The Pow’s Speak About Their Experiences On The Sandakan Death March Track

The Pow’s Speak About Their Experiences On The Sandakan Death March Track

“All the way along the Sandakan Death March track, we smelt and saw bodies. They were Australian soldier’s bodies from the prisoner’s marches. We could recognise them- some we new personally…

In all my dealings with the Japanese. I have never seen anyone of our chaps after they have been left with the Japs. Once you stopped, you stopped for good.”

“I’d deliberately get out of bed of a morning, off my bunk and I’d go out to aggravate them in some way or other. I never ever let the Japanese beat me, in my mind. Because they beat me bodily, but they never broke my nerve or my heart.”

“Hoshijma, Gave a speech to us he said that we’d come there to build an aerodrome… And the war would go on a hundred years, and we would work until our bones rotted under the tropical sun in Borneo.”

“No one can imagine the filth and the death rate that occurred during the days spent in this cesspool. Mud was ankle deep, sick men were lying about unable to move in their own filth.”

“We picked the moment when we knew death was imminent, a sure thing in a couple of days and there was no option left. Die in the camp or die in the jungle, so we just decided there and then to go.”

“After I reached allied forces an Australian Colonel came to me and said….we’re going to look for your friends. And I remember this so vividly, that I just rolled on my side in the bunk and faced the wall and cried like a baby and said… you’ll be too late. And it was, for most.”

“When I was in the swamp and I thought I was lost and finished. I sat on this log and it was so murky that I couldn’t see 20 yards away and snakes and scorpions and centipedes were all over the place .And I, I’ll never get out of here and I don’t know which way to go. I’ve lost all direction and didn’t know how I’d got in there and it was thick, thorny undergrowth.

And all of a sudden I thought why are you thinking this way? You’re not going to die here in this place. And suddenly I became angry and I got up and blindly charged this thorny jungle and ripped my way through it, until I could see the sun again. And from there of course I was able to get some sort of directional idea.

At the base of Boto (Bauto) Hill was an Australian Camp. Australian POW’s were left there; two POW’s were shot and killed.

The Japanese had a killing squad led by Lieutenant Abe Kazuo, there job was to make sure that no POW survived if he was unable to go.

If they came upon POW’s who had fallen out of other groups, but were clinging to life when the killing squads came through they were to dispose of them.

More than 16 POW’s were executed by Abe’s squad.

One morning at 7am, he was taken to a place, where there was a trench like a drain.

Fifteen Japanese with spades were already at the spot. Sergeant Major Hisao Murozumi made the man kneel down and tied a black cloth over his eyes.

The prisoner did not say anything or make a protest. He was so weak that his hands were tied. Murozumi cut his head off with one sword stroke.

Murozumi pushed the body into the drain with his feet. The head had dropped into the drain. The other Japanese threw in some dirt covered the remains and returned to camp.

This last POW died at Sandakan Camp on the day the Emperor of Japan broadcast to his people that the war was over and that Japan was surrendering.

On Taviu Hill which is about 30 miles from Ranau, 5 men in Keith Botterill’s group 3 were shot on the hill, just because they could not continue on.

It was very dense jungle, of the 50 men who had started out in Botterill’s group only 37 reached Ranau. The men had a small amount of rice and six cucumbers between them.

The men on Botterill’s walk simply died of exhaustion and disease; others unable to go on were shot or sometimes beaten to death.

If blokes could not go on, we shook hands with them, and said you know hope everything is all right, but they knew what was going to happen. There was nothing you could do. You just had to keep going, more or less survival of the fittest. It was a one way trip when we started to hear shots and you felt there was no hope for anyone who fell out.

I thought there was safety in numbers, I just kept going.

Rice carrying parties operated between Paginatan and Ranau. The purpose of these parties was to take rice and supplies back to Paginatan for subsequent POW and Japanese groups making the trek from Sandakan.

195 POW’s had made it through to Ranau from these first groups, by April 1 another 89 had died at the camp and another 21 on rice carrying parties.

These rice carrying trips took 9 days. Most of the men who died on these trips were either shot or bayoneted to death for their inability to walk any further.

Keith Botterill went on all 6 journeys and recalled.

No effort whatsoever was made to bury the dead. They would just pull them five to fifteen yards off the track and bayonet them or shoot them depending on their condition. If they were conscious and it was what we thought was a good kind guard, they would shoot them. There was nothing we could do.

Nearly all the guards ill-treated us. There were frequent bashings with rifle butts and boots of weak and sick men.

