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Captain Lionel Matthews, the hero of Sandakan POW Camp

Patricia Hului

Captain Lionel Matthews might not be a familiar name for Sarawakians but during World War II (WWII) he was executed by a firing squad on Mar 2, 1944 in Kuching.

After the war, he was posthumously awarded the George Cross. It is the highest award for heroism or courage in the face of the enemy that could be awarded to the Australian armed forces at the time.

Captain Lionel Colin Matthews. Credit: Public Domain.

Captain Lionel Matthews and the beginning of World War II

Matthews arrived in Singapore on Feb 18, 1941. In August, he arrived in Malaya and wqs posted as the signals officer there.

He served during the Malayan campaign and the Battle of Singapore.

After the Fall of Singapore on Feb 15, 1942, Matthews, like many other prisoners-of-war (POWs) was initially interned in the Changi POW camp, Singapore.

Then in July, ‘B’ Force which consisted nearly 1,500 Australian POWs including Matthews was sent to the Sandakan POW Camp, in then occupied British North Borneo.

Captain Lionel Matthews and the Sandakan Underground

Once in Sandakan, Matthews managed to set up a complex intelligence-gathering network.

This is because during the early days of the internment, the security at the POW camp was fairly lax and no guards accompanied the officers who worked outside in the garden.

Matthews first succeed in making contact with a Malay man who went by the name Dick Maginal while he was out in the garden.

Through Maginal, Matthews made contact with local constabulary Sergeant Ahbin.

Subsequently, Ahbin managed to organise communication between Sandakan Camp and another camp at the nearby Berhala Island as well as Dr James Taylor in Sandakan town.

Matthews and a number of Australian soldiers would go out in the garden. There, they would leave messages for Dr Taylor in some trees and would collect replies and small quantities of medicine from him in the same way.

Dr Taylor also supplied information on Japanese movements through the same method.

At the same time, Matthews made contact with a local Eurasian family, the Funk brothers. The three brothers Alex, Johnny and Paddy (Patrick) Funk served as the eyes and ears in what was later known as the Sandakan Underground.

Alex even provided Matthews with important maps of the Sandakan area, pinpointing the Japanese barracks, machine-gun posts and communication posts.

Through Alex, Matthews also made contact with anti-Japanese guerrillas operating in the southern Philippines.

These guerrillas then arranged for the supply of two machine guns, 27 rifles and 25 hundred rounds of ammunition to the POWs.

In May 1943, the Matthews group decided to build a radio transmitter. They received some radio parts that had been smuggled in by ‘E’ Force which had arrived the previous month.

Their plan was to obtain the remainder of the radio parts from the Sandakan Underground members outside of the camp.

This time, things did not go the way that they had planned.

Betraying Captain Lionel Matthews and the rest of Sandakan Underground

The Sandakan Underground group was betrayed. The motive behind the betrayal was “banal” according to Paul Ham in his book Sandakan.

“Neither fear or nor loyalty to the Japanese inspires the betrayal, just money. It is a tawdry act of extortion,” Ham wrote.

A member of the Sandakan intelligence group Heng Joo Ming had an argument with a sweeper named Dominic Koh at the airfield over illegal dealing of rice on the black market.

In anger, Koh told another friend named Bah Chik about Heng’s involvement with the POWs.

Koh and Bah Chik took this opportunity to blackmail Heng for a little money. Bah Chik who was a close friend of a local Japanese spy named Jackie Lo Ah Fok, threatened to betray Heng to the Japanese unless he paid him money.

Heng called Bah Chik’s bluff and paid nothing.

Breaking down under the kempeitai

However, the price was heavy for his actions. Bah Chick told Lo about Heng and soon enough the Kempeitai came for Heng.

Heng and his father were arrested before dawn on July 18, 1943 and were taken to a bungalow.

There, a guard who was skilled at jujitsu threw the father and son pair around the room. Still, Heng revealed no names.

They were then subjected to the ‘water torture’.

A large amounts of water were forced down into their throats. When their stomachs were bulging full of water, the interrogator jumped from a chair onto their stomachs.

Hearing the sounds of his father wailing in pain, Heng broke down and admitted his involvement with the Sandakan Underground.

He also spilled some names including the Funks, Dr Taylor and Matthews.

Captain Lionel Matthews and his Sandakan Underground members arrested

The ruins of huts in the prisoner of war camp, Sandakan, North Borneo, October 1945. Those who were too ill for the march were eventually murdered here. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: 120457

All members of the Matthews intelligence group as well as Dr Taylor and police officer Ahbin were subsequently arrested.

On July 22, the camp was searched and they found two pistols and some maps. The Japanese did not find the radio.

Then on July 24, another search was made and this time they found a list of the radio parts smuggled into the camp.

The Japanese continued to arrest anybody who they suspected had been involved throughout August and September.

A total of 65 men were captured, all subjected to interrogation and torture by the kempeitai.

The interrogation and Morse Codes conversation

The means of interrogation were brutal and extreme. Matthews and his friends endured vicious beatings and the water tortures.

Still, they all refused to talk.

Lieutenant Gordon Weynton described the scene,

“We were placed in a triangular formation, all facing the sentry whose instructions were to watch and make sure there was no talking. Matthews communicated using Morse. He would come back from interrogation, sit down, cross his legs as we were instructed to and tap his fingers. He would go through the topic of which he’d been interrogated that morning and the answers he’d delivered.”

