BUTLER, Rex Nelson

Service Number: SX2600
Enlisted: 1 May 1940, Wayville, South Australia
Last Rank: Sergeant
Last Unit: 8th Division Ammunition Sub-Park
Born: Mount Gambier, South Australia, 13 February 1913
Home Town: Kongorong, Grant, South Australia
Schooling: Kongorong Public School
Occupation: Farmer
Died: Killed in Action, Dugan River, Tawi Tawi, Philippines, 18 August 1943, aged 30 years
Cemetery: Sai Wan War Cemetery, Hong Kong
Plot 2 Row B Grave No5. Note that there are two Commonwealth Cemeteries in Sai Wan Bay. Rex is in the higher one
Memorials: Adelaide WW2 Wall of Remembrance, Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Kongorong Oval Memorial Gates, Mount Gambier War Memorial, Port MacDonnell Memorial Walk
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World War 2 Service

1 May 1940: Enlisted Private, SN SX2600, Wayville, South Australia
18 Aug 1943: Involvement Sergeant, SN SX2600, 8th Division Ammunition Sub-Park, Prisoners of War
Date unknown: Involvement

The escape

North East Borneo Force. QX21058 Captain (Capt) Robert Kerr 'Jock' McLaren MC, formerly of 2/10 Field Workshops, now Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD), indicating to VX108088 Capt Leonard Gordon Darling, Prisoner of War Liaison Officer 9th Division, his former sleeping place under a hut when he was a prisoner of war. Capt McLaren (then a private) and NX34686 Capt Raymond Eric Steele, NX29683 Lieutenant (Lt) Charles Arthur (Charlie) Wagner, QX4648 Lt Rex Blow, VX34838 Lt Leslie Miles Gillon, SX2600 Private (Pte) Rex Nelson Butler and Pte Jim Kennedy (probably NX18801 Pte James Kennedy), escaped on the night of 4 June 1943. They joined NX58809 Sergeant (Sgt) Walter Wallace who had escaped previously from Sandakan with NX49419 Signalman (Sig) Howard Frederick Harvey and NX55541 (QX15656) Sig Theodore Rutland Mackay (alias of Daniel Seaforth MacKenzie). The Berhala Island escapees and Sgt Wallace eventually made their way to the Philippines where they joined a guerilla movement. Rex Butler (promoted to Sergeant) was killed and beheaded by pro-Japanese Moros in an ambush at Tawitawi on 18 August 1943. Lt Wagner was shot and killed by a Japanese sniper on 21 December 1943. Sig Mackay and Sig Harvey had been executed by the Japanese in Borneo on 11 May 1943. The six other escapees survived the war.


Rex Butler

Rex Butler is my Great Uncle, the only brother of my Nanna, Rome Freeman. Uncle Rex was the only son of Arthur & Margret Butler. His memory and his life were cherished and honoured by his sisters, Connie, Norma, Neata, Win & Rome. We love you Rex and thank you for your service xx

Showing 2 of 2 stories

Biography contributed by Robert Kenny

Rex Butler, described in May 1945 by MAJ R.E. Steele AIF, as a man who "lived and died a hero", was born on 13th February 1913 in Mount Gambier, South Australia. The elder son and the third of six children in a Methodist family, he grew up on the Butler family grazing property "Wattle Grove" at Kongorong.

A school photograph of 26 boys and girls taken in 1923 at the Kongorong Public School, shows Rex, tall for his age, standing in the back row. Looking at the bright, smiling ten year old facing the camera, it is hard to visualise the adventurous and dangerous life that lay ahead of him.

He left school in 1927 at the age of 14, after taking his 'Qualifying Certificate'. His parents originally planned to send him to boarding school in Mount Gambier, to further his education, but this did not come about, as his father was very ill, and he was needed on the farm.

As his younger sister Norma recalls, Rex grew to over 6 feet tall. He preferred an active, outdoor life and did not like the cities. When he was about 18 years old, he joined the 3rd Light Horse in Mount Gambier, and from an early age he also belonged to a local rifle club, where he soon became an expert marksman. His prowers as a shooter became legendary and his ability to remain calm and unruffled without losing his nerve when under pressure, stood him in good stead as a buffalo shooter and later in guerilla warfare during World War 2.