At one point I was put in what they called the ‘cage’ for 40 days and nights. The ‘cage’ was about 20 feet long, 10 feet wide and only 5 feet high so you couldn’t stand up in it. You were not allowed to wash or shave and I was seven days without food. We were taken out of the cage each day for ‘PT’ [physical training] – a severe bashing! I remember Private Annear died after three months in the ‘cage’.

(Keith Botterill Australian Prisoner)

After January 1945 things got very bad. Our rations were severely reduced and at the finish some men ate frogs, slugs and even rats. Our death rate shot up and I think in February 212 died. In six months we lost 600 men from starvation and disease – beri beri, malaria and tropical ulcers.

(James Braithwaite Australian Prisoner)

Buckman of the 2/10th Field Regiment, just died from exhaustion and exposure; he couldn’t go any further. He stopped about two miles from camp at Paginatan. Four of us went back to get him and bring him in but he died next morning and we buried him there. Tom Coughlan, of the 2/15th Field Regiment, also dropped out. The guards wouldn’t let us go back for him. They went back for him though – a good way back. I suppose they shot him.
(Dick Moxham Australian Prisoner)

We used to help the weak by carrying them back to camp. Private Shear (Sheard) couldn’t go any further and they shot him. I remember him lying on the ground, putting his hands up and calling out ‘Don’t shoot me’. They shot him anyway. Corporal Alberts was bayoneted on the ground. I personally witnessed both these deaths on rice carrying parties between Paginatan and Ranau.
(Keith Botterill Australian Prisoner)

At the Japanese guardhouse at Ranau Cleary, who had tried to escape, was tied up by a chain to a post. He was beaten and starved for over two weeks. Eventually he was tied up there naked. When we were allowed to take him down and into a hut he died ten minutes later.
(Keith Botterill Australian Prisoner)

We were about a week out of Ranau crossing this large mountain when Humphreys could go no further. He was suffering from malaria, beri beri and dysentery. He was shot by a Japanese sergeant. We lost five men on that hill.
(Keith Botterill Australian Prisoner)

Rod Wells
The interviewer produced a small piece of wood like a meat skewer, pushed that into my left ear, and tapped it in with a small hammer. I think I fainted some time after it went through the drum. I remember the last excruciating sort of pain, and I must have gone out for some time because I was revived with a bucket of water. Eventually it healed but of course I couldn’t hear with it. I have never been able to hear since.
Lieutenant Rod Wells, describing torture by the Kenpeitai in Sandakan, 1943

Lieutenant Rod Wells, a 23-year-old school teacher, helped Lionel Matthews build a radio at Sandakan. Matthews and Wells were arrested and interrogated by the Kenpeitai, the Japanese secret police.
After four months of brutal interrogation, Wells and eighteen others were sent to the notorious Outram Road Gaol in Singapore. Though subjected to a ferocious regime of starvation and beatings, Wells survived; however, almost all the men he had known in Sandakan perished in the death marches.

Albert Cleary
By March 1945 the first of the prisoners forced to march through the Borneo jungle from Sandakan had reached Ranau. Every day more sick and starving prisoners died. Gunner Albert Cleary, a young man from Geelong, tried to escape into the jungle. Recaptured after a week, he was beaten and tied to a log. For eleven days guards beat him, spat and urinated on him. “If you escape the same thing will happen to you”, a Japanese officer warned.
At last, when he was close to death, the prisoners were allowed to free him. They carried him to a creek, washed and placed him in a hut, where he died. A memorial now stands on the spot where Cleary was tied up.

Richard Murray
By May 1945 only about thirty prisoners remained alive at Ranau. Two men, Privates Richard Murray and Keith Botterill, stole rice from the Japanese to build up food stocks for an escape. When the theft was discovered, Murray stepped forward to take responsibility, knowing that he would be killed. He was bayoneted and his body thrown into a bomb crater at Ranau on 20 May 1945. He is buried in Labuan war cemetery. Murray sacrificed his life to save his mate, Keith Botterill, who became one of the six survivors of the Sandakan death march.

On 7 June 1945 Gunner Owen Campbell and four other POWs escaped from the second march of Australian and British POWs from Sandakan to Ranau. The following account of their experiences is taken from a statement Campbell made after his rescue.