These messages that Matthews tapped, for the prisoners, “not only enabled prisoners to avoid accidental incrimination but they boosted confidence.”

The trial and execution in Kuching

On Oct 25, 1943, after more than three months of torture, the twenty or so members of the Matthews group were taken to Kuching, Sarawak.

There, the Japanese held a military trial to prosecuted the members.

In his book Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II, Japanese historian Yuki Tanaka pointed out a very unlikely event that happened during the trial.

He stated,

Colonel Suga, commandant of the Borneo POW camp system, was present at the trial and made an open plea to the judges in the courtroom. He asked them to give the accused prisoners and civilians in trial in accordance with international law and to be merciful in their sentencing.

“This would have been an uncommon act even in a court-martial of Japanese soldiers; in a trial of enemy prisoners it was extremely unusual and courageous. Clearly Suga was aware that the trial of POWs by a Japanese military court was, to say the least, in potential conflict with the rules of international law.”

Regardless of Suga’s plea, Matthews, Ahbin, Alex Funk, Heng Joo Ming and five others were sentenced to death by firing squad and executed immediately after the trial on Mar 2, 1944.

Meanwhile, Dr Taylor was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment in Singapore’s Outram Road prison and the remainder were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six months to 15 years.

The funeral of Captain Lionel Matthews

Flying over the prisoner of war camp (POW) in Batu Lintang at a low height, RAAF Beaufighter pilots reported sighting white POWs, clad in khaki shorts, who excitedly waved as the RAAF aircraft flew over to drop leaflets announcing Japan’s surrender. Credits: Public Domain (Copyright expired). https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C242106

On the same day of the execution, the Australian POWS in Batu Lintang Camp, Kuching found out that one of their officers had been executed.

Lieutenant Jim Fraser remembered that he was standing near the gate of their compound when Colonel Suga passed by.

Looking very depressed, he reportedly said with a tear in his eyes, “I have just executed the bravest man I ever met.”

A small number of Australians were allowed to attend the funeral. Those who attended the funeral remembered that the coffin was oozing blood as it arrived at the cemetery.

Afterward, Suga gave permission to make a wooden cross for Matthews. They made one, inscribing his name and unit.

Then a day or two later, Suga drove one of the Australian officers out to the cemetery where they planted the cross at the head of the grave.

According to author Charlotte Nash, this event surely bolstered the determination of the rest of the Australians to survive their ordeal.

Remembering Captain Lionel Matthews

Dr Taylor survived the war and he remembered the day when Matthews was executed.

“I had never met Captain Matthews until we lay side by side in the hands of the kempeitai. Tall and thin and bearded, his appearance was – there is no other word for it but Christ-like.

“He knew he was going to be killed, yet even when he was racked with pain from the fearful beatings and tortures, his constant thoughts was for others. No man ever wore the uniform of an Australian officer more honourably.

“I remember him, on the morning he was to die, calmly dividing his food with his prisoners and he called back to them as he was taken out to be shot: ‘Keep your chins up, boys. What the Japs do to me doesn’t matter – they can’t win!’

“He faced a Japanese firing squad with eight of my loyal Asiatic helpers, they were buried in a common grave and I believe that he tore the handkerchief from his eyes and went to his death unflinchingly. I should call Captain Matthews the hero of Sandakan Camp. I have never met a man so unselfish and so unafraid.”

On Nov 22, 1950, Australian newspaper The Advertiser reported on the union between Johnny Funk and Captain Matthews’ widow.

In the meeting, Johnny shared to the attendees, “I was sitting next to Captain Matthews at the trial and we are not allowed to speak to each other. But he tapped with his feet in Morse code: ‘Johnny if you ever get to Australia, please tell my wife that I have died for my country.’

He also told Mrs Matthews, “I feel happy I have seen you, although it is a little sad. I would like to tell you what a brave man your husband was. He inspired the local boys to have no fear.”

The aftermath

After the war, Lieutenant Rod Wells, who had been sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for his part in the Sandakan Underground, filed a report of the trial to the Australian War Crimes Section.

He argued that the trial was clearly in breach of international law, as the accused had had no intention of starting a revolt in the prison.

Moreover, Wells claimed that the evidence had been distorted by prosecutors, that the defendants had no opportunity for legal representation.

This caused nine people including Matthews to have been unjustly executed.

According to Tanaka, the War Crimes Section did not prosecute the one surviving judge, Captain Tsutsui Yoichi (the other two had died during the war).

Meanwhile, the prosecutor Captain Watanabe Haruo, and the officer who authorised the executions, Lieutenant General Yamawaki Masataka, were tried but acquitted.

So was Matthews’ trial legal and in accordance with International Law or not?

Michelle Cunningham in her book Hell on Earth: Sandakan-Australia’s Greatest War Tragedy stated, “The court ruled that even though Japan had not signed the Geneva Convention the trial had been conducted according to Japanese military law, which was recognised under International Law.”

While the fact was hard to accept, Captain Matthews and others were trialed legally and they had received punishments according to the law, at least in the eyes of the Japanese.

After the war, Matthews’ body was exhumed and reinterred in the Labuan War Cemetery.

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