After his father died in 1928, his mother faced the difficulties of raising a family and running the farm on her own, especially with the onset of the depression years and the drastic fall in wheat and sheep prices. She remarried, and to maintain its viability, the farm was turned into a dairying operation. More help on the farm gave Rex the opportunity to fulfill a boyhood dream of adventuring north to explore and work in the open, untamed expanse of northern Australia. It was a dream that may have been fuelled by stories told to him by by his father, who was a Boer War veteran, of similar country he knew in South Africa.

According to an article in 'The Border Watch' dated 18 July 1936, Rex and Sydney Johnson, a friend, acquired "Lizzie", a venerable motor vehicle "of ancient vintage but sound in wind and limb". They fitted it out as a buckboard caravan, "complete with bunks, kitchenette and armoury" for the buffalo hunting life they hoped to take up after they reached Darwin. Accompanied by two terriers, they began their adventurous six month journey on 7th January 1936 at Mount Gambier.

First, they followed the River Murray, picking fruit to help finance the expedition, then drove across country to Port Augusta, where there was no work and the heat was excessive. Deciding to move north, they reached Alice Springs on March 27th. Up to this time, they had variously encountered swamps, mud, dust storms, drift sand and roads that sometimes were barely marked tracks, scratched out of the bare earth in paddocks each about 100 miles square.

At Alice Springs, Sydney Johnson was recalled to England, where his mother was dying, and Bob Chant joined Rex. Living off wild turkey and roo or wallaby shot for the dogs, they reached Tennant Creek on May 1st without mishap. From there, the roads in the Northern Territory at that time were not well developed. The country was more difficult to traverse, the roads being little more "than passages through heavily timbered country" and they encountered vehicle bogging clay, mud and swamp beyond Birdum. On three occasions they had to build bridges across creeks. Undaunted, they finally arrived in Darwin after misdirecting themselves from Birdum via Arnhem Land where they marvelled at the new and strange tropical foliage. "Lizzie " never let them down.

They felt that they had "performed a notable achievement in crossing the continent under the conditions they had encountered". The experience broadened their outlook on life and they gained an intimate knowledge of what was then the little known territory through Central Australia and the Northern Territory, just as Rex had long wanted. They staqyed for about 12 months in the area between the north and south Alligator Rivers east of Darwin, honing their skills as buffalo shooters and crocodile hunters.

In 1937 they returned to South Australia for a time, and then Rex returned to Arnhem Land to which he had become very attached, for another 12 months.

During this period he became famous among buffalo shooters throughout the Northern Territory as a deadly shot. As a newspaper item of the time described him, "If the King's Prize match to be held in Sydney during the National celebrations, were to be shot from horseback, Rex Butler, a hard riding buffalo shooter from the Northern Territory crocodile swamps, would probably win it. He has no peer in the north for dropping a buffalo from a galloping horse". Rex competed regularly in shooting competitions in Darwin, "spurning the peep sights on the range and uses only a simple open sight". He was one of three riflemen from the Northern Territory who qualified to take part in the King's Cup in Sydney, the others were Frank Litchfield and Bob Chant.

Kevin Kenny (SX11212) remembers meeting Rex Butler, Bob Chant and Doug Ashby, who were rabbit trapping for Kevin's father in the Elliston area after they returned from the north during 1937. As expert shooters, the men travelled prepared for any eventuality. As they prepared camp, Kevin recalls, "being a keen young 17 year old, I started to help them unload the utility, and in doing so, picked up a .22 rifle and was immediately told to put it down as 'all our guns are loaded'.

Rex, according to Kevin Kenny, was "a man born to shoot and a very accurate shot".There were stories of daredevil exploits such as the time the three trappers shot flies on the ceiling while lying on the their bunks in a hut on a neighbouring farm. He remembers Rex explaining how he "got hold of some 'black powder' (gun powder), cutting off a short length of half inch water pipe, capping one end of it, drilling a small fuse hole and inserting a fuse, loading a good charge of black powder, a wad and a projectile, tying the complete job to a fence post with some wire, lighting the fuse and running. I don't remember what he said happened!!"

When Britain's security was threatened by the imminent fall of France in 1940, and as so many of his friends were doing at that time, Rex enlisted as a Private in the AIF, 4th Military District, on 1 May 1940. He joined an Ammunition Sub-Park, which was an auxiliary unit, then formed for the 9th Division. Rex was working as a truck driver at Woodside Army Camp by February 1941, where Kevin Kenny, who had also joined up, met him again. They both served in B Section of the Sub-Park.

