As the first days of 1945 announced the start of another year in brutal captivity, Mary Baldwin knew that her husband was dead but like the other prisoners had little news of the outside world or of progress of the war in either Europe or Asia. What little they heard was gleaned either from fleeting contact with locals smuggling small quantities of food to the prisoners or from the homemade radio in the soldiers’ camp, referred to in great secrecy only as “the Old Lady”. Its discovery by the Japanese guards would have led to beatings and executions of PoWs. It was never discovered.
In fact by early 1945 the Japanese were losing ground in the Pacific rapidly, and unknown to the prisoners the Australians had landed in Tarakan in May that year. As well as clearing the islands of Japanese soldiers, the Aussies were hurrying to find what PoW camps they could, only too aware of the orders passed in secrecy to the Japanese PoW camp commanders to “eliminate” PoWs before they could be rescued. But where were the camps and how many were there ? By June 1945, once they had found the very few survivors of the infamous Ranau Death March, the Aussies knew the threat to PoWs in Borneo as elsewhere was real and imminent.
Of the 2000 or so Australian and British PoWs transported to Sandakan as slave labour to build a defensive airfield near the town, the 1000 fittest of the survivors were force-marched for 17 days across 160 miles of steep, jungle-clad terrain. The remaining 300 were left to die. The marchers carried all supplies for themselves and their Japanese guards, and most were bayoneted or shot or left to die of disease and starvation on the way, with only some 200 surviving the marches. Once these slow massacres were discovered, hurrying to save what they could of any remaining imprisoned comrades was therefore a priority in Australian soldiers’ minds.
Even with the dropping of the US atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August ‘45, and the subsequent formal surrender of the Japanese Government, the Australians were still in a hurry to find any surviving PoWs before they were “eliminated” by local Japanese commanders unwilling to believe their Emperor had ordered a shameful surrender. But first they had to find the well-hidden camps. It wasn’t until early September that, with the help of the US Navy, they came quickly up the Sarawak River to Kuching and found the PoW camp at Batu Lintang. Just in time, as the Aussies were to discover, its surviving PoWs were liberated on 11th September 1945. Agnes Keith describes the scene :
The Diving planes are American
The Rising Sun comes down !!! Hooray !!!
We’re going home
"Three Came Home" : Chapter 16
"At four o'clock that afternoon we were told that the Australian occupying forces had come up the river and landed at Kuching. They were on the way to us now, and would take surrender of the camps as soon as they arrived. There would be no preliminary warning. If we wished to see them take over we must be ready to leave for the square at a minute's notice. . . . . .
At five o'clock the call came GO TO THE SQUARE. AUSTRALIANS TAKE OVER IN THREE MINUTES.”
And so they all did.
The Soldier in the Red Beret
It was there that Mary Baldwin encountered the Australian soldier she would always refer to thereafter as “the soldier in the red beret”. Perhaps due to an excitement we cannot even begin to imagine she may, after asking his name, forgotten it soon afterwards. In fact he was 23 year-old Sergeant Denis Sheppard, a paratrooper of the Australian Army’s Force Z, a force formed specially and sent in haste to find and liberate the camp. Agnes Keith describes the prisoners’ feelings on meeting these men :
"When the 9th Australian Division and men of the United States Navy came to us in Kuching, we had nothing. We were hungry and they fed us, we were ill and they cared for us, we were ragged and they clothed us. We were anxious and they reassured us, we were hysterical and they dealt tenderly with us. They came into our camp and cooked for us, chopped firewood and carried loads for us, nursed our sick and took care of our children. Every jeep, DUKW, motor truck, boat became a plaything, every soldier a friend and father.
These men came into Kuching with blood on their hands, from heavy fighting in Borneo and the Celebes. They were soldiers known for their toughness, taking no prisoners, observing no laws ; yet never did we hear from them a word of impatience or anger, a rough speech or a curse, or see an unkind or unpleasant action. To us who were weak and were helpless they were gentle as angels from Heaven. We became proud then of men, as we had for years been ashamed. We wept for their kindness, as we had not wept for abuse. These young men were for that time a part of all goodness and virtue, a part of all love. They brought us liberty and freedom, and something even greater - belief again in the decency of men."
Mary Baldwin had her own plot. In that little white bag around her neck she had carried in secret for the past 3½ years her few remaining treasures, mainly jewellery snatched quickly from her Sandakan home as she was taken captive. Some of these she had sold off for food during imprisonment but amongst the items she had held on to, so far, was a small gold medal ; the medal won by David Baldwin in 1918 at the Dunoon and Argyll Bowling Club. By 1945, with no prospect of seeing him again nor even of her own release she had still hung on to this last tangible memory of him, and all that he represented in her life.
