Sketch by Jack Chalker

The Rescue

News Article - Sydney Morning Herald

A lofty hero moved by rescue mission

by

Alan Ramsey

August 9, 2008

Wednesday was Hiroshima Day. Today is Nagasaki day. The two atomic bombs dropped on those Japanese cities on August 6 and August 9, 1945, killed 220,000 people. Japan's unconditional surrender six days later, on August 15, ended World War II. Far to the south-east, in what was then British North Borneo, the killing did not end. Japanese troops executed 15 Australian prisoners of war on August 27. They were the last of 2428 prisoners of war - 1787 Australian and 641 British - to die at the infamous Sandakan camp, at the Ranau camp, or during the 100-kilometre "death marches" from Sandakan to Ranau in January to February and May to June, 1945.

Only six, all Australians, survived to return home.

Keith Botterill, a Katoomba textile worker, was 19 when he enlisted in the army in Sydney on August 7, 1941. Six months later, after the fall of Singapore, he was a prisoner of the Japanese in Changi. In July 1942 Botterill was shipped to Sandakan. So were the other five. Private Nelson Short, of Enfield, Sydney, was 22 when he enlisted on July 11, 1940. Lance-Bombardier Bill Moxham, a 28-year-old station overseer from Toongabbie, enlisted on June 3, 1940. Gunner Owen Campbell was a 24-year-old Brisbane labourer when he enlisted on July 9, 1940. Bill Sticpewich was a 32-year-old meat inspector from Wickham, NSW, when he enlisted on June 19, 1940. Bombardier Dick Braithwaite was 23 when he enlisted in Brisbane the same month.

These are the Sandakan six. All survived 3 years of beatings, disease and malnutrition. All escaped in the last months of the war. All are now dead. Moxham never got over those terrible years and shot himself in a Sydney hotel in 1961. Sticpewich was knocked down and killed crossing the road in Melbourne in 1977. Braithwaite died of cancer in 1986. A heart attack struck
down Short in 1995. Botterill died of emphysema on the eve of Australia Day, 1997. Campbell died a recluse in July 2003. Their stories are relatively well-known.

The story of Mick "Lofty" Hodges is not. It is his story this story is about.

John Allen Hodges - alias Mick, alias Lofty - military service number NX86067, was born on July 1, 1920, in Newcastle. He was 21 when he enlisted in the army on January 27, 1942, and held the rank of sergeant when he was discharged on April 23, 1946. What everyone who knew him always remembered was how tall he was - 6ft 7inches under the old imperial system, or a bit over two metres. Thus John Allen Hodges was always Lofty to his army mates when he wasn't Mick.

Sometime in 1944 Lofty Hodges, from the 2/17 Infantry Battalion, would became part of the Australian Army's Z Force, a special forces unit that parachuted a small team into North Borneo on July 18, 1945, after news of escaped prisoners of war reached Allied military headquarters. Hodges was part of this rescue team.

That brings us back to three of the Sandakan six who escaped as a group from the Ranau POW camp on July 7, 1945. Those three were Botterill, Short and Moxham. A fourth Australian with them died on July 29.

The three men were in a terrible way when, in early August, they put their trust in a local village headman named Baragah. Moxham wrote a letter on a page torn from a school exercise book. All three Australians signed it. So weak they could barely move, they gave it to the headman. In her 1998 book, Sandakan: A Conspiracy Of Silence, Lynette Silver relates how Moxham's letter, written in "a clear, neat hand" was addressed to "OC in charge of English or American Forces" who were believed to have landed in North Borneo. Silver quotes the letter:

"We are three Australian prisoners of war. We escaped from camp early in July as Nippon was starving all men. They were dying six and seven a day. This dusan [headman] found us and has looked after us ever since, building a little hut in the jungle. We are still very weak but OK. Baragah is a Tuan Besair [big chief] and you will find all the dusans very sincere. Today they wanted me to write this note and Baragh is going to contact you. Hope it will not be long before I see you. To my knowledge only about ten or 20 [POWs] left out of 3000 or more. Do all you can for Baragah. We are anxiously waiting to hear from you. About five miles from Ranau."

