understanding wwii in borneo sandakan to ranau

Sandakan to Ranau Death March: Only Six Came Home

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, 1793 were Australian and the remaining 641 were British. On the subsequent death marches from Sandakan to Ranau, the six Australians who escaped were the sole survivors. Here’s where to learn more about this and how to see the Memorial Park in Sandakan.


Background to the Sandakan Ranau Death March

In 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 POWs were transferred to a variety of locations – from the Thai-Burma railway to Korea, Taiwan, and Manchuria, and here to Sandakan, in North Borneo.

In July ’42 nearly 1500 Australian POWs 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, the Royal Artillery, and more Australians in March and April 1943. Their purpose was to build a military airfield. The Japanese government might have signed the Geneva Convention, which forbids the use of POWs on military projects, but they never ratified it. That airfield is now Sandakan Airport.

Allied POWs in Sandakan

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 takes folks there from Sandakan Center.  This was the 8 mile, or Sandakan POW Camp, where we now find the Sandakan War Memorial.

Sandakan Ranau Memorial Park

The Allied POW Camp in Sandakan

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 POW’s and local collaborators. Most of the remaining Allied officers were transferred to Kuching. Conditions then deteriorated for the men, rations were cut, and 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 POWs 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.

The Sandakan – Ranau Death Marches

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 kilometers (161 miles) 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.

Creating the Route of the Sandakan to Ranau Death March

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.

Sandakan Ranau Route Dept Veterans Affairs

The First Sandakan to Ranau Death March

Those who survived the first march arrived in Ranau in February 1945. They were then forced to carry 20-kilogram (44 pounds) packs of rice back towards Paginatan, 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) back the way they had come.

By early June 1945, only 18 men remained alive.

The 10 who could walk were moved again.

The remaining 8 were shot.

The Second Sandakan to Ranau Death March

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 POWs were “surviving” on 70 grams (0.15 pounds) of rice, polluted water from the Japanese camp, whilst having to carry water and vegetables up to 30 kilometers (18.64 miles) a day.

Dysentery took many men.

The Third Sandakan to Ranau Death March

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.

POWs who remained in Sandakan

Those unable to leave Sandakan – hospital patients in the main – had to fend for themselves, now 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.

Sandakan Ranau Death March Route

At the beginning of August 1945, in Ranau, there remained 30 POWs alive, they were taken and killed.

Those whose bodies could be recovered are interned at the Labuan Commonwealth War Cemetery. We paid our respects when we visited Labuan (more here).

The missing and those who cannot be identified are remembered at the memorials to the missing in Labuan and Singapore.

Labuan Memorial Cemetery

The 6 survivors of the Sandakan to Ranau Death March

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 were Australian.

Gunner Owen Campbell and Bombardier Richard Braithwaite had 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.

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.

Sandakan Memorial

Our travels through South East Asia have taken us to many places associated with WWII that are moving and that we remember every day. There’s Kota Bharu, where the Japanese first landed in Malaysia, and there’s Labuan Island, where the peace accord was signed. The Sandakan – Ranau death march can be celebrated by the fact that 6 men escaped the march from Sandakan. Of course, Hellfire Pass and Kanchanaburi too on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. We visited, too, the Myanmar side of the railway at Thanbyuzyat. We explored Fortress Singapore. We saw one of the Japanese trains that ran on the death railway in Tokyo.

Malaysia Travel Tips

Final Words on the Sandakan Ranau Death March

The Memorial Park at Sandakan remembers those more than 2000 men who died either in the prisoner of war camp here or on the death marches from Sandakan to Ranau. It’s a somber yet peaceful place and worth the time to get here.

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