Remembering the Sandakan Prisoner of War Camp and Death Marches
By Ned Young
An aerial perspective of the Sandakan Camp, taken from an Allied reconnaissance plane. The airstrips to the right of the camp, built by the prisoners, have recently been raided.
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It remains the single greatest atrocity committed against Australia in any war,[i] yet the Sandakan death marches are no way near as prevalent in the minds of Australians as the campaigns in Gallipoli or El Alamein.
After the Allies surrendered in Singapore in February 1942, thousands of Australian soldiers and nurses were captured as prisoners of war (POWs). The total number of Australians incarcerated by the Japanese from 1942-45 reached over 22,000. Originally, around 2,700[ii] Allied prisoners were sent to a camp in Sandakan on the east-coast of Borneo to build an airstrip.[iii] Lieutenant Rod Wells recalled his first impression of Sandakan as he arrived aboard the Ubi Maru[iv]:
“From the sea it’s lovely. With…red chalk hills…it really is very impressive. I suppose for a split moment we thought, with a sigh of relief, that here is some beautiful, peaceful land where there may not be any Japanese.”[v]
The relief Lieutenant Wells experienced on arrival was not completely misplaced. The conditions inside the camp were bearable to begin with. Prisoners were given plenty of food and worked for pay, earning 10 cents a day.[vi] A coconut, a banana and a turtle egg sold for a cent each at the prison canteen.[vii]
These tolerable conditions did not last long. When it was discovered in mid-1943 that the prisoners had access to a radio, and that they were conspiring with a local resistance organisation,[viii] the Japanese guards sought to eradicate any insubordination. Lieutenant Wells, Captain Lionel Matthews and other accomplices were arrested, starved and tortured.[ix] Captain Matthews, the leader of the operation, refused to implicate his second-in-command Wells, or any of their associates. He was sentenced to death and executed on the 2nd of March, 1944.[x] A ‘prince among men,’ Matthews was posthumously honoured with the George Cross.[xi]
Life became considerably more difficult inside the barbed-wire of Sandakan after this ordeal. The leader of the camp, Lieutenant Susumi Hoshijima (later made Captain), welcomed a batch of POWs arriving in late 1943 with the words:
“You will work until your bones rot under the tropical sun of Borneo. You will work for the Emperor. If any of you escape, I will pick out 3 or 4 and shoot them. The war will last for 100 years.”[xii]
Captain Susumi (centre) speaks to his defence council at the Labuan War Trials, 1946.
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One method of punishment used by the Japanese was simply known as the ‘cage’. Made of wood, it measured only 130cm by 170cm, barely high enough for a man to sit in.[xiii] There was no talking in the cage, and at night, no bedding or mosquito nets. The smallest of crimes, such as stealing rations, could see to a sentence of over a month in the cage. Private Keith Botterill spent 40 days inside:
“[There was] no water for the first 3 days. On the 3rd night they’d force you to drink till you were sick. For the first 7 days you got no food…Every evening we would get a bashing, which they used to call physical exercise.”
Knowing the cage prisoners were released at 5pm each night for a toilet break, the Japanese cooks would “feed the dogs the swill”[xiv] in a large trough and watch as the malnourished soldiers fought for the scraps.[xv]
In September 1944, the airstrip that the POWs had built began to be raided by the Allies.[xvi] By November, it was destroyed beyond repair, meaning the Japanese no longer had any use for the 2,000 or so remaining prisoners. From this point on, despite having more than enough rice to continue at the same quota, rations began to decrease exponentially. By January 1945, only 85 grams of rice a day was allocated to each man.[xvii]
Fearing an Allied attack was imminent at Sandakan, the Japanese decided to move the prisoners 260 kilometres westward to Ranau where they might make use of them as supply carriers.[xviii] Local herdsman were ordered by the Japanese to create a path through the jungle. The track was extremely difficult to traverse, with steep, narrow and slippery slopes.[xix]
