The very name, Sandakan represents one of the darkest chapters of POW interment during World War II and remains the greatest, single atrocity committed against Australian soldiers in combat. Known as the Sandakan Death Marches; their story remains at the core of Sandakan Spirit and every Australian.
This is their journey —
THE ROAD TO PURGATORY
The road to war in Southeast Asia started long before the Empire of Japan’s naval taskforce and its high-level dive-bombers launched a surprise attack against the U.S in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Yet Japan’s aggression was still deemed as a rude awakening for the U.S. and Great Britain — an assault that not only created a domino effect across the Pacific and much of Asia, but also spiralled the world into an abyss.
Before the invasion, Malaysia dominated 40% of the world’s rubber resources and 60% of the world’s tin. For the Japanese who were already starved of vital resources after their aggressive invasion of Manchuria, Malaysia was the golden prize. Moreover, the country’s peninsula was deemed the perfect location to use as a base to secure neighbouring Borneo, Java and Sumatra’s oil reserves, a lifeline for the Japanese Navy which used over 400 tonnes of oil an hour.
Though the Japanese military had little experience in jungle or large-scale warfare, they were aware that the colonial regimes that ruled the region were equally ill-prepared for war. Adding to the calamity was the British belief that any possible attack would first occur in Singapore, at that time the bastion of the Great Britain’s colonies — a city already weighed down by food rations, limited troops and few warships.
Within weeks, the Japanese Imperial Army’s swift invasion of Malaysia saw British colonial forces surrender in quick succession, a crushing defeat that ultimately caused the moral collapse of British supremacy.
After attacking the Malay peninsula, enemy soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Watanabe moved with lightning speed to seize the oilfields on the neighbouring island of Borneo, the prized resource which would guarantee Japan’s dominance throughout Southeast Asia. Arriving in Sandakan by small fishing vessels, the Japanese quickly overwhelmed old colonial guard and the British Governor, Charles Robert Smith surrendered the territory to the Japanese in the early morning of January 19, 1942, during the last days of the disastrous Malay Campaign.
In the wake of Malaysian military calamity came the fall of Singapore, a travesty that was described by British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.” On February 15, 1942, 130,000 British, Australian and Indian troops surrendered to the Japanese; 15,000 of those were Australians who were immediately taken into captivity.
For those prisoners, the long road to purgatory had only just begun.
Between 1942 and 1943, over 2,300 Allied (Australian and British) POWs were sent to build an airstrip and service roads in Sandakan, a strategic base for the Japanese. The first 1500 prisoners who were mostly Australians from B’ Force arrived at the Sandakan POW camp on July 17, 1942 and endured the horrors of internment at the hands of the Japanese.
But the tides of war finally begin to swing around with the Allies in mid-1944 and they soon made their successful advance on Borneo and Malaysia later that year.
Determined to erase any evidence of the atrocities committed against their Allied captives Japanese military officials ordered the POWS in early 1945 to march 260 kilometres through inhospitable virgin jungle from their camp to the Japanese garrison at Ranau, a rugged, hilly area that nestled beneath the shadow of Mt Kinabalu.
Three ‘Death Marches’ that took place that same year.
LIVING IN HELL
When Company B first arrived at the Sandakan POW Camp on July 17, 1942, any notions of being treated humanely under the command of Captain Hoshijima Susumi quickly diminished. The onset of beatings and deprivations by Susumi’s officers and guards soon became a daily occurrence. Existing on a daily ration of handful of rice and vegetables washed down with contaminated water drawn from a nearby creek, it was only a matter of time before the POWs fell ill with a host of tropical diseases, ulcers, dysentery and lice.
Though security was relatively casual at first, many men became too sick and emaciated to entertain any idea of escape. Only two POWs in 1942 managed to flee into the dense impenetrable jungles and survive. The rest were either recaptured or shot.