In April 1941, the Unit was sent up to Alice Springs by train from Adelaide to join the Darwin Overland Maintenance Force (DOMF). They changed to the 3' 6" gauge train for the Alice at Terowie. It was an uncomfortable journey, sitting on long fixed seats attached along the sides of the carridge. At Alice Springs the flies were bad, and they slept in tents on the ground.

The Ammunition Sub-Park was issued with 100 trucks, of which B Section had 31. Their job was to transport men and supplies between the railhead at Alice Sptings to Larrimah, which was a few miles north of Birdum on the Birdum - Darwin railway line. It was about a 1,200 mile trip.

Kevin Kenny recalls, "We were seven days on the road (each trip), about 30 or 40 trucks to a convoy, at 200 yard intervals, with overnight camps at Barrow Creek, afternoon tea the next day from the Country Women's Association at Tennant Creek, and on to Daly Waters for the night. The third day took us to No. 3 Bore, and on the fourth day we drove about 25 miles into Larrimah, unloaded and returned to No. 3 Bore and readied for the three day trip home. We carried troops, spuds, petrol, ammunitioin and anything else required for Darwin."

They sometimes drove three abreast and often in a huge cloud of dust which obscured them from the vehicle behind them. As the convoys were the main means of transporting troops up north to Darwin, they were carrying Artillery men on one occasion during which Kevin remembers a demonstration of Rex Butler's shooting accuracy and timing. At a routine stop "there was a little hawk hovering, probably 100 feet away, and an Artillery Sergeant produced his revolver and fired several shots without effect. At this time, one of the Sub-Park who knew that Rex was the driver of a nearby truck, and that Rex had made, of all things, a shanghai, said, "We have a driver who is a better shot with a shanghai." The hawk had flown away, but someone produced a Log Cabin tobacco tin (they measure about three and a half inches by two and about three quarters of an inch thick), and when he threw it up into the air, Rex let go with his shanghai, and his missile hit the tin. Unbelievable!!"

Driving trucks in Central Australia began to pall for men like Rex Butler who had joined up to fight. Some began to feel that they were missing out on the action in the war. When the Ammunition Sub-Park returned to Adelaide on 26th September 1941, Rex Butler requested a transfer to the 8th Division which he had heard was going to the Middle East. About 350 men from the Ammunition Sub-Park were transferred from the 9th Division to the 8th Division, and eventually 209 in A and B Sections left Melbourne on 2 November 1941 for an unknown overseas destination on board HMAT Zealandia.

Upon arrival in Singapore on 20th November, the 8th Division Ammunition Sub-Park was based initially in Malacca. They transported ammunition and troops during the Malayan campaign, often bombed and straffed by machine-gun fire from Japanese planes, which had almost complete control of the skies over Malaya and Singapore. According to Kevin Kenny, the "Jap spotter planes that circled above us in Malaya were a great temptation to him (Rex Butler), he reckoned he could hit the pilot, but we were instructed not to fire on them as by so doing we would let them know where we had our trucks hidden under the rubber trees of the plantations. Rex got very upset one day and told me he had seen one of our (probably English Army) armoured cars that had been hit by a shell and was burning with soldiers inside who could not get out and one was calling for someone to shoot him."

After Singapore capitulated on 15th February 1942, Rex, an adventurer and experienced bushman who had several years roaming the wide expanses of Australia, could not be cooped up behind barbed wire as a prisoner of war (POW).

Kevin Kenny, who was a POW with him explained, "From the start the POW Camp at Changi could not hold him, he went through the wire night after night. Within a few days of our POW life, the Japs put barbed wire around the perimiter, it was coiled in great rolls and stretched like a concertina, I reckon there were five rolls on the ground, four on top of that, then three, two and one. But, in laying the wire alongside the bitumen road, they had not noticed that a culvert about 4' 6" in diameter started about 8 or 9 yardsfrom the bitumen road and continued to about the same distance on the other side of the road. Hence, by going through the culvert, one could leave the POW Camp and get 'outside'. Rex learned of this opening, and probably did a trip before he invited me to join him on an expedition.

"I can remember getting through the culvert and running through a creek for what seemed to be half a mile and being in a room in a native (Indian I think) home and they produced tinned foodstuff which they sold to us at an inflated price of $2 (Malayan). I had $20, so I bought 10 tins and on return to the camp, sold 7 tins at $3 each, making a profit of 3 tins and having $21 for the next night's trip.

