert "Neil" Cleary from Geelong died.

Cleary did indeed escape his Japanese captors at Ranau.

But Botterill, the only witness to what happened who survived the war, never claimed that Cleary was killed while trying to escape.

Botterill's various accounts of the torture of Gunner Cleary are riddled with inconsistencies.

However, some facts are clear.

Cleary had escaped into the jungle with a mate, Gunner Wally Crease, on March 3, 1945. Rather than an act of gallantry under the terms of the military awards system, it was, according to Silver, "an act of desperate self-preservation", one which resulted in retributions for those POWs left behind: their rations were cut and they endured more vicious treatment from the guards.

Both were recaptured, Cleary on March 12, Crease on March 13, and given "the log treatment", a standard method of torture meted out to scores of prisoners of the Japanese: wearing only a loin cloth, their hands would be tied behind their backs and rough bush logs or sharpened lengths of wood would be put behind their knees. While forced to kneel, they were viciously bashed.

Both stood up well to the torture, so much so that Wally Crease managed to escape again on March 14, the day after he was recaptured. Botterill told the court that Crease was shot dead in the jungle shortly afterwards, a fate that would have made him eligible for an MID, as he was indeed "killed while trying to escape".

Cleary's "log treatment" was carried out at intervals over about 48 hours, after which he was tethered to a tree by the neck to prevent him escaping again. He remained there from the 15th to the 19th of March and the guards frequently urinated on him as they passed by, kicked him and struck him with their rifles. Other POWs were warned that "if you escape the same thing will happen to you".

“I think he was a real hero because he was the one who had to represent all those who died. It was left to Keith to talk about it. He felt that was his responsibility. Otherwise we would never have known what went on there.”

It is clear that Cleary survived the log treatment. But he appears to have wasted away from some form of diarrhoea, the type of condition that claimed the life of almost every POW at Ranau, and many guards as well.

In five days, still tied to the tree, Botterill told the court "Cleary could not hold his bowels … he was very smelly. We could smell him as we walked past." Eventually on March 19, he was untethered and moved to a ditch nearby. He died the next day, the Australian War Memorial recording, "at last, when he was close to death, the prisoners were allowed to free him. They carried him to a creek, washed and placed him in a hut, where he died."

Even though, after he was recaptured, Cleary was still getting one daily rice ration, his weight dropped from 9 stone 6 lbs (60kg) when he escaped to a skeletal 3½ stone (22kg). Despite that, Botterill told the court, "I think he got [the diarrhoea] from the beating he received", a statement which seems difficult to accept given his evidence indicates that Cleary lost 6 stone (38kg) in 8 days.

And yet, Botterill told the late Don Wall, himself a POW who wrote a book about Sandakan in 1988, the guards feared contracting dysentery and never made physical contact with Cleary after he was tethered to the tree, touching him only with their boots and rifles.

Botterill went on to claim that he had witnessed the ill-treatment of Cleary for days at a time - and gave graphic evidence about what he saw - when in fact he could not have been in the camp for such long periods, as he was on rice-carrying missions for five of the eight days it took Cleary to die.

In an initial sworn statement, he said Cleary was tethered to the tree with a chain. Then - with a rope. Throughout his evidence in court, he insisted that the Taiwanese civilian guard Suzuki was present and participating in the ill-treatment of Cleary even though he knew that was not true. It was a claim backed up by William Moxham. In fact they both knew Suzuki was at a sub camp, more than 40 kilometres away.

The defence for the POW guards insisted that Cleary had died of dysentery and complained, with some basis, that there was no evidence that Cleary had actually been murdered.

It was Lynette Silver who uncovered these deceptions back in 1996, as she was researching her book. Alarm bells started ringing for her when she read the evidence of two of the accused guards, who were insisting that Suzuki had been falsely accused.

"Suspects under interrogation never did that during these war crimes trials. They never tried to get another accused off. If anything they always tried to spread the blame to others," she says.