Baragah contacted the rescue team some days later. He returned with a note which said "the war is finished " but that they should "stop where you are because the Japanese in the area" were ignoring the surrender and were "hostile". The date was August 17. A week later, on August 24, the three escaped POWs were "worried the Japanese were nearby" and had been "shuffling along through the jungle" to avoid recapture. Silver recounts what happened next: "Botterill and Short, at the head of the line [of villagers], were slumped over beside the track, sure they could go no further, when they heard the heavy tramp of footsteps.

"They were expecting the worst, when an undeniably Australian voice boomed, 'How ya going, boys?' The two men looked up to see a sight they would never forget. Lofty Hodges, tall and strapping, clad in jungle greens and cradling his automatic like a toy, was the embodiment of everything they had fantasised and dreamed about during their three and a half years of captivity. Hodges, in turn, could scarcely credit that the bearded, ravaged, pathetic creatures staring at him with a look of profound wonderment had once been Australian soldiers. Short was so swollen with beriberi his limbs and torso resembled grotesquely stuffed sausages, while Botterill was not much more than a skin-covered collection of bones, apart from a scrotal sac so distended with fluid it had to be supported in a knapsack to allow him to walk.

"Would they like a cup of tea?" Milk? Sugar? Biscuits? A piece of chocolate? The compassion of Hodges and his companions, after years of brutality and deprivation, was overwhelming. Botterill wept. So did the others. The rest of the day passed in something of a blur. Botterill and Moxham, the weakest, were carried on army stretchers. Short made his triumphal entry into [the rescue team's] camp under his own steam. For the next three weeks, Hodges, Botterill's self-appointed guardian angel, looked after him like a baby, carrying him to the latrine, bathing him in the creek, making sure he followed medical instructions - to eat plenty of Marmite.

"The condition of the three men had a profound effect on Hodges, a man often described as a 'gentle giant'. At first, he had been shocked and immensely sad that his countrymen could be so reduced to this state by other human beings. But his sadness soon gave way to anger, an anger which later stirred him to physical violence when two captured Japanese soldiers, brought to the camp, tried to make a break. The first he simply threw to the ground. The other he knocked unconscious."

Almost 40 years later, when the ABC's Tim Bowden was making a radio series on Australian prisoners of war [see story right] , he interviewed Hodges and Botterill together at Hodges' Sydney home, Bowden recalled this week. He dug through his old tapes in the attic of his coastal retirement home and found a copy of his interview with Hodges in 1983. He sent me the transcript two days days ago.

It quotes Hodges, in part: "I was a member at the time of the Z special unit and we were sent to Morotai for an operation to Ranau. It appears word had come out that there were POWs there. They were in a very bad way and if they were to be saved they would have to be evacuated as soon as possible. We parachuted into a little village about 15 miles [24 kilometres] from Ranau, and the villagers gave us a great welcome. We patrolled out and eventually somebody came to tell us there were white men up the track. The first two people I saw, I remember, were Nelson Short and you, Keith [Botterill].

"Nelson was so bloated, but I thought Keith was the worst. I picked him up like a little baby he was so emaciated. I was only a comparative youngster, but I felt that this should happen to a fellow Australian soldier was [too much]. Then my reaction was just one of anger. I must confess I wore that anger for years afterwards."

Tim Bowden never forgot the interview.

Years later, after Botterill had died, Bowden bumped into Hodges at the Sydney Cricket Ground. "Mick is a very tall man, a very courtly, gentle man. A private man. I only met him that one more time, quite by accident, at a Sheffield Shield cricket match in the late 1990s at the SCG. He had his Thermos and his box of sandwiches and he came up to me and we chatted. He said, 'You know, Tim, what a joy it is to be still alive, to be retired, and to be able to enjoy this sort of wonderful entertainment.'

That was 10 years ago. Lofty Hodges, an authentic hero, is now doing it very hard in Royal North Shore Hospital. Think of him this weekend and those few Sandakan survivors he helped save and the 2428 nobody could.

 

 

 

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[John Wanless] [Jesselton] [Sandakan] [The Rescue] [Operation Kingfisher 2] [Japanese Occupation] [Kranji] [Dispatches - London Gazette]

 

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