"I did about three trips 'through the wire' with Rex, before our internal administration put POW Pommie MPs on our side of the culvert, and put an end to that means of getting out. It's probably just as well they did, as it was getting like Rundle Street on a Friday night!!"

"I did one more trip with Rex when we lay on our stomachs and wriggled under the wire in another creek bed, and it was on this trip that Rex suggested that 'we don't go back' to the POW Camp. He said that we should get a length of wire or a rope, and lay it across the road, and when a Jap came along on his pushbike, we could pull the rope tight - 'and then we would have ONE rifle'. But I wasn't in favour of his idea, and he came my way.

"Some nights later he went out alone, probably leaving about 8pm and I think he had arranged to buy a four gallon tin of sugar, and be back by about 11pm. I can remember CPL McDonald waking me and saying 'It's 3am, and Rex isn't home yet.' He arrived home a short time later. He had run into a Jap patrol and taken refuge in a swamp. The Japs knew he was there, and they stopped searching for him, and just lay quiet, waiting for him to move, but he also lay quiet, and after about three hours without saying a word or lighting a cigarette, the Japs gave up and moved on."

"Then, on Good Friday 1942, the Japs called for 3,000 men, including 2,000 Australians and 1,000 British, to march into Singapore and out to the suburb of Adam Park for the purpose of constructing a Memorial Road around the boundary of the Singapore Golf Club. The camp was spread out over a large former residential area. About 680 men were allocated to our section of the camp, and there were at least 50, and there could have been 100 of the Sub-Park in the party.

"On arrival, we were allocated 5 houses as accommodation. They were beautiful homes built on rising ground overlooking a valley. As we 'broke off' to make our way to our new homes I did a thing I had already learned - 'take a roundabout route to your objective and a roundabout route back', so I veered away from the direct way and walked over some slit trenches, for a war had been fought in this area and med died here six weeks ago, and there on the ground was a .45 revolver. With my foot, I moved a small piece of galvanised iron that was nearby, and hid the weapon, then went and settled in to our new home.

"A hundred to a hundred and thirty to a family home is a bit crowded. Sergeants Sawyers and Owen, together with Jed Attwell, Ross Berryman, John Lill, Snow Cornish George Walker and others selected to reside in a garage (or were there two garages?). Around the back of the garage were the servants quarters, and Rex, together with Pop Manton and Roy Skinner (both of the Bordertown/Lillimur area) and Charlie Gordon moved into a room about 8' by 9'. Chan Treleaven and I had the room next door. That night I told Rex about the revolver.

"My directions must have been good, for that night he collected it, and within a few days had it polished like new and a supply of ammo.

"Now, the Japs counted us each morning before we walked past their heap of picks, shovels, hoes (chunkols), rakes, etc., and selected our working tools. From our group, about 600 went to work; and 80 left at home were the cooks, the sick, and to make up the 80 were some lucky ones getting a rostered day off (and you thought that was a modern day term!). Now, we quickly discovered that the Japs didn't count us at the end of the day's work and prepared to march the one and a half to three mile trip home. At midday the cooks would arrive with our lunch - buckets of rice and sometimes a little something to give it flavour. Two cooks would walk one behind the other, with a pole from one's shoulder to the other, and on the pole, two half full buckets of rice. Two more cooks would be similarly laden. By the rear carrier walking out of step, the buckets didn't develop a rhythmic swing. Anyway, four cooks arrived with four buckets, and eight cooks went back, each with one bucket on a pole.

"Our breakfast of rice often meant that on the way to work many had to break ranks as we went to work, to relieve the water pressure problem. Then a system developed where you took your time behind a bush or in the tall grass, waited until your group had passed, and, with the next group still some distance behind, you hid, and later, made your way back to camp by a back route. For at Adam Park, we were not enclosed with wire. Japs in ones and twos continually roved the camp, and we had a price on our heads to the civilians (but not the Chinese - they were our friends). The crunch came one day when Rex and I left the work site the minute we had arrived to start work, and departed by jungle paths to make our way to a second reservoir several miles further on (the Golf Links were alongside one reservoir). We had a fishing line and intended to try our luck (we also had maps and Rex a watch). When we arrived, we discovered that the Japs had a training camp there, so we couldn't fish. Anyway, we spent the day wandering around jungle paths. Towards knock-off time we made our way back to our work site, to find no-one was there. So we swung back into the jungle and made our way home to find that there had been hell to pay. For some reason a count of workers had been made during the day, and our Jap only had 23 of his original 100 workers (23 does seem a bit low, doesn't it!!). Henceforth, 100 went to work as a group, and 100 came home.