"I rang Keith and said that I had been through the transcripts of the Cleary trial and that there was something terribly wrong with all the evidence," Silver recalls. "And he said, 'You know don't you?' And I said, 'Yes, but I need you to tell me.'"

Botterill agreed to confess on the condition that Silver not reveal his deception until after his death. Silver gave her promise. (The details were no made public until her book was published in 1998, the year after Botterill died.)

"Botterill then said, 'Billy Moxham and me, we lied to stitch up Suzuki. We put him in the frame,'" she recalls.

He was particularly motivated to secure a conviction against the second guard, Kawakami, who had escaped prosecution for the murder of Botterill's best mate, Private Richard Murray, of Sydney.

He repeated these confessions a second time over lunch at the Auburn RSL Club in Sydney in September 1996 with Silver and Maureen Devereaux, whose brother, Private John Barnier, had died at Sandakan at the age of 25.

In an effort to cover up the atrocities, the last survivors were put to death by their guards, on the orders of the Japanese High Command, 12 days after the war ended on August 15.

Devereaux, who was very close to Botterill, recalls that he was very ill at the time. She feels he wanted to set the record straight before he died a few months later, in early 1997. "I think it was a heroic thing for him to do [to confess]. It was a relief to him to tell us. He felt they had to lie. It was a special circumstance."

Lynette Silver also sensed that Botterill was unburdening himself of his final secrets. "And he said, 'Are you shocked?' I told him I wasn't, but I didn't condone it. I told him, 'My problem is that now that I find you've lied under oath, I don't know what to believe.'"

That, of course, remains the problem.

* * * *

If the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal realised what murky wartime passage they were wading into when considering Cleary for an MID, they don't record it in their "Report Into Recognition for Far East Prisoners of War Who Were Killed While Escaping".

The hearing to determine Cleary's eligibility for an MID was held behind closed doors. Bradford appears to be the only expert witness. The Department of Defence is recorded as registering their opposition to granting any further awards for Far Eastern prisoners of war.

Nevertheless, in April 2010, the tribunal found that Cleary, who did not strictly qualify for an award because he was not killed while trying to escape nor was he executed, should be given a Commendation for Gallantry. Crease, who did qualify for the same award because he was killed while trying to escape, was denied it, on the basis of the incorrect information that he had died of malaria.

<p>Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, 041486.</p>

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, 041486.

Bombadier William Moxham.

In a statement to The Global Mail, the tribunal said it "chooses not to engage in explanation or debate beyond what is provided in its report".

The report concluded that "the file of Gunner Cleary noted that he had been murdered by a Japanese officer" - a strange notation given that there were three men on trial for his murder. They were not Japanese and they were not officers. They were Taiwanese civilian guards.

The report then says "the War Memorial records Gunner Cleary had escaped, was recaptured, and died after being subjected to cruel treatment by his captors."

On this basis, the tribunal "determined that Cleary [was] deserving of the honour of being awarded the posthumous MID".

Another 19 "Far East POWs" also were granted the award, all on the basis that they had been "identified [by the tribunal] as having been executed during an escape or after recapture".

The tribunal's next task was to identify a modern Australian award equivalent to an MID, which can no longer be awarded as, since 1992, Australia has its own honours and awards system. The closest they could find was a Commendation for Gallantry granted for "acts of gallantry in action".

The tribunal's report concluded "it was unlikely further Far East prisoners of war would be identified as being eligible for the posthumous MID".

“They wanted revenge on the guards they felt needed to be punished. And on more than one occasion they gave false testimony to ensure they got their man.”

However, Silver and fellow researcher Di Elliott have done some preliminary research and figure that Crease is just one of almost 50 other POWs executed while attempting to escape. All of them qualify for a gallantry award. That list could swell by another 15 at least, if dying while in enemy custody from illness exacerbated by ill-treatment, as Cleary did, is to be the new criteria for a gallantry award. A thorough combing of archival files could well reveal scores more.

