Search for remains at Parit Sulong
By the 17 January 1942 a Japanese invasion force moving south along the Malayan Peninsula to capture Singapore had reached the State of Johor. The British, Indian and Australian forces were subjected to constant daytime aerial bombardment, forcing them into night time withdrawals and delaying tactics, which had little impact on the advancing Japanese.
A covering force, made up of the 45th Indian Brigade and elements of the 2nd /15th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, was positioned on the southern bank of the Muar River at Muar to delay the advancing Japanese and allow the main force to withdraw south. The covering force was soon under attack and needed reinforcement by the 2nd / 29th Australian Infantry Battalion, 2nd / 19th Australian Infantry Battalion and elements of the 2nd / 4th Australian Anti/Tank Regiment.
By the 20th of January 1942, less than 1000 Australians and two companies of Indians were facing 10,000 Japanese. Withdrawing towards Yong Peng they hoped to reach the main Allied defensive line south of Parit Sulong.
At dawn on the 21st of January, the exhausted force reached Parit Sulong to find the bridge on the withdrawal route heavily defended by the Japanese. Successive counter attacks failed and the Allies were now trapped. With no hope of rejoining the Allied lines, the convoy of wounded made their way to the bridge under the Red Cross emblem with the hope that the Japanese would allow them safe passage to Yong Peng. The Japanese refused, unless what was left of the covering force, now under command of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Anderson, of the 2nd / 19th Battalion surrendered.
On the 22nd of January Anderson gave the order for all able bodied men to break contact and try and escape. The wounded who could not escape were made as comfortable as possible and left in the care of volunteers in the expectation that the Japanese would provide first aid.
Once the Japanese captured the wounded they were moved to a nearby building. When they did not move fast enough or failed to comprehend instructions they were hit with rifle butts, kicked, bayoneted or shot. Once gathered, they were ordered to remove all equipment, personal effects and clothing.
At sunset, machine guns were placed at the south of the building. The prisoners were moved to the rear and shot. Cans of fuel and paraffin oil were collected and poured over the dead and they were set alight in an attempt to cremate them.
Four men survived that night, but only two survived the war. The first was Lieutenant Ben Hackney who was left for dead near the building, he escaped into the jungle where he partially recovered before being recaptured, spending the rest of the war as a Prisoner of War. The second man was Private Reg Wharton who escaped to the jungle before being recaptured.
What happened to the remains of the 144 Allied soldiers has been in dispute since the end of the war. Nothing of the massacre was located after the war by the graves recovery teams or the war crime trial investigators.
Of the 4000 Allied soldiers who fought in the Battle of Muar only 809 succeeded in rejoining the British force in Yong Peng, many were killed during in the battle or died in captivity as Prisoners and War. Over 260 Australian soldiers still remain unaccounted for from the Battle of Muar.
In 1945 the Allies returned to the area to investigate the massacre, one investigator commented that he saw bones, helmets and equipment in the marshy area between the river and the land. Whilst some of these remains could have been the hundreds of Allied soldiers who were shot and pushed off bridges along the Simpang Kiri River during the same period; they also could have been the remains of the wounded soldiers killed at Parit Sulong.
In December 2005, Professor Richard Wright and historian Ms Lynette Silver presented a submission that suggested that the Japanese did not cremate the remains at Parit Sulong as previously thought.
Considering that no wounded were ever located, it was reasonable to assume that the remains may have been buried at the killing field. After reviewing the submission, it was decided that an investigation of the site would be undertaken to determine if a mass grave at Parit Sulong existed.
In 2011, a team of over thirty Australian and Malaysian forensic experts - archaeologists, surveyors, geophysicists, researchers and investigators - from Unrecovered War Casualties – Army and the Malaysian National Heritage Commission worked at the site of the massacre.
The excavation area was heavily overgrown and was carefully cleared and surveyed. Teams systematically excavated the area described by Lieutenant Hackney in his account and examined the ground for any sign that a mass grave had existed. The geophysicists used ground penetrating radar and resistivity testing.
Hundreds of artefacts were removed, carefully examined, photographed and recorded. The artefacts were almost exclusively discarded domestic items and animal bones. Other members of the team spoke to locals who offered information relating to the Japanese advance through Parit Sulong and the massacre of the Allied soldiers and locals.
Over the years any trace of the soldiers and their equipment is likely to have been washed into the Simpang Kiri River.
After three weeks of searching through tonnes of soil, no sign of a mass grave was discovered. The artefacts gave no indication that the area had been involved in a violent battle or that the 144 Allied troops and an unknown number of civilians had been killed in that location. Although the possibility of a mass grave being located at the site was eliminated, the question of what happened to the wounded Allied soldiers remains.
Unrecovered War Casualties – Army has determined the following information throughout their investigation.
• None of the soldiers who were left in the convoy survived the war with the exception of Lieutenant Hackney and Private Wharton.
• No remains located post-war were ever attributed to any of the soldiers left in the convoy.
• The Japanese attempted to cremate the remains in the location where they were killed.
• During the battle the Japanese disposed of bodies by throwing them into the river and cremation.
• There are eye witness accounts of remains from both sides being left in the open for up to two months.
• There was no sign of a grave, bodies or equipment when Lieutenant Hackney was lead back through the area after his recapture five weeks later.
• Locals confirmed that that area of Parit Sulong floods on a regular basis and the floods extend past the building which Lieutenant Hackney described in his statements.
• No mass grave exists in the vicinity of building where the soldiers were killed.