On January 28th, the first wave of POWs, consisting of 455 men split into 9 groups,[xx] left Sandakan at gradual intervals. The guards on each ensuing march were tasked with disposing of the stragglers. Most were bare footed, wading through swamp and over a muddy bamboo walkway. They carried rations of rice, dried fish and salt, enough for just 4 days. Those who made it to Ranau did so in between 17 and 26 days.[xxi]
It seemed to be official, albeit unwritten, Japanese policy that no POW was to survive the war. Any man who was too sickly to continue marching was either shot or bayonetted to death; “once you stopped - you stopped for good.”[xxii] They received no burial. Their bodies were simply dragged a few meters into the jungle and the march continued. Approximately 195 of the 455 POWs survived the trek to Ranau. By April, a further 110 had died, either from exhaustion while on rice carrying duty between Ranau and Paginatan, or from illness and starvation at camp.[xxiii]
A second and third wave of marches followed, each more brutal than the last. A total of 885 POWs had already died at Sandakan prior to these marches. On the 29th of May, about 530 men left on the second march. 113 died within the first 8 days.[xxiv] Rations were almost non-existent and men were forced to eat snails and tree ferns.[xxv] A mere 183 of these POWs made it to Ranau.[xxvi] Only 75 men were capable of beginning the third march, leaving behind about 288 POWs,[xxvii] too sick to even stand, at Sandakan. It is not known exactly how the men of the third march died, but none of them reached Ranau.[xxviii]
For the 288 prisoners left at Sandakan, it was only a matter of time before they starved to death. The Sandakan Camp was evacuated and burnt following an Allied bombardment on the 27th of May.[xxix] Without any substantial shelter, the sick men died quickly. There were however around 90 POWs still alive by late June,[xxx] surviving in makeshift lean-tos and eating food smuggled to them by locals. In July, only 51 were left, and the Japanese saw to it that these men were not to survive. A young Chinese camp-worker, Wong Hiong, watched as the Japanese lead 23 POWs to the airstrip they had toiled on for 3 years. He heard shots, and later testified in court:
“I asked [the guards] what they had been shooting and they said ‘ducks’. I asked them how many they had shot and they said 23.”[xxxi]
No. 1 Compound at the Sandakan Camp. It was burnt out by the Japanese after the final death march.
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Wong Hiong was also witness to the last death at the Sandakan Camp. Watching from atop a tree some distance away, he saw a tall Australian man, emaciated and covered in ulcers, being dragged away from camp by guards. He was too weak to resist as a cloth was tied over his eyes. He said nothing. His hands were not tied. He was made to kneel down as Sergeant Major Hisao Murozumi drew his sword. In Hiong’s own words, he “cut his head off with one sword stroke.”[xxxii] He died on the 15th of August,[xxxiii] the same day Emperor Hirohito announced that the war was over and Japan was surrendering.
In Ranau, conditions were just as harrowing. Soldiers died at an estimated rate of seven per day.[xxxiv] By the time the second march arrived, only 6 of the 195 prisoners that reached Ranau on the first march were alive. There was no accommodation available, so after working for hours during the heat of the day for the Japanese, the stronger of the prisoners built a hut from bamboo. When it was complete, most were too sick to climb into its elevated floor space, and simply crawled underneath for protection against the rain.[xxxv]
In August, knowing the end of the war was near, the Japanese put the remaining men to death. Unable to walk, they were either carried or forced to crawl up a hill to a graveyard.[xxxvi] There, they were allegedly offered water and tobacco before being shot. Tragically, strong evidence suggests this execution occurred 12 days after the official Japanese surrender.[xxxvii]
There were approximately 2,000 POWs alive at Sandakan when the first march embarked on January 28th.[xxxviii] On August 27th, thought to be the day the final Ranau prisoners were killed, there were only 6.[xxxix] Risking savage torture from their captors if rediscovered, these 6 had escaped either while on the march or at the camp in Ranau. Their names were Private Keith Botterill, Private Nelson Short, Gunner Owen Campbell, Lance Bombardier William Moxham, Warrant Officer William Sticpewich and Bombardier James Braithwaite.[xl] The stories of their escape are remarkable.
Left to right: Private Nelson Short, Warrant Officer William Sticpewich, Private Kieth Botterill.