The decision to grant Cleary a Commendation for Gallantry surprised even Bradford, who in an email correspondence with Silver said, "Even though the names of Cleary and Crease were on the list of names I submitted to the Tribunal, I must admit to being a little surprised to find an award being made to Cleary."

Bradford's reaction is perhaps understandable.

Silver says some relatives of the Sandakan POWs were very much opposed to his initial idea of a VC for Cleary. Neither did they support Bradford's other suggestions: that Cleary be regarded as a "symbolic" Sandakan POW, or deemed to be an "executed" escapee, which he clearly was not.

The issue also has divided Cleary's surviving family. His nephew Lindsay Patterson, 58, of Melbourne, speaks for his side of the family. He is the son of Cleary's sister Nancy, who is now 83 and too deaf to understand the tussle over her brother's memory.

"I would be very happy if [the Commendation for Gallantry] was withdrawn because I think its been politicised," says Patterson.

"Neil's death was very, very tragic. But reading through the criteria for a VC or a Commendation, he doesn't qualify for any of it. He was a POW. It was terrible, but there were a thousand others who died in the same way."

<p>Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, 041485.</p>

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, 041485.

A young Keith Botterill, after the war.

Patterson is also implacably opposed to awarding his late uncle a Victoria Cross for Australia. "I think it demeans the VC."

"Neil tried to escape a couple of times but that was the thing that everyone tried to do and he had tremendous dysentery and malnutrition and all those sort of things. He really died of that and not because of any heroic action. He didn't jump in front of a platoon of soldiers … shoot down a hundred aeroplanes or something like that. He was a POW doing the best he could."

A cousin, the daughter of Cleary's other sister, Lorna, 87, who has been hospitalised following a recent stroke, is campaigning for the VC to be awarded; Patterson sees dangers in that. Having read the court transcript of the Cleary trial, he warns, "I think if [the awarding of a VC] proceeds and turns pear-shaped, Neil's name will be mud. It will be detrimental to his good name."

Maureen Devereaux, who for many years been a contact point for families of Sandakan POWs, explains that many hold the view there is no need to argue about awards for Cleary, because he already holds a special place in the history of the Australian POWs in Borneo.

"Cleary is revered by the relatives and family members. We have stood at the spot where he died. You cry inside yourself for all that he suffered. But he has been honoured and revered at the ceremonies at Ranau. We've done him proud.

"The general view is that we all feel that the award should be given to someone who was actually doing an act of courage, great courage to save people," says Devereaux.

Sue Moxham agrees. "There's no way I want to ever 'do in' Cleary," she cautions. "Cleary was treated like an animal. That was awful. He went through hell. But they were all treated like animals. It was just that Cleary's was a nicely documented case of what happened to an awful lot of POWs on those marches."

Cleary’s “log treatment” was carried out at intervals over about 48 hours, after which he was tethered to a tree by the neck to prevent him escaping again.

Silver is distressed that the initial tribunal hearing to determine whether Cleary should be granted the Commendation for Gallantry was held without public submissions, at the direction of the then Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support, Dr Mike Kelly.

"If we could have cleared this all up then, it would have been so much better," says Silver, who was awarded a medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for services to Sandakan POWs and their families.

She has a deep connection with the Cleary story. After years of meticulous research, it was she who identified Cleary's grave in Labuan War Cemetery, where he had been buried for decades as "unknown". He is among the more than 30 POWs whose graves have been identified by Silver.

"This is a hard stand for me to take because I feel great empathy for Cleary, but try as I might I cannot see how it can be concluded that Cleary was killed while trying to escape or executed," she says. "By that I think most people would agree you would mean being shot or beheaded. It was a combination of the severe illness, poor treatment and a lack of medical attention that killed him. The same thing happened to many others. It's ghastly but it's not what I call killing while escaping or execution.

"If the Government is keen to recognise acts of bravery by prisoners of war in Borneo, they should consider those who deliberately put themselves in harm's way to save others," says Silver.