Her plot was simply to present it to the first soldier she met on her release, should that ever happen : and now the time had really come. Denis Sheppard describes the occasion in his letter of 1993 :
“Mrs Baldwin approached me in the PoW camp, we chatted awhile, enquired my name and army unit, and a short time later opened her hand and carefully removed the precious medal from a wrapping of old cotton wool and handed it to me. I forget the exact words, but in essence asked me to accept the medal. I was quite surprised by her wish and naturally refused. I felt that it was her husband’s trophy and since he had died whilst interned, the medal should go home to Scotland ; after all, Mrs Baldwin had hidden and guarded the medal from the Japanese for all these long years of internment. Mrs Baldwin was most emphatic. She had made a promise to herself that the medal would be given to the soldier who assisted in their evacuation in memory of those who had survived. I reluctantly accepted. I carried the medal on a keyring in my pocket for many, many years until the little ring on top wore away.”
News at Last
And then they were free. Mary Baldwin immediately wrote to her children on 11th September 1945, the day of release :
Good news for you all at last, being well looked after by the Australians, parcels have been dropped by air, food etc., all the Camp is Merry and Bright after very strenuous years of internment, the Japanese are now on the run. I am fairly well but grieved to tell you all that your father died in a place called Terracon, Dutch Borneo July 1943, I did not see him since 1941. I have lost everything looted by the Japanese. We expect to be sent from here soon and will be sent home as soon as we are sorted out. Allowed one letter so inform all the family. I will inform you later of movements. We have come through a lot, about seven hundred of our soldiers have died in Camp. Bless you all, hoping to see you all this year.
A few days later she was able to send a Cable & Wireless telegram to my mother
21st September, Melbourne. (to Donald Lewis Morrison, CID Police Headquarters, Edinburgh)
AM SAFE AUSTRALIAN HANDS HOPE TO BE HOME SOON WRITING - ADDRESS LETTERS AND TELEGRAMS TO LIBERATED P/W CARE AUSTRALIAN BASE P.O. MELBOURNE - MARY BALDWIN.
The PoWs were taken to Labuan Island off the north west coast of Borneo from where she was able to send a longer letter :
Labuan - 25th September 1945
Address to Liberated PW Civilian
c/o Australian Base Post Office
My Dear Kathie, Lewis & Norman,
At last I am free. We were liberated from Kuching Camp in September. Thousands of Prisoners of War & Internees here at a recuperating station after our ill-treatment (hell) from the Japanese. In our Camp at Kuching the ill-treatment I saw from the Japs to our men & women was heart-rending. Hundreds of our soldiers died through starvation & ill-treatment. We all worked on the land to grow food for ourselves. I am fairly well now 71 but nerves almost gone. We flew here from Kuching Camp. The Australians have done marvellous work. This is like a town well done in about a month's time by the Australians or rather the Allied forces. Parcels of food & clothing were dropped by air-planes when in Kuching. This camp is on a cocoa-nut plantation about 6 miles out from Labuan on the sea shore. Everything there one would wish for: food, clothes in fact we want for nothing here & on the sea-shore. You will be getting all the news through the wireless. I have lost everything I possess. You will be sorry to hear of your father's death, the Japanese informed me on the 20th October 1944 that your father died in a Japanese Internment Camp in a place called Tarakan, Dutch Borneo on the 27th July 1943. No further information would they give (brutes) I did not see your father since December 1941. I am quite a bundle of nerves & long to be home to be with you all. When & where we are going from here I do not know yet but we are making for home. I hope that you received my cable & that all the family know that I am safe. Please write Toosie. I have not received any letters since 1944. They destroyed everything along with beatings if we asked for any of our belongings. But I am so bad at writing I cannot concentrate so you will get all news from myself when we meet. Let it be this year. I long to see you all & dear wee Norman. He will be quite a big lad. My love to you all. Every nationality here. My letter is not very well worded but I simply cannot do better. After all the horrors one is lucky to be alive. Hoping to be with you all this year. I am fairly well & hope all is well at home.
Lovingly, Mother xx
This was followed by a shorter, more cheerful postcard written from the 2/1 Australian Hospital Ship “Manuda” with a picture of the ship on the front, and was posted in Singapore on 3rd October 1945. Mary Baldwin was on her way home at last - and had not entirely lost her sense of humour !
Dear Kathie, Lewis & Norman,
I am getting on by degrees on board ths ship. About 800 on board making for Singapore from Labuan. A merry crowd of civilians & soldiers. We will be disembarking there. But I cannot give you further particulars; we get short notice of moving. Every comfort. I expect we will arrive home in a snow-storm. I am better & hope all are well. love,
At Singapore she transferred to the British troopship “Highland Monarch” for the final voyage to Southampton and then home.
As she makes her way slowly home, with her few possessions - the small white “treasure” bag, some jewellery, a black beret, a fly-swatter and a grey blanket – to a family welcome, we can take one last look back and have a glimpse, through Agnes Keith’s words, of life in the Kuching PoW camp they left behind and the realities of the ordeal they, but not all of their fellow-prisoners, had survived.