"The Japs had (our?) Army pontoons, and we had to load them with gravel which was taken across the reservoir to where they intended to erect a shrine. These pontoons were powered by outboard motors which our Army 'experts' reckoned were 22 horsepower. We discussed the idea of escaping up the Malacca Straits and heading for India. The pontoons, outboard motors, petrol in 44 gallon drums and a Jap truck could be 'borrowed'. We reckoned 200 gallons of petrol would do, then we thought about hugging the coast and detours, and our 200 gallons became 400 gallons and we gave the idea away.

"One day, it must have been when I scored a 'day off', a Jap truck came into the camp with a couple of armed guards aboard, and demanded 20 men, and I was amongst those who had to climb aboard. We were taken a mile or so towards Singapore, then the truck turned left for about half a mile and came to a halt at a mansion (someone said it was the Governor's residence). We were herded into the kitchen and the Japs indicated that we were to put the stove on the truck. Now, the stove was the biggest slow combustion you ever saw. It must have been 8' or 10' long and 4' wide, and built of cast iron.

"Now, the 20 of us could not all get a hand on the stove until it was pulled from its built-in walled position, so I stepped back into an adjoining room, and then into the next. There was an old male servant there, but I hardly saw him, for the single barrel shotgun that was on the wall. Anyway, we got the stove out, onto the truck, and back to the Jap guard-house. It was raining; the stove was wet; and the grass slippery, but we got that stove up the hill and into a backroom of the guard-house. It's amazing what you can do when you are a slave and the master has a gun that he would like to use. That night I sketched a rough map of where we had been, and gave it to Rex. The next morning Rex called me around to his room and showed me the gun and about 20 rounds of brass cased cartridges. Did anyone ever say that Rex was game? He must have been able to see in the dark. And what an accurate map drawer I must have been.

"On another night, Rex went out on a food hunt, as he had heard that the Japs had a food dump at the Singapore Race Course, only a mile or perhaps a bit further away from Adam Park. Rex found the food dump, but it was too heavily guarded, so what does he do? He went into a room of sleeping Japs, removes an Australian flag from the wall and brings it back!! Knowing him, I believe the story.

"In August 1942 I was returned to Changi with others who were ill. I had started to go blind, and everything was a blur, and I had 'rice (weeping) balls'! At Changi I was in the Roberts Barracks Hospital, which was actually a rest camp for me, as they couldn't give much treatment. About two months later, someone told me that my old mate Rex, had arrived back at the hospital too. I don't know what his illness was, but I do know that up until that time he had never had malaria. I only got it once, but I reckon that Rex and some others somehow were immune to it.

"As soon as I heard of Rex's arrival at the hospital, I called to see him. After the preliminaries, I asked him 'What did you do with your armour?' And he said 'There it is,' indicating a mosquito netwound around (of all things) the shotgun! No breaking the gun, as is usual with shotguns. It was standing there in all its glory, with a mosquito net wound around it.

"I have since heard that when he got on to the Jap truck to be brought back from Adam Park, he deliberately left the shotgun wound up inside the mosquito net on the ground, and asked a Jap escort pass it up to him. Did anyone say he was game?"

Rex Butler was one of 500 Australians, including 23 members of the 8tyh Division Ammunition Sub-Park, who left Singapore on 28th March 1943 in E Force, to join the 1,496 Australian POWs of B Force which left in July 1942, and who were already in Sandakan, Borneo.

In line with the Japanese occupation policy of consolidating their gains in South East Asia, the POWs were putto work to build an airstrip, access road, revetments and other dispersal and protection areas at Sandakan. Before the men of E Force arrived there however, they were disembarked at Kuching, where all officers above the rank of Captain were removed. The 500 British members of E Force were also left at Kuching, and the Australians were sent to Berhala Island at the entrance to Sandakan Harbour and half a mile from the mainland. Here, they worked on clearing scrub and cutting timber for the main camp at Sandakan.