There were two doctors who refused to leave their men, even though they could have attempted an escape themselves, and were then executed 12 days after the war ended. There was Corporal Allie, who remained with the sick POWs at the end of the war, and a RAAF Warrant Officer, John Kinder, who constantly protected the men from onslaughts by the guards.

"However in my view, the greatest act of heroism, was that of Private Richard Murray, who took the blame for stealing food in the full knowledge that it would result in his execution," she says.

The guards feared contracting dysentery and never made physical contact with Cleary after he was tethered to the tree, touching him only with their boots and rifles.

Murray was 30 years old when he was bayoneted to death. His body was tossed into a bomb crater and was only identified by Silver during her research in the 1990s. One of the men Murray died to protect was his mate, the young Keith Botterill, who was devastated by his death.

* * * *

The Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal was established by the Rudd Labor Government to take the politics out of military awards. But getting the politicians to stay out has proved more difficult.

On March 6, 2011, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Senator David Feeney formally announced Gunner Cleary's gallantry award. The following month, he ordered a campaign to try to turn up some more military heroes.

He drew up terms of reference for the now renamed Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal to hold public hearings to see if it could uncover any past acts of "naval and military valour" that might be worthy of a Victoria Cross, the highest award in the nation's honours system.

To give them a clue about what he was after, he listed 13 servicemen as possible recipients. Of those, 11 served with the Navy, which has never had a member honoured with a VC, holding out the prospect of a good-news announcement for Senator Feeney.

The remaining two men served in the Army. One was Simpson, of Gallipoli, the other was Gunner Albert Cleary, of Sandakan.

““I rang Keith and said that I had been through the transcripts of the Cleary trial and that there was something terribly wrong with all the evidence. And he said, ‘You know don’t you?’””

The message was clear: the tribunal was being asked specifically to consider elevating Cleary's award from a Commendation for Gallantry, the lowest gallantry award, to a VC, the highest such award.

Soon after the senator issued his media statements, his office received what was no doubt an unwelcome series of letters from Lynette Silver, arguing that Cleary's existing award should be quietly revoked. She says she pointed out in no uncertain terms that the tribunal should not have awarded Gunner Cleary a Commendation for Gallantry, and that she described the announcement that Cleary was being considered for a VC as "an outrageous proposal".

She later indicated that Lindsay Patterson, Cleary's nephew, did not support moves to confer honours on Cleary. "I therefore believe that a quiet withdrawal of his name would not be an issue," she told Senator Feeney.

Silver also sent her letter to the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal as well as the Defence and Veterans Affairs ministers. All within two days of the tribunal's announcement of Cleary's award. The Prime Minister's office was alerted to the issue in June, and later had a letter sent to Silver saying, "The tribunal was satisfied on the evidence available to include Gunner Cleary [in the list to receive an honour]."

Senator Feeney eventually met with Lynette Silver and fellow researcher Di Elliot last September. While the senator acknowledged the problem, a member of his staff advised the women that in his view, revoking Cleary's award would not be "politically possible".

In a statement provided by Senator Feeney this week, he says: "Conversations between members of my staff and Ms Silver … have no bearing on any decisions that I will make. I do not believe there is any political dimension to this matter. My concern is to uphold the integrity of the Defence honours and awards system and to ensure that due recognition is give to all Australian service men and women, past and present… I will respond to Ms Silver's representations when I am ready to do so."

While Senator Feeney says he is still taking advice on the matter, nearly 12 months after Silver alerted him to the problem, it seems he already has made up his mind.

Crease, who did qualify for the same award because he was killed while trying to escape, was denied it, on the basis of the incorrect information that he had died of malaria.

"I do not accept that Gunner Cleary was awarded the Commendation for Gallantry on faulty grounds," he writes, on the basis that the award can be made simply for acts of gallantry in action which are considered worthy of recognition. That is true, however the tribunal was not asked to consider acts of gallantry by POWs. Instead, its terms of reference were confined to recognising POWs who had "died while escaping". They only chose to bestow the Commendation for Gallantry because it was the nearest equivalent to the old Imperial MID, which could only be given to POWs, "killed while escaping". Senator Feeney says Cleary "was killed as a result of brutal treatment at the hands of his captors."