In the weeks that followed, the camp’s security tightened and the commandant exercised further atrocities against the remaining POWs. Adding to their demoralisation were the harsh punishments even for minor infractions. Any soldier caught trying to escape or were recaptured were executed. Those caught with food that was not part of their daily rations endured further beatings. Even more horrific were the incarceration of prisoners in tiny, open cages for weeks on end. Here, the ravages of the hot Malay sun, dehydration and the long hours of crouching took its toll on their physical and emotional state. And if a prisoner tried to wipe the sweat off his face when they were released from the cages for their daily exercise, he would be beaten again. For the POWs, the Sandakan camp was a living hell.
The work details did not fare any better. Ordered to labour on the Sandakan airfield, POWs burnt off thickets of jungle scrub, filled in the reptile infested swamps, dug and levelled gravel and pushed impossibly heavy trays and trucks along a light railway track. And if anyone planned to escape they were quickly foiled by the Kempei Tai — the Japanese secret military police, which all prisoners feared the most.
Those caught smuggling medicine, food rations or making a makeshift weapons and radios were beaten mercilessly and tortured in a variety of ways. The Kempei Tai would drive metal pins underneath the nails of the prisoner, singe their flesh with scolding flames and fill their mouths with water until their bodies began to bloat. Other times, the secret military police would stomp on the prisoners’ stomachs and not stop until the swelling appeared.
BAMBOO TO RTURE
By the end of 1942, the POWs of Sandakan were so emaciated and ravaged by a host of diseases, they became walking skeletons — living spectres.
During the work selection parades those POWs who could walk had to line up each day, bow before their Japanese captors and endure varied forms physical brutality before being marched off to the airfield. And sadistic guards in search of more labourers would force the men too ill to work to march and toil alongside the other prisoners. The camp’s death rate continued to soar.
In contrast, construction of the airfield drastically slowed; a problem which the Japanese countered by introducing the military’s older guards known as ‘bashers’. Carrying bamboo canes, bayonets and wooden club handles, the ‘bashers’ intensified the beatings of prisoners with regularity. Almost daily, a POW medical officer would attend to a limb broken, concussion or a fractured skull. Adding to the misery were the food rations, now reduced to only 100 grams of rice a day.
By April 1943, the POWs had wasted away to the point where many were of no further use to the Japanese. But this calamity did not deter their captors. A new group of British prisoners were brought to the Sandakan camp to continue with the construction of the airstrip, followed by another group of 500 Australian prisoners from ‘E’ Force.
As the Allied advances began to advance on the Japanese strongholds in Malaysia and Borneo in 1944, additional enemy taskforces were sent to defend the oilfields they now controlled. Nevertheless, Allied air raids began to make their mark across the region including the Sandakan airfield, which was completely destroyed.
Believing that their army would soon lose the war, the Japanese High Command ordered the prisoners to be relocated to another strategic base in Ranau, at the foothills of Gurung Kinabalu.
Over the three years many of the prisoners perished from either starvation, mistreatment or disease. By January 1945, only 1900 POWs were left alive at Sandakan — the ghosts of once robust soldiers.
Only the strongest including 470 Australian soldiers were selected to serve as porters on the arduous trek to northern Borneo. Wearing only a lap-lap or rags and trudging barefooted across the rugged terrain, the POWs were forced to carry heavy sacks of provisions, ammunition and equipment on the 17-day trek. Along the way they intersected 192 kilometres of dense jungle track and crocodile-infested swamps before scaling the impenetrable rainforest that clung to the eastern slope of Mount Kinabalu. The men were also issued with only four days of rations (a handful of rice and six cucumbers) and had to scrounge for food and medicine by trading their now meagre possessions with the villagers.
Any stragglers who dropped out of line were killed by the Japanese. As witnesses later described, bodies were strewn along the trail; many were found in the exact spots where they had collapsed and died. Of the 313 men who arrived in Ranau, all were too exhausted to march beyond the town.