Berhala, originally a British run quarantine station and tyhen still the home of a leper colony, was used by the Japanese as a holding camp for British and Australian POWs and some captured white civilians of Borneo. The POW camp, enclosed by barbed wire, was set back about 160 yards from the sea. The latrines were outside the wire, which gave intending escapers an excuse for being outside the camp. A risky intelligence network functioned at Sandakan, operated by free settlers still residing there, sympathetic local people in Sandakan and Berhala in touch with the Filipino guerilla forces in the islands to the northeast and the POWs at Mile 8 Camp on the mainland.

With the help of CPL Koram, a friendly guard from the local population, who acted as a contact within the network, a daring escape was planned. It involved a party of eight Australian POWs, including Rex Butler, and was one of the very few parties of Australians who managed to escape from a Japanese POW Camp and return to safety.

PTE R.K. (Jock) McLaren (later promoted to SGT, then to CAPT), of the 2/10th Field Workshop and Sapper R.T. Kennedy of the 2/10th Ordnance Workshops (also later promoted to SGT), joined a wood carrying party which enabled them to move around Berhala Island. With an escape plan in mind, they kept an eye on a dug out canoe belonging to the leper colony, and earmarked it for their escape. McLaren, "a Scot by birth and a Queenslander by adoption", was a veterinary surgeon who served in the 51st Highland Battalion in WW1, and enlisted at the age of 42 in the AIF when WW2 broke out. He had alreadt made an unsuccessful escape attempt after the capitulation of Singapore by joining the Chinese guerilla forces in Malaya for five months. He was very fortunate not to have been executed when betrayed by the Malays and re-captured by the Japanese. Despite the enormous risks involved in a second attempt, he had no intention of remaining a POW for the duration and determined to try again.

A second escape party was also being formed by CAPT Ray Steele of the 2/15th Field Regiment. It included LT Rex Blow from the 2/19th Field Regiment; LT Charles Wagner from the 2/18th Battalion; MAJ L.M. Gillon of the 2/10th Field Regiment and SGT Walter Wallace who was brought to Berhala by local sympathisers after hiding from a previous unsuccessful escape from Sandakan. The escape parties were advised to make for the island of Tawi Tawi, 160 miles ewast of Sandakan in the Sulu Archipelago, to join the American/Filipino guerilla forces operating there. Both groups were advised by CPL Koram to escape at the same time, as once one group got away, the guards would become far more vigilant. It was also considered better to have two groups, one of which would leave Berhala straight away, because it would be more difficult to feed and hide a group of eight men on Berhala Island.

It was agreed that McLaren and Kennedy and a third man would steal the lepper colony's boat and row to Tawi Tawi, while CAPT Steele's group would hide on the island until the Japanese searches for them had died down, then sail to Tawi Tawi in a 'kompit''' - an inter-island sailing boat, supplied through the network and manned by the guerilla forces.

Jock McLaren realise that it would be a long, hard and dangerous row to Tawi Tawi, and he needed someone tough for his third man. He approached Rex Butler, described by Hal Richardson in his book 'One-man war: the Jock McLaren story' (1957) on the escape as: 'A tall thin grazier from South Australia who had been a buffalo shooter in the Northern Territory and could shoot a buffalo's eye out at fifty yards. Butler appeared to have the necessary nerve too. There was no room in the party for a man who was likely to crack when the heat was on. He (McLaren) was quite confident Kennedy could stand the strain, and now he watched Butler move around the dusty camp, noticing his coolness under the almost insane provocation of guards. When McLaren made his proposition, Butler nodded in his calm and serious way. 'I'll be with you Jock', he said.

The signal for the escape came on 4th June 1943 , when the Japanese bought a large barge across to the island and ordered the POWs to be prepared for transfer to Sandakan next morning. That night the eight Australians left the camp, ostensibly to visit the latrines, then collect their hidden supplies and clothes and went into hiding on the island. Next day McLaren, Kennedy and Butler began to row the 160 miles to Tawi Tawi, hugging the coast along a route traditionally used for centuries by smugglers and Moro pirates. It was a gruelling journey of eight days for men who were unfit, after being held prisoner by the Japanese for the past 16 months on very poor rations. They had no sail, and had to rely on their crude homemade wooden paddles as they doggedly persevered, their only thought being that every painful stroke put the Japanese further behind them. Travelling by night to avoid the daytime heat and Japanese planes searching for them, they hid by day in the bays and inlets along the north eastern coast of Borneo. In their small dugout, they relied on calm seas, and laid up when a storm approached.