More seasoned campaigners than Senator Feeney are less willing to dismiss Lynette Silver's concerns.

"Historians with a proven track record like Lynette Silver should be listened to," says former Federal Labor MP and Vietnam veteran Graham Edwards.

It was Edwards, who lost both legs to a land mine in Vietnam, who proposed setting up the independent Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal in the first place, to give veterans with legitimate claims for recognition a place to go. He now serves on the Prime Minister's Advisory Council on ex-service matters, which advises on "strategic and complex" issues.

"The tribunal has had some success and provided justice, fairness and recognition where previously there was none. I would hate to see the credibility of the tribunal now destroyed by a decision that was flawed or in error.

"If it loses credibility in one area," he says, "it will lose credibility in all areas."

As to whether Cleary's Commendation for Gallantry can be withdrawn, Edwards insists that it is possible. "If they've got it wrong then they've got to get it right. The fact is you just can't get these things wrong."

“Neil’s death was very, very tragic. But reading through the criteria for a VC or a Commendation, he doesn’t qualify for any of it. He was a POW. It was terrible, but there were a thousand others who died in the same way.”

Relatives of the Sandakan POWs are not nearly as polite.

"It's the politicians trying to find something to grandstand about. It's a distraction from other things going on - it's politics. It's patriotism. It's pride. It's nationalism. It's a good war - and we can't find too many of them at the moment," says Sue Moxham.

"Soldiers are just pawns. Individual men don't rate. They just do not rate. And that's exactly how it was for my father. I feel [the Sandakan story] is now being used in this way."

Lindsay Patterson agrees. "It's purely political. You can't justify [awards for Cleary] any other way. If this gets through it will demean the medal system for the real people who deserve them."

For Moxham, whose mother left her father when she was eight years old, the current focus on the fate of the Borneo POWs is particularly galling, given it has been so long in coming. "It's really politicians wanting to reflect in the glory of people who never got any recognition in their life time."

Bill Moxham was the first Sandakan survivor to die. A tormented man, in 1961, he checked into an inner city hotel room in Sydney and shot himself through the head.

* * * *

The Defence Honours and Awards Appeals Tribunal continues to hear evidence in its VC Inquiry, with recommendations due towards the end of the year. It has refused to comment on whether Cleary is still being considered for a VC, despite the concerns raised.

In mid-March in Canberra, Silver will give her evidence to the VC Inquiry. In February 2012, a spokesman for the tribunal characterised her questions about the Cleary award as "pedantic".

The week of February 20, the day after receiving a written query from The Global Mail, the tribunal emailed Silver a two-page letter asking her to send them a detailed submission, in advance of her appearance. They want her to corroborate her claim that Keith Botterill lied to the military court in the Cleary trial in 1946.

But there was a sting in the tail.

The email concluded, "As providing false testimony to an Australian court is one of the most serious criminal offences, the tribunal would be interested in having copies of any correspondence on the matter that you have had over the years with the Australian Attorney General."

Is the tribunal preparing to save face by suggesting it was misled because Silver failed to report a crime - Botterill's perjury? That would seem far-fetched.

It is a matter of record that Botterill perjured himself. It was published in Silver's 1998 book.

Regardless of whatever sort of lies Botterill told to the war crimes trial, he never at any point claimed Cleary was killed while trying to escape or executed, which are the only known criteria under which the tribunal could given Cleary an MID.

Besides, it is hard to imagine that Silver would have even considered dobbing in her friend Keith Botterill, an ex-POW, a broken old man who had just four months to live.

* * * *

<p>Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, OG3552.</p>

Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, OG3552.

Three survivors of the death march. (L to R) Nelson Short, Bill Sticpewich and Keith Botterill.

Keith Botterill died in January 1997. Claimed by emphysema, it was a slow death.