The second death march took place four months later and of the 536 prisoners who began the trek, only 183 reached Ranau’s POW camp in late June. Like the Sandakan POW camp, conditions were just as inhumane and food was virtually non-existent. The selection process was simple — those that could stand would walk; any prisoner who tried to escape or collapsed would be shot. As a precaution, the now Sandakan camp commander, Captain Takakuwa Takuo had the POWs march off in groups of 50 men, with guards at the front, rear and flank.
As told to author, Don Wall by survivor and escapee, Private Keith Botterill from the 2/19th Battalion — men were shot and bayoneted to death because they failed to keep up with their battalion on the trail. The trek across Mt Kinabalu just 50 kilometres from Ranau saw five men shot because fatigue overwhelmed them. In turn, the young private maintained his pace by keeping in with the group.
I was heartbroken; but I thought there was safety in numbers, I just kept going,” he said. (Sandakan: The Last March).
Despite the enemy’s hardline position, two prisoners managed to escape with the help of local villagers and another four made their bid for freedom from the camp in Ranau with the help of a local teenager who found the men hiding in the jungles. After building a hut for them and bringing food supplies, the escapees which included Private Botterill, remained hidden until they were rescued by the Allies not long after the Japanese surrender. Those that remained at Ranau were ordered to march another 8.3 kilometres to a makeshift camp near the Kenipir River — in part, so their captors could prevent the napalm bombings that began to rain down on Borneo and to forestall the POWs from being liberated.
The 250 prisoners who were left behind at Sandakan were too ill to be moved. Initially, the Japanese intended to abandon the men knowing all would die of sickness and starvation. But as the Allied invasion known as ‘The Borneo Campaign’ quickly gained momentum the Japanese government did not want to leave any evidence of atrocities in their wake. The culling process began once again.
Selecting another group of 75 POWs, the third death march to Ranau commenced on June 9, 1945 though none of the men made it beyond a 30 kilometres track. Too feeble and weak to continue, they died where they fell — some of the guards bludgeoned the men with a rifle butt; others stabbed them with their bayonets. Several men saved their captors the trouble of raising their weapons by taking their last breath before they hit the ground.
The last major battle between the Japanese and Australian forces took place nearby at Balikpapan on July 1, 1945 but any hope of finding the remaining 38 prisoners at Ranau alive soon diminished. As witnesses to the horrific atrocities that occurred at both camps and on the death marches, the men became liabilities. At the beginning of August the men, each who endured nearly four years of brutal captivity, were unmercifully massacred.
The remaining 175 prisoners at Sandakan who were too frail to march either wasted away or were brutally murdered on the orders of Captain Takuo’s successor, Captain Hosijima Susumi — just days before the Empire of Japan formally surrendered on August 15, 1945.
By July 1945, only six Australian soldiers survived, all of whom had escaped from their captors.
According to a local Chinese witness at the 1946 war crimes tribunal, the last POW to perish at Sandakan was a soldier who, too sick and feeble to raise his arms and have his hands tied, was forced to kneel down in the muddy soil near a ravine before Sergeant-Major Murozumi. With a single stroke of the sword, the prisoner’s life ended.
The remaining six Australian survivors became material witnesses at Captain Hoshijima Susumi’s trial that same year. The sadistic camp commandant responsible for over 2300 deaths was convicted of war crimes and executed along with eight other Japanese officers on Labuan Island off the northwest coast of Borneo. A further 55 Japanese officers and guards were imprisoned.
At the time of his sentencing, Captain Takuo made the request to the Australian Ninth Division that they help him commit suicide with honour. They declined and the brutal officer was hanged as a war criminal.
After the surrender of the Japanese, many of the POWs’ remains were recovered and laid to rest at a military cemetery erected on the site of the Sandakan air strip. As the area was prone to flooding, the POW cemetery was later moved to the Labuan War Cemetery, a place shrouded in lush, tropical beauty and tranquillity.