When they arrived at Tawi Tawi, unsure if they had landed on the right island, they were relieved and welcomed by friendly Filipinos. They were free in a sense, but were mindful that they were still on Japanese held territory. On 14 June, ten days after leaving Berhala, the three men were taken to Batu Batu to join the American/Filipino guerilla forces of the U.S. 125th Infantry Regiment in the Philipines. Here, they met LT COL Suarez, who commanded the guerilla force. 

Radio messages were sent by the guerilla force to the Australian authorities, who at first disbelieved that any survivors of the 8th Division had broken out of a Japanese prisoner of war camp and made their way to the islands northeast of Borneo. The three Australians were joined on 24th June by Steele's party, who had remained in hiding on Berhala until the Japanese searches for them eased off. During the exchange of radio messages, it was arranged that the Australians could write letters home. The letters were carruied by boat by the Filipinos to the guerilla headquarters on Mindanao, to then be picked up by an American submarine for Australia. The Butler family received one such letter from Rex. Even in the tense situation in which the men found themselves, he could still think of his family and wrote to them calmly and optimistically.

Dated 25th July 1943 the following letter bore the Australian Post Office (Bruisbane) franking date of 23rd March 1944. Some of the delay could be attributed to the fact that all mail arriving in Australia from overseas war zones was censored at that time. The letter was typewritten and portions cut out by the censor:

"Dear Win,

"No Doubt this note will come as a big surprise to you, although I have written several times from prison camps I doubt very much if they were ever posted. --CENSORED-- we are now among friends, all well and in the best of health. Unfortunately we can't tell you our whereabouts --CENSORED-- Bob is not with me, he and I were separated last August, but he was OK then - tell Chris not to worry because he knows how to look after himself and will come through alright. Bob and most of my cobbers are in --CENSORED-- some in --CENSORED--.

"A couple of days before leaving Singapore we received our first letters from home, it was 24th March '43 and although all mail was at least 8 months old, they were none the less welcome. I received four in all, one from yourself, Nita, Norma and Mrs. Teagle. It was great news to learn Alison was far improved as to resume her work, has she managed to get over and see you again. It is a pity you are all so far apart.

"You must find things very quiet now Bill is away, hope the two girls are still with you, I suppose Peter is quite a big boy now? I expect you are all living in Streaky Bay anyway I am addressing this to your old address.

"The seven men with me are CAPT Steele, LT Blow, Gillen and Wagner, SGT Wallace, McLaren and Kennedy. None of these are from South Aust.

"we have a very interesting job and quite contented. All we are longing for is news from home

"Tell Alison I will write to her on the next opportunity and for her to send word if she has run off with the Yanks.

"Well I will stop now, hoping it won't be very long before I am back with you again. In the meantime keep smiling.

"Cheerio Win, fondest love to all.

"From your loving brother


"P.S. (in his handwriting) Please excuse type, but its easier censored. Almost forgot to tell you that there was not one killed in our unit (Amn Sub-Park) and those few who were wounded have all recovered.

"Win would you please write to Mr. M.R. Jones , Cuprona-Penguin, Tasmania and tell him I met his son Maurice in Singapore. He was badly wounded and reported missing, but has been discharged from hospital before I left --CENSORED--. Also grt in touch with Ron Kerr's home at Allendale and tell them he was well.

"Charlie Gordon, Pop Manton , PTE Skinner from around Wolsley and Kalangadoo were with me until I left Singapore.

"Love from Rex."

As members of the guerilla force the Australians were given the following postings: CAPT Steele - Plans and Training Officer, Regimental 2IC; LT Blow - Commander 1st Battalion Tawi Tawi; LT Gillon - 2IC 1st Battalion; LT Wagner - Regimental Intelligence Officer; SGT Wallace - Chief Recruits Instructor; Sapper Kennedy and Privates McLaren and Butler - Assistant Recruits Instructor. The group played an important role in training the guerilla fighters to become disciplined soldiers of the 125th Infantry Regiment. They were all promoted in the field at this time and Rex Butler was made Sergeant as from 1st July 1943.

During the four months after their arrival on Tawi Tawi, they fought occasional skirmishes with the Japanese. A particularly successful guerilla raid, led by the Australians, caught the nunaware crew of a Japanese submarine chaser in intense small arms fire as it pulled away from a jetty in southern Tawi Tawi. However, their main role was to establish an efficient intelligence service and to set up a coast watching station on Thumb Hill, the highest point on Tawi Tawi island, to report on Japanese shipping. The lookout was sited on a pleasant stretch of meadow land on the summit of the hill, where they could see Japanese ships in the distance. Information was thgen sent down the hill to the radio transmitting hut by flag messages and forwarded to headquarters which informed the US submarine network.