7 JUNE 1945
Allied planes came over. While the Japanese guards hid Ted Emmet, Sig Webber, Jack Austin,Gunner Leslie Hotston, Ted Skinner and I escaped into the jungle. We took along 12 tins of rice, six tins of salmon and some dried fish – all stolen from the Japanese. We also had some fish lines and a compass which Emmet had kept since our capture at Singapore in 1942.

Managed a couple of miles heading for the coast.

I had malaria so we rested.

Pushed on but Ted Skinner got dysentery so we decided to camp for a couple of days to let him recover.

I was pretty sick with beri beri and stayed with Ted. Emmet, Webber and Austin pressed on to the coast.

12 – 15 JUNE (approx)
I stayed with Ted.

I went to get some water and fish. When I came back I found Ted with his throat cut. I buried him there.

I came to a river and found Austin Hotston , crook with dysentery and malaria, sheltering under a blanket. Webber and Emmet were fishing nearby. We decided to ask any Malays we saw for help. We heard some Malayans on a boat in the river and Emmet and Webber went off to hail them.

As the boat approached a Jap stood up from the bottom of the boat and fired four shots killing both Emmet and Webber. It was so quick they had no chance and fell in the river. I was so far behind them I was not seen, so I escaped and went back to Jack Austin.

19 – 21 JUNE
I stayed with Jack and we lived on fish, which I caught from the river, and fungus which grows on the trees there. Jack was getting very weak at this stage and he died on the evening of 21 June. I buried him as best I could.

22 JUNE – 3 JULY
For eleven days I pushed on alone.

On the first day I swam across a wide river on a log. A Jap saw me and fired at me, hitting me on the wrist. I managed to make the shore as the Jap continued to fire at me.

After about the fourth day I became delirious and began to think my mates were back with me. I talked to them.

3 JULY – 24 July
I was picked up by two natives near a spot where about 100 Japanese were camped. They took me to their house and hid me. They gave me a bath and then I was taken inland to another native camp, where I was looked after for about 6 days. Eventually the natives had to pull out as the Japanese were active in the area.

After going for about 3 miles through the jungle we came to a river and travelled down it for about 3 days in a canoe until we reached the coast and headed up another river. After about 7 hours paddling we reached the SRD camp of Lieutenant Hollingsworth where I stayed for 3 or 4 days with malaria.

Eventually I was taken out to sea, picked up by a flying boat, and taken to the American aircraft carrier USS Pocomoke.

(Adapted from Statement by Gunner Campbell, 2/10th Field Regiment, 21 August 1945, 1010/4/27, AWM 54)

On 3 July 1945 Gunner Owen Campbell, after having wandered delirious for days in the jungle, approached a river where he saw a small canoe. Probably close to death, he had little option but to take the chance of calling out to the men in the canoe: two natives, Gulunting and Lap, from Kampong Muanad. Gulunting describes what happened.

In July 1945 Lap and I went out to look after our fish traps. We were using a small ‘gobang’ (canoe). Whilst we were so occupied Jap boats were passing so we hid in a small stream whilst they went past. After we knew they had gone we ventured into the main stream and searched for more of our traps. We had not gone far when I heard someone calling ‘abang’ (elder brother). I looked at the man and saw that he was practically naked. We approached him and he commenced to faint. I got hold of him and carried him into the boat. We then went up river to our camp and took him there. I carried him to my hut where the was provided with trousers and shirt and food. He was at Muanad for ten days when Salium and Ambiau came to fetch him… He gave me this compass MK VI 5226 as a memento. I know now that his name was Gunner Campbell of the Australian Army.

(Statement made to Major H W S Jackson by Gulunting of Kampong Sapi, at Beluran, North Borneo, 12 January 1947, papers of Lieutenant Colonel W S Jackson, item 9, part 1, PR 84/231, AWM)

After 13 July there were only about 30 prisoners left. For food we gave these men some kan kong, tapioca and coconuts. Initially we did give them a little rice but this soon stopped. We did no cooking for the prisoners. Some of them were able to crawl about caring for the very sick. They died from lack of care and starvation and the last one died on 15 August 1945.
(Yoshitaro Goto Japanese Guard)

Before we left Sandakan Captain Yamamoto talked to all the officers and sergeant majors about how we should behave on the march. It was to be done as quickly as possible and no one was to be left behind. It would be difficult as the prisoners were sick. Any prisoner who could not walk was to be carried by the healthy prisoners on a stretcher and, if they could not do it, then the Japanese guards must help. He made no mention of disposing of prisoners who could not keep up.
(Takeo Ito Japanese Guard)

During the march many prisoners fell out and were left behind at camps. In the rear of the march there was a special three guard section commanded by Sergeant Major Tsuji and I took my turn in this party three or four times. I guarded prisoners who fell out while the other POWs went past and then handed them over to Tsuji’s party who disposed of them.

