I’d never heard of Sandakan before we began planning our visit to Malaysian Borneo. And shame on me for that. Of the 2434 prisoners incarcerated by the Japanese at Sandakan in North Borneo during World War II, 1787 were Australian. The remaining 641 were British. On the subsequent death marches from Sandakan to Ranau, the six Australians who escaped were the sole survivors.
World War II: Late 1941 and early 1942 saw the Japanese sweeping south with a series of victories in South East Asia. In February ’42, Singapore fell – it’s there where two thirds of captured troops were taken prisoner. The Japanese took a total of 132,000 Allied troops (including 50,000 British and 20,000 Australian) and 180,000 Asians as prisoners of war (POW).
These POW’s were transferred to a variety of locations – from the Thai-Burma railway to Korea, Taiwan, Manchuria and here to Sandakan, in North Borneo.
In July ’42 nearly 1500 Australian POW’s from B force were crammed into the three steel holds of the Yubi Maru and transferred by sea from Singapore to Sandakan over a 10 day journey. They were joined by British POWs of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Artillery and more Australians in March and April 1943. Their purpose, to build a military airfield.
The Japanese government might have signed the Geneva Convention, which forbids the use of POW’s on military projects, but they never ratified it.
That airfield is now Sandakan Airport.
The men were housed at a POW Camp, reached at the 8 mile turn off from Sandakan, in huts used originally for the British Agriculture Experimentation Station. The Batu 7 minibus now easily takes folks there from Sandakan centre. This was the 8 mile, or Sandakan POW Camp, where we now find the Sandakan War Memorial.
Initially conditions were (comparatively) good for the men. But, by July 1943 the Japanese had discovered an underground intelligence network and a secret radio. Torture and interrogation followed along with the execution of the POW and local collaborators. Most of the remaining Allied officers were transferred to Kuching. Conditions then deteriorated for the men, rations were cut, beatings increased.
In late 1944 Allied bombing raids caused a reduction in the individual rice ration provided by the Japanese. January 1945 saw it cease altogether, with the POW’s relying on just 85 grams a day per man, taken from accumulated stores they’d built up themselves. At this point only 1,900 men remained alive.
It was in this month that the Allies bombed and destroyed the airfield, leading to the Japanese decision to move west using the prisoners as porters. This was the first of three “Death Marches” – 455 of the fittest prisoners were force-marched 260 kilometres to Ranau in groups of 50. Most men had no boots. Those unable to continue on the march were shot or bayoneted by the side of the track.
A local man had been given the task of creating the track that was used. Unaware of its purpose he had routed it away from habitation, across the most difficult and inhospitable terrain, through the mountains.
Those who survived the first march arrived in Ranau in February 1945. They were then forced to carry 20 kilogram packs of rice back towards Paginatan, 20 kilometres back the way they had come. By early June 1945 only 18 were living. The 10 who could walk were moved again, the remaining 8 were shot.
A second march with 540 men left Sandakan on May 29th. When they arrived in Ranau only 6 men from the first group of 455 remained alive. In Ranau the POW’s were “surviving” on 70 grams of rice, polluted water from the Japanese camp and having to carry water and vegetables up to 30 kilometres a day. Dysentery took many men.
A third and final group, which comprised only 75 men set off from Sandakan in mid-June. They were never seen again.
It’s possible to walk part of the route now, with local experts and also Sandakan-Ranau experts from Australia.
Those unable to leave Sandakan – hospital patients in the main – had to fend for themselves, harder than ever as the Japanese had destroyed the camp in preparation for an Allied invasion. In Sandakan in July the 23 remaining men were taken to the airfield, shot and buried in a trench. The camp had been destroyed, there was no one left to bear witness.
At the beginning of August 1945, in Ranau, there remained 30 POWs alive, they were taken and killed. By the time of the Japanese unconditional surrender on August 15th 1945, of the 2434 interred at the Sandakan POW camp only 6 survived. All Australian.
Gunner Owen Campbell and Bombardier Richard Braithwaite escaped into the jungle during the second march. During July, Private Nelson Short, Warrant Officer William Sticpewich, Private Keith Botterill and Lance Bombardier William Moxham managed to escape from Ranau
Those whose bodies could be recovered are at interned at the Labuan Commonwealth War Cemetery.
The missing and those who cannot be identified are remembered at the memorials to the missing in Labuan and Singapore.
At the end of World War II nearly 16,000 Australian men were dead, some 50% of them as prisoners of war. More than a third of Australian POWs died. One quarter of them died at Sandakan-Ranau. 100% of the British men incarcerated here died.
And all at a place I’d never heard of, so now I know, this is lest I forget.
Don’t forget to book your buses, ferries and trains – and confirm your travel. Easybook have the largest network in South East Asia!
- Where we stayed in Sandakan – The Harbourside BackPackers
- What to Eat in Penang
- Our Guide Book in Malaysia is Lonely Planet Malaysia