Due to the number of successful sinkings they witnessed, the men were aware that the Japanese would eventually come looking for them, but in the meantime, the pro-Japanese Moro force on the northern part of the island were more dangerous to them. According to Hal Richardson (op cit) the Moros were 'some of the fiercest fighters in the world.' They undertook 'raiding, piracy and slavery as a natural way of life' and were always armed. It was during an engagement with a Moro group that SGT Rex Butler lost his life on 18th August 1943. In a letter dated 24 August 1944 to Mrs. Bellinger, Rex's sister, MAJ Steele (Back in Australia) was only able to give brief information because of security reasons. He wrote of Rex:

'At the present time there are only three of us home. During the time that Rex was with me, I came to know and respect him a great deal and can truthfully say that I always found him very efficient, hard working, honest, courageous and likeable in everything that he undertook. He was one of the most popular members of the party and could always be relied on to pull his weight. It was a great loss to us when he was unfortunately killed outright with a stray bullet ... that is about all that I can tell you at present, but would very much like to get in touch with you again at a later date when I can tell you all. For the present, please accept my very deep sympathy in your great loss but remember that Rex died for his country, doing a magnificent job and that he died like a soldier and a man.'

In a letter dated 30 May 1945 to Mrs. W. Bellinger, MAJ Steele, now able to provide more information, described the action in which Rex was killed:

"The eight of us joined a Filipino guerilla band and all were allotted jobs to do, Rex, being made recruit instructor with the rank of Acting/SGT. He did a really fine job in this capacity, as well as numerous other amateur engineering jobs, and acting as NCO in charge of a signal section on a high lookout station west of the town of Bato Bato, where we lived.

"From time to time, the Jap garrison on the island of Jolo, some 60 miles away, sent planes or boatloads of troops to try and dig us out, but unfortunately did not have any luck. At the same time a few of the local natives, particularly the Moro Mohammedans, were actively pro-Jap sympathisers, and caused no end of trouble, beating up and robbing the peaceful or pro-Allied natives and generally causing trouble in the islands.

"This reached such a stage in about August '43, about one and a half months after we had reached the islands, that we decided to send an armed party out to try and quieten them down. Four of the Australians, together with a few native troops thuis set out about 16th August. On 18th August, while passing through some very bad swamp country in the Dungan River area on the island of Tawi Tawi, the party was ambushed by a large Moro band, and Rex and one Filipino were killed. The remainder of the party were able to successfully fight their way out, after inflicting considerable casualties. LT Rex Blow (MAJ Blow now) and SGT Jock McLaren (CAPT McLaren now), were right next to Rex at the time, and they were able to certify instant death and to retrieve his few belongings, but owing to the fierceness of the fighting and the extremely difficult country, were not able to bring out his body. LT Gillon (MASJ Gillon now), the fourth Australian, was fairly badly wounded during the fight and had to be carried out. This made it impossible to carry both men. ... your brother lived and died a hero, and I, as leader of the party, cannot speak highly enough of him. These natives were with the Japs all the way, and were just as much our enemies as their masters.

"During the ambush, one of the Australian trained guerillas made a dash to join the Moros, and was shot dead. Later the Australians learned that he was a relative of the Moro leader and it was felt that he had been instrumental in betraying the patrol beforehand, since the ambush was well planned and organised."

The survivors of the group of Australians were ordered by radio, in October 1943, to trek across the mountains to General Headquarters at Angusan on north-east Mindanao, to be repatriated by submarine to Australia. CAPT McLaren, who enjoyed this buccaneering life and did not fancy a garrison posting in Australia, to which a man over forty would modt likely be rel;egated, stayed behind with MAJ Blow. They continued to lead the guerillas in harassing the Japanese in daring hit and run raids, until the US forcves invaded Mindanao in 1945.

Rex Butler was posthumously Mentioned in Dispatches, and for his service was awarded the 1939/45 Star, Pacific Star, War Medal and Australian Service Medal. After the war his death was marked by a headstone in Plot 2, Row B, Grave No. 5 in the Sai Wan Bay Commonwealth Graves Cemetery, Hong Kong.