"He just had this huge weight on his shoulders," says Silver. "Immediately after the war, he was besieged by relatives who would ask, 'Did you know this person, or that person in the POW camps?' He often didn't, but he would tell these relatives how brave their soldier had been, how cheery in the camp and so on. He said, 'How could I tell a grieving family that I didn't even remember their POW?' He was just overwhelmed."

Lynette Silver says she became very close to Keith Botterill, "the saddest man I've ever met. You looked into his eyes and they were these great pools of unfathomable sadness … I would say to him when writing the history, 'Look Keith, if any of this becomes too much, just tell me.' And he'd say, 'Its OK. It doesn't matter. I can tell you there's not a day goes past when I don't think about them all.'"

Keith was haunted. As a teenaged POW he buried more corpses than anyone else, telling Maureen Devereaux suddenly one day in Sydney, decades later, that he was forced to break the arms of his dead mates to get them into their graves, because he was too weak to dig a larger hole.

He turned 21 in the jungle, on the run from the Japanese. He had escaped seven weeks before the final Japanese order came to kill the last surviving POWs. By the 1980s, there were only three survivors left. It became Botterill's crushing duty to go on bearing witness when he knew the other survivors were in no state to do so.

"We owe him so much for the stories," says Maureen Devereaux. "I think he was a real hero because he was the one who had to represent all those who died. It was left to Keith to talk about it. He felt that was his responsibility. Otherwise we would never have known what went on there. He had so much in his head. In his mind. In his terrible past."

After Botterill died, and before the Australian Government finally took an interest in remembering Sandakan, it fell to Lynette Silver to organise Anzac Day services in Borneo for relatives of the POWs.

In 2005, she addressed the sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of the dead, who had never before had a chance to express their grief. There had been no memorial services, no funerals to attend. For 60 years, their questions had only ever been met with the scant horrific details of atrocities in a faraway jungle. In what she said, Lynette Silver gave them something better to remember - a way to honour men that does not involve politics, tribunals or medals of any kind:

"The heroism I am going to speak about is not that to which traditionalists refer. It is not the kind of heroism which earns a soldier a Victoria Cross, or even a commendation. It is long-term heroism - relentless, unflinching and unyielding in the face of overwhelming odds. The heroism which enabled emaciated, starving men to march across some of the most inhospitable and difficult terrain on earth; the heroism which saw those who could no longer keep up, shake hands with their mates, knowing that the killing squad was on its way. All were heroes. Honour them with pride. They deserve no less."

9 comments on this story
by Walter

The war crimes tribunals did not follow evidentiary rules applying then or now in either Australian or British criminal courts. The tribunals could and did accept written statements as evidence, without providing an opportunity for defence counsel to cross-examine the witness.

An Australian lawyer who participated in the Rabaul tribunals as a defence counsel told me, for instance, he was privately reprimanded by one of the judges for presuming to calling into doubt the veracity of a prosecution witness whose contradictory and implausible evidence suggested he was lying in bearing witness against an accused on a capital charge.

Many of those who took part in the tribunals did their level best to assemble solid evidence and conduct themselves fairly, but the structure and rules of proceedings were seriously flawed. It is a proven fact that innocent men were executed as a result.

It is not good enough to be 'close enough' or to convict someone on false evidence with the justification that we 'know' he he or she did something else that was evil for which we cannot mount a criminal case.

February 25, 2012 @ 10:29am
by Peter

It is good that this story was written and good that people like Silver are prepared to stand for correctness. A story I could easily have skipped over, but am glad I didn't,

February 25, 2012 @ 10:05pm
by Andrew

In July 2011, a mate and I traveled to Borneo, visiting Kota Kina-balu, Labuan Island, location of the memorial and cemetery for the Sandakan POWs, and also the Sandakan POW Camp itself.

I did this because a great uncle was a Sandakan POW. According to official records, he died at Sandakan in May 1945, when one of the final prisoners left in the camp. Why he was not sent on the death march is unknown, however, I assume it was due to poor health.

