'If you escape the same thing will happen to you'
The death of Gunner Albert Cleary
20 March 1945
The tragedy of Sandakan is the tragedy of hundreds of individual Australian and British POWs. So much violence of one kind or another--starvation rations, withholding of medical supplies, bashings and other forms of physical abuse-- were visited upon the Sandakan POWs that it seems inappropriate to single out the story of one man. However, what happened to Gunner Albert Cleary, 2/15th Australian Field Regiment, 2nd AIF, of East Geelong, Victoria, at Ranau in March 1945 was of a special horror. Cleary’s story can stand as emblematic of the general brutality and complete lack of compassion experienced by each and every prisoner.
Albert Cleary survived the first march to Ranau. In March, Cleary, along with Gunner Wally Crease, escaped from Ranau. After four days on the run Cleary was recaptured and thrown into what was known as the ‘Guard House’. This was simply an empty area at the end of one of the huts used by the POWs. Cleary, who had clearly been beaten-up before his return to the camp, had his arms tied high up behind his back, and he was then made to kneel with a log tied behind his knees. In this position he was systematically kicked and punched all over his body by two guards. At times his head was held while his throat was punched and the guards also terrorised him by charging at him with fixed bayonets stopping only inches from his face. By jumping on the end of the log tied between Cleary’s legs, the guards were able to cause further suffering. To add to his pain, Cleary was made to stand on his feet every half-hour, causing the blood to rush back into his lower legs and inducing great pain. Beatings also occurred with rifle butts, sticks and anything else to hand. This treatment went on for three and a half hours and was witnessed by a number of POWs, including Keith Botterill who would eventually survive to tell of what he had seen of the depths of human cruelty in a jungle hut at Ranau.
Gunner Cleary Memorial, Ranau, Sabah, Malaysia.
Next morning Cleary’s sufferings began afresh. Botterill, who had been away from the camp on a work party, returned at midday to find that the guards were still beating Cleary.
At that point, Crease, who had also been recaptured, was returned to camp. All that afternoon both men were given the same treatment and, although they continually begged the guards to stop, no mercy was shown to them. This time Botterill heard the bashings continuing throughout the night and they were most severe after the guard was changed. Next morning Crease managed to escape again into the jungle but he was subsequently shot.
Botterill was now sent away from Ranau for four days on a work detail but when he returned he found that Cleary was still alive. He had been tied by the neck to a tree, dressed only in a fundoshi (a small piece of cloth given to the POWs to cover their private parts). Cleary was filthy and covered in blood blisters and caked blood. Suffering from dysentery, he had also been left to lie in his own excreta. Days were hot at Ranau but, because of the altitude, nights were cold. Cleary’s terrible condition seemed to arouse no compassion in his captors who continued to hit him with fists and rifles. He remained for eleven or twelve days in this condition.
When the guards could see that Cleary was dying, he was thrown into the gutter beside the road. Eventually he was allowed to be taken away by his comrades. They carried him to a stream, washed him, and brought him back to be among them in one of the huts. On 20 March 1945, Gunner Albert Cleary, aged 22, died. Repeatedly, throughout the days of Cleary’s torture, one of the guards told the other POWs:
If you escape the same thing will happen to you.
Unfortunately, it ultimately made no difference whether a POW tried to escape or not. One way or another, apart from six Australians, they all died.
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