Sandakan and the Death Marches, 1942-1945
Imagine this. It is May 1945. Clad only in ragged loin-cloths, over 500 skeletal creatures, barely recognisable as human, struggle to their feet at the Sandakan POW Compound, on Sabah’s north-east coast. Three long years in captivity, half of them on starvation rations and with little or no medical attention, have taken their toll. The grimy, wasted bodies of these once fit and strapping Australian and British servicemen are covered in sores and scabies, their filthy hair and beards matted and lice-infested. Many are suffering from tropical ulcers, some so large that shin bones are clearly visible. Others, bloated from beriberi, lumber along on sausage-like legs. They are bound for Ranau, a small village on the flanks of Mt Kinabalu, South East Asia’s highest peak, situated 250 kilometres away to the west, in the rugged Borneo jungle interior.
Most universally the POW’s under the Japanese experienced privation hard labour, brutality, appalling living Conditions and Death. POW’s were bashed by the guards, suffered from starvation and resultant killer diseases and sometimes murder.
By the end of the war in 1945 over 8000 more than a third of Australian prisoners of the Japanese were dead. This represented nearly half the total deaths of the Australians in the Pacific War.
Of the 8000 dead, nearly one quarter died here in Sandakan on the Sandakan Death Marches or at Ranau.
Why were the POWs in Sandakan?
All were members of a 2700-strong Allied contingent transferred to Sandakan by the Japanese in 1942-43, following Singapore’s fall. The POW’s task was to construct a military airfield, using not much more than their bare hands.
For the first twelve months or so, conditions at Sandakan were tolerable. However, in mid 1943 the Japanese discovered that the POWs not only had a radio but were in league with a local resistance organisation. The kempei-tai, or secret police, swooped. Arrests and transfers followed. Discipline at Sandakan was tightened considerably and life became much more difficult for the remaining 2,434 prisoners.
Why were they marching to Ranau?
As the war ground on, conditions deteriorated. In late January 1945 the Japanese decided to move 455 of the fittest prisoners to Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu) to act as coolie labourers – only to halt them at Ranau, owing to Allied air activity on the west coast. At the end of May, there was a second march from Sandakan and in mid-June a third, comprised of only 75 men.
As both sea and air were under the complete control of the Allies, a track had been cut through the mountains, linking existing bridle-trails. Unaware that it was to be used by POWs, the local headmen given the task of creating this track had deliberately routed it away from any habitation, across the most inhospitable and difficult terrain possible.
There was no medical assistance and little food. Anyone who could not keep up was ‘disposed of despite this, about half the prisoners completed the march, only to die at Ranau from illness, malnutrition and ill-treatment by their captors. Two Australians managed to escape in the early stages of the second march with the help of villagers, and four more successfully escaped from Ranau into the jungle, where they were cared for by local people.
What happened to the rest of Sandakan’s prisoners?
Back at Sandakan, 200 prisoners unable undertake the second and third marches also died, bringing the death toll there to about 1400. Of the 1000-odd prisoners who left on the death marches, about half died in the attempt. The rest died at their destination.
The story of Sandakan and the death marches is one of the most tragic of World War Two. It is also one of the most heroic. Despite appalling conditions, the prisoners never gave up. Their heroism, their determination and their indomitable spirit are testimony to the strength of the human spirit and an inspiration to all. Of the 2434 prisoners incarcerated at Sandakan, 1787 were Australian. The remaining 641 were British. The six Australians who escaped were the sole survivors.
Re-tracing the Sandakan Death March Track
The track cut for the death marches soon became completely overgrown and for sixty years defied all efforts to locate it. However, in August 2006 investigations were taken to identify the path taken by the prisoners of war. After sixty years, you too can now walk in the footsteps of the Death March heroes.
Trekking tours cover the last 140 km of the route across the mountains, of which about 100 km involves actual walking. This is by far the most interesting, scenic and challenging section. The first 100 km, from Sandakan to Bauto, is no longer forested, and has been heavily planted with oil palms. The track through this section consists of often muddy estate roads, which have obliterated all traces of the original path.
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.
Significant points on the track
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 then 16 POW’s were executed by Abe’s squad.
Sandakan -Last prisoner dies…
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.