Three Came Home
In 1947 Agnes Keith published her account of capture and life in Japanese PoW camps. It was an immediate success, revealing to a warn-torn and war-weary world many of the hardships endured by civilians as well as soldiers, and took its place amongst many such accounts as they emerged from personal recollections.
THREE CAME HOME
While awaiting liberation I was requested by Colonel King, the English medical officer who had been in charge of the British soldiers' camp during captivity, to visit their camp. If I was going to write, he said, I must know the truth. So Harry, two other civilians, and I accompanied Colonel King into camp the next day.
When I entered the soldiers' compound I was instantly struck by its utter barrenness compared to our own. It was an eroded brown wasteland crossed by washed-out gullies with row after row of withered palm-leaf huts with ragged, limping men coming from them.
I asked why the soldiers had no gardens, and was told that it was because their working parties had been so large and their outside work so heavy that they had no strength or energy to garden for themselves. A consistent programme of starvation, overwork, torture, and beating had made anything beyond mere existence impossible.
In camp there were seven huts used as sick bays, in addition to the hospital barrack across the road. An eighth hut had just been allocated because of the rapidly increasing numbers of ill men. Number Nineteen was known as the Death Hut, devoted to dysentery patients and to the dying.
The huts were built like our own barracks of palm leaves, and had the same solid wooden shutters, which, when they were closed to keep out the rain, kept out all light and air. Even when I saw the soldiers they were still lying on the bare floor. Only a few had mats or blankets to lie on, and mosquito nets, and these had been sent in by the Japanese after the armistice.
Before Colonel King took me through the sick huts he asked me if I had a strong stomach for shocking sights. I said that I hoped I had. When I saw the conditions I was not concerned about my stomach, which had stood up to everything for years, but I was disturbed at the distress which I feared I might cause the patients. They were almost naked, covered with ulcers, and in such a state that I felt they would resent my intrusion, if they had strength for resentment. If they had any active wish now, it must be to crawl away from all eyes and die.
But I found I was wrong. Great as their physical misery was, their boredom was even greater, and this I could relieve. For they, like the stronger men in camp, were avid for sight, sound, or smell of a woman. Soon we all talked together, and examined ailments together; soon we could scarcely move through the huts for patients describing their symptoms and showing their wounds. Finding that they liked seeing me helped me to move naturally amongst sights which Colonel King had properly described as shocking.
The bodies of all the men were shrunken from starvation, with the bones showing like skeletons, the skin dried and shrivelled, while the skulls with their deep-set eyes seemed unnaturally large.
All patients had ulcers caused by malnutrition and lack of circulation, many covering an entire leg, chest, arm, or thigh. Many had a gangrenous condition of feet, hands, testicles. Some had a condition of the fingers and toes which can only be described as dissolving away; the tips of the digits were open and bloody and they seemed to be bleeding off.
I was told that of 2,000 British soldiers who had been brought to Kuching from Singapore as prisoners, 750 now survived. Of this number 650 were ill, and not 30 men in the whole camp remained strong enough to form a working party.
It was made into a Hollywood film of the same title starring Claudette Colbert as Agnes Keith and released to general acclaim in 1950. It’s a little too restrained and the star and her supporting actors a little too clean, smart and prettily made-up to be entirely authentic, but in that post-war era the film made unusually frank, and today very welcome, revelations of how brutally civilian and military prisoners of the Japanese had been abused. Unfortunately Mary Baldwin seems not to be featured nor represented in it. Perhaps she and Agnes Keith really didn’t get on !
The author’s prize-winning reputation and authority may have helped the film’s production and release to go ahead, despite a prevailing atmosphere of compromise and wish to avoid such unpleasant truths. These were early days, and many more such revealing tales – many of them much more harrowing – were to be published as survivors felt up to the task of recalling and recording them. The struggle to have their hardships and their enemy’s inhumanity fully acknowledged by the Japanese Government continues to this day, even as the survivors die off one by one.
The reference number for Three Came Home is ISBN : 552.07959.6 and I hold a hardback copy of the book. The black & white film was made in Hollywood by TCF and directed by Nunally Johnson. It’s re-run occasionally on terrestrial TV which is how I recorded my VHS video copy (complete with TV adverts!).
Denis Sheppard has a copy of the video and a paperback copy of the book.
Agnes Keith went on to write another book, The White Man Returns based on her experiences in Borneo after the war when the Keith’s returned to their rebuilt house above Sandakan. It was published in 1951 just before she finally left the island. It lacks, unsurprisingly, the innocent and vivid freshness of her first book about Borneo and the tough, passionately unflinching descriptions of the horrors of life in PoW camps.
Having returned to Borneo after the war and then spent some years in the Philippines and Libya, the Keiths retired to British Colulmbia. Agnes Keith died in the late 1990s in Oak Bay, Victoria BC not far from David Baldwin Jnr.’s last home. Her son Henry George Newton Keith was born in Sandakan on 5th April 1940 but then spent 3½ years with his mother in the PoW camps at Berhala & Kuching. He was last known to be in California.