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Botterill, Short and Moxham escaped Ranau on the 7th of July, and were hidden in a nearby village by a local man named Bariga.[xli] In constant fear Bariga would hand them over to the Japanese for a reward, and too sick to move elsewhere, they had no choice but to hope that Allied help was on its way. Eventually they were lead into the jungle by Bariga and were found by the Australian Z Force:
“[We] cried. They all cried. It was wonderful. I’ll never forget it. We all sat down and had a cup of tea together.”[xlii]
In the same vein, Sticpewich escaped Ranau and managed to avoid recapture with the help of local man Dihil bin Ambilid. Dihil refused to betray Sticpewich, leading Allied soldiers to his hideout despite the heavy presence of Japanese.[xliii]
Campbell escaped during the second death march to Ranau. He and a group of 4 others slid down a 61 meter embankment when first out of sight of the guards. Together they advanced towards the coast. When he could no longer walk, Campbell elected to stay with the sick Private Edward Skinner while the other 3 pressed on.[xliv] Campbell returned the next morning from food gathering to find Skinner dead; he had taken his own life so that Campbell was not held back any further.[xlv] He caught up to the remaining trio, and together they hailed down what they thought was a local man’s canoe. The canoe was instead manned by a Japanese soldier, who shot 2 of the others dead.[xlvi] Campbell’s last remaining companion, Private Keith Costin, died of his diseases a few days later. Alone and fearing death, Campbell followed a wild boar toward a river, where he was found by natives who transferred him to an Australian Service Reconnaissance Department camped downstream.[xlvii]
Finally Braithwaite, also a member of the second death march, knew that certain slaughter awaited him at Ranau. He managed to slip behind a fallen log while the guards were not looking and hid there until nightfall.[xlviii] Riddled with malaria, he eventually made it to the Lubok River where he was helped by locals. Stowed under banana leaves, Braithwaite was paddled upstream for 20 hours[xlix] and handed over to Allied forces operating on Liberan Island. Braithwaite recalls speaking to an Australian Colonel, who told him that there were plans in place to rescue the remaining prisoners:
“I remember this so vividly. I just rolled on my side in the bunk, faced the wall, and cried like a baby…‘You’ll be too late.’’’[l]
There were in fact plans in place to rescue the POWs while they were all still in Sandakan. Referred to as Project Kingfisher,[li] the reason it was never implemented remains disputable. Regardless, it is heartbreaking to think that 2,000 lives could have been saved if such a plan was executed.
The horrors that the POWs in Sandakan endured may never have surfaced if it were not for the bravery and willpower of these 6 men. They each testified in the War Trials on Labuan,[lii] providing eye-witness evidence against their tormentors. At the conclusion of the trials, 8 Japanese camp commanders were sentenced to death. A further 55 Japanese were imprisoned.[liii]
The brief accounts of heroism I mentioned in this piece do not begin to do justice to the courage of every man who suffered at Sandakan. There are many more stories of extreme bravery and extreme cruelty at the Sandakan Camp that deserve to be remembered, and undoubtedly there are hundreds more that will never be told. It is hard to fathom the atrocities the men at Sandakan experienced. Though we will never understand fully what they endured, we can commemorate their sacrifice today - 75 years after the first death march.
[i] Awm.gov.au (2020), Stolen Years: Australian prisoners of war | The Australian War Memorial, [online].
[ii] Silver, L and Yau Kong, T (2018), Sandakan-Ranau Death March (1942 - 1945), [online].
[iii] Awm.gov.au (2020), Stolen Years: Australian prisoners of war | The Australian War Memorial, [online].
[iv] A large Japanese transport ship.
[v] Reid, R (1999), Laden, fevered, starved, Commonwealth Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs, Canberra, p 17.
[vi] Ibid, p 18.
[viii] Silver, L and Yau Kong, T (2018), Sandakan-Ranau Death March (1942 - 1945), [online].
[ix] R. E. Cowley (2000), 'Matthews, Lionel Colin (1912–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, [online].
[xii] Wikipedia, I assume from Richard Reid POW.
[xiii] Reid, R (1999), Laden, fevered, starved, Commonwealth Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs, Canberra, p 19.
[xiv] Kitchen refuse and scraps of waste food mixed with water for feeding to pigs.
[xv] Reid, R (1999), Laden, fevered, starved, Commonwealth Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs, Canberra, p 21.
[xvi] Ibid, p 22.
[xviii] Ibid, p 23.
[xx] Silver, L and Yau Kong, T (2018), Sandakan-Ranau Death March (1942 - 1945), [online].
[xxi] Reid, R (1999), Laden, fevered, starved, Commonwealth Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs, Canberra, p 23.
[xxii] Ibid, p 29, words of Private William Dick Moxham, 2/15th Aus Field Reg.
[xxiii] Ibid, p 30.
[xxiv] Ibid, p 38.
[xxvii] Ibid, p 41.
[xxx] Ibid, p 42.
[xxxii] Ibid, p 44.
[xxxiv] Ibid, p 47.
[xxxv] Ibid, p 48.
[xxxvii] Ibid, p 49.
[xxxviii] Awm.gov.au (2020), Stolen Years: Australian prisoners of war | The Australian War Memorial, [online].
[xxxix] Silver, L and Yau Kong, T (2018), Sandakan-Ranau Death March (1942 - 1945), [online].
[xl] Reid, R (1999), Laden, fevered, starved, Commonwealth Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs, Canberra, p 59.
[xli] Ibid, p 63.
[xlii] Ibid, p 64.
[xliii] Ibid, p 65.
[xliv] Ibid, p 60.
[xlviii] Ibid, p 62.
[xlix] Ibid, p 63.
[li] Moffitt, A (1989), Project Kingfisher, Sydney.
[lii] Fitzpatrick, G (2016), Australia’s War Crimes Trials 1945-51, Brill Publishers, Lieden.