While Uncle Joe's name is on a pillar in the Labuan memorial, he does not have a grave site in his name in the cemetery. We assume and hope he lies in one of the 'unknown soldier' graves.

While visiting the Labuan cemetery, an overwhelming feeling of loneliness enveloped me. Quite confused by it at the time, on reflection, I came to believe I was in some small way experiencing the loneliness the troops felt in dying and being buried so far from home in such atrocious circumstances.

It was an experience I won't forget.

The controversy over the awarding of military honours is a sad one. It would be easy - and truthful - to say all Sandakan POWs are heroes and deserve medals. However, obviously, this cannot be the case and proper procedure and criteria must be followed in order to maintain the integrity of the medals.

Almost as sad - if unsurprising - is the interference of governments, intent on grandstanding and basking in the reflective glory of our troops. Must governments be involved in everything?

The giving of incorrect evidence at War Trials is another sad repercussion of war. But isn't it understandable after what troops, particularly POWs, go through that they want to see their enemy punished. Maybe if those giving evidence had greater trust in the military judicial system, they wouldn't feel the need to lie. That was definitely the situation with the case cited in this article. We should not judge them as we do not know what they experienced.

February 26, 2012 @ 12:47pm
by Ken

It's interesting to me how Politicians of all persuasions decide to attach themselves to the enduring deeds of those conflicts, when it is their failures in foreign policy that cause War. Maybe these Diggers' sacrifice can best be remembered, not by a tiny piece of a Crimean War cannon and a purple ribbon sitting in a dusty Museum or a relative's sock drawer, but by Memorials more like the one in Brisbane's New Farm Park where we can all marvel at their short and tragic life and bless them for the unfairness of their ultimate sacrifice.

February 26, 2012 @ 2:05pm
by Shane

In July 2011 my wife & I visited Sabah on holiday, and while there we went to both the memorials at Sandakan and Ranau. Both locations moved me to tears, reading the stories, seeing the displays, and talking to the local gentleman who voluntarily maintains the Sandakan memorial. This story affected me greatly, and still does even now as I read this Global Mail piece. I can't get it out of my mind, I managed to get hold of a copy of the film "Three Came Back", and I have just reserved two of the Sandakan books at my local library.

February 27, 2012 @ 1:34pm
by Peter

Ms Fanning's article demonstrates the fatuity of attempting to recognise bravery retrospectively, as the current push to award new VCs does. Seventy or so years on it is impossible to disentangle the complexities of cases like Cleary's to decide whether or not to award a particular medal. Best to leave the adjudication of these tragic cases to the judgment of history. A medal cannot do justice to cases like this.

March 21, 2012 @ 11:35pm
Show previous 6 comments
by Haskell

I find there is something unsettling, pedantic, even trivialising about this piece.

I enjoyed the historical aspects of the story, and I have no patience for sentimentalising and glorifying the long dead and exploited young soldiers (again), however something in the weird skew of this piece seems to undo Cleary and the thousands he represents.

22 year old Cleary deserved a thousand damn medals. So did the others. Enduring torture, degradation and abuse is equal any day to a single psychotic 'machine gun nest storming' episode.

Brave young boys who died bravely for no good reason. Let them (and the souls of their burdened survivor mates) rest in peace.

August 8, 2012 @ 5:02pm
by Kevin Smith

Haskell says it just right. These interfering "historians" again and again, seemingly for notoriety, confuse the issue and upset families still grieving. I do know the story well for I have researched and written about it.

November 1, 2012 @ 8:54pm
by Robert Allie

Norm (Ronald) Allie was my father's younger brother, my father (a returned serviceman who fought in the middle east) died in 1977 not knowing how his brother was killed as the government refused to tell him. My Grandfather was Persian, not Indian and as Norm was dark he could have easily been mistaken for a local native. He died a week prior to my parents marrying.

December 2, 2013 @ 5:51am
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