I saw five POWs being taken away into the jungle after which I heard shots. When we reached camp that night the guards were talking about the killings and about the guards who had carried them out. Guards were forced to kill under the orders of Lieutenant Wantanabe and Sergeant Major Tsuji.
(Ryoichi Nakano Japanese Guard)

There was an order to send 23 more prisoners to Ranau. The truth, however, is that on 13 July we took them out to the airport to a deep air raid shelter. We lined them up and all of us fired at them. Any that were not killed by the first shot we fired at again until they were all dead. Then we dragged their bodies to a hole and covered it up.

As the last lot of prisoners died at the camp the Javanese came in and buried them. When all were dead we burnt everything and left.
(Yoshinori Nishikawa Japanese Guard)


I climbed up a rubber tree and saw them kill the last surviving prisoner in August 1945. He was tall, thin and naked except for a loin cloth. He was made to kneel down beside a drain and then, after he had been blindfolded, his head was cut off with one sword stroke. The body was pushed into a drain and covered with earth.
(Umulang, local villager)

On 12 February I saw an Australian POW being shot by Japanese guards near Muanad. This was Sapper L J Haye. His dixie was later recovered by an Australian search team. (Kulang Orang Tuan, local villager)
In 1945 I saw a number of Japanese officers and other ranks taking large groups of prisoners along the rentis in the direction of Boto. One lot took a party of 80 in May, another lot a party of 140 in June and a third lot took another 80 in July. All the Japanese officers came back but I never saw any of the white POWs return.
(Local villager)

Was guided to two bodies today by a local informant. He was an eyewitness to both these murders which took place late February or early March 1945 on the first march. My informant tells me he could identify the Japanese guards who killed the POWs from photographs. First, he says, they shot the prisoners through the head then kicked them until they were still. After robbing them of all their gear the bodies were thrown down a bank.
(Lieutenant W H Sticpewich, Search Party, 31 Australian War Graves Unit 21 May 1947)

When the last march left in May the Japanese burnt the camp down although there were still prisoners there. They lived in the open at No 2 Compound. They were very sick and about 12 died every day. I went into the camp in August to bring in food but I found only 5 prisoners left alive. They said they had not eaten for a week.

I remember about the end of June, after the last march had left, two truckloads of prisoners were taken away. Those trucks came back empty.
(Local villager who worked at the prison camp)


On 20 October 1945, under the supervision of Captain Houghton, 23 Australian War Graves Unit, some slit trenches in No 1 Compound were opened. We found many bodies of prisoners piled one on top of another. There are perhaps 250 to 300 bodies in this area. Only one set of identity discs was found belonging to R F Irving. From the state of decomposition of the bodies Lieutenant Colonel Johnston, 2/13th Field Ambulance, estimated they had been in the ground for four to five months.
(Captain G M Cocks, 3rd Australian Prisoner of War and Enquiry Unit)

We located a body on a flat piece of ground in a bamboo grove. Here was the usual evidence of murder – four spent rounds and an Australian felt hat.
(Lieutenant W H Sticpewich, Search Party, 31 Australian War Graves Unit 19 May 1947)

No 1 Cemetery contains 661 graves. 75 are Australian, of which 38 have crosses with personal details. One big plot contains 400 graves with nothing that identifies any who are buried there. 78 graves are marked with numbers suggesting that some sort of cemetery plan exists but nothing has yet been found among Japanese documents.

In No 2 Cemetery there are 253 graves, but, there may be many more buried there than this number suggests. When 24 graves in one row were opened we found on digging down that there was more than one body per grave. Some contained 8 bodies. There were 80 British graves all marked with personal details.
(Captain L C Darling, Prisoner of War Liaison Officer, Headquarters, 9th Australian Division)

On 20 October 1945, under the supervision of Captain Houghton, 23 Australian War Graves Unit, some slit trenches in No 1 Compound were opened. We found many bodies of prisoners piled one on top of another. There are perhaps 250 to 300 bodies in this area. Only one set of identity discs was found belonging to R F Irving. From the state of decomposition of the bodies Lieutenant Colonel Johnston, 2/13th Field Ambulance, estimated they had been in the ground for four to five months.
(Captain G M Cocks, 3rd Australian Prisoner of War and Enquiry Unit)