'Found over sixty paybooks and various other articles'

Searching for the Sandakan POWs Borneo,
September-October 1945

Sandakan is today a large city on the north-east coast of the island of Borneo. In 1945 Borneo was still occupied by the Japanese, and at the end of the Pacific war in August, Australian units arrived in the Sandakan area to accept the surrender of the Japanese garrison. Just 16 kilometres out of Sandakan, in a north-westerly direction, was the Sandakan POW Camp. Here, between 1942 and 1945, the Japanese had at different times held over 2700 Australian and British prisoners. The POWs were brought from Singapore to Borneo to construct a military airfield close to the camp. By 15 August 1945, however, there were no POWs left at Sandakan Camp.

Captain G M Cocks & Lieutenant E K Robinson
Captain G M Cocks, 3 POW Contact and Enquiry Unit, at the
Sandakan POW Camp reading out the name and regimental number from a
pair of shorts belonging to a POW to Lieutenant E K Robinson. All the articles
shown here were found in the camp and bore the names and numbers of Australian
and British servicemen, most of whom died in the camp.  AWM121783

During October and November 1945, the camp site and some of the jungle area to the west was searched by Australian War Graves units and 3 POW Contact and Enquiry Unit. Similar searches were also conducted in the area of a small settlement called Ranau, 260 kilometres west of Sandakan, in the mountains close to north Borneo’s largest mountain, Mount Kinabalu. Eventually, searches were also made all along a jungle track, or rentis, which ran from near Sandakan, through low-lying river swamps and up into the mountains to Ranau. In these areas at various times between 1945 and 1947 were found the personal relics and bodily remains of over 2163 Australian and British POWs. The remains of a further 265 known to have been at Sandakan in early January 1945 were never found.

Sandakan camp itself was a burnt-out ruin. Careful excavation and searching uncovered hundreds of bodies at different burial locations. One Australian War Graves officer wrote of this work in the unit war diary:

25 September 1945--Was informed that a native who had worked in the PW compound for the Japs was willing to give information...his information was of the greatest importance. He said that in a certain part of the compound there was a place where there were mass burials, on receipt of this information I immediately went to the place and found that what the native said was true. At the daily conference I asked for and obtained 20 Japs [Japanese prisoners held at Sandakan awaiting repatriation to Japan] as a working party for the following day.

26 September 1945--Took out Jap working party to compound. On digging found ample evidence that it was a mass burial place. It is difficult to calculate the number but would say at a guess that it would be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 100-150 bodies. Went to No 2 cemetery where 24 graves appear to be too big for single burials. Several graves which were opened were found to contain as many as 5-8 bodies.

 

Captain R A Houghton
Captain R A Houghton, 23 Australian War Graves Unit, inspecting a
body in a grave at Sandakan POW Camp. AWM 120432

Some scattered personal items belonging to the POWs were also found at the camp. The war diarist of 23 Australian War Graves unit recorded:

22 September 1945--Spent all day at the PW compound searching for records and other articles that may have a bearing on identifying bodies. Found over sixty paybooks and various other articles bearing numbers and name.

The main items located at different places in the camp were service paybooks, identity disks and army-issue webbing such as haversacks and kit bags. The military badges showed the international origin of the Sandakan POWs--Australian Army hat and collar badges, along with badges from British and Imperial units such as the Gordon Highlanders, the Singapore Volunteer Force, Royal Army Medical Corps, the 17th Dogras (a British India Army unit), the Suffolk Regiment and many others. Other personal relics found included jackets, hairbrushes, mugs and eating utensils.

Perhaps the most poignant area to be searched was that which appeared to have been used by the POWs as a medical aid station. The final report of 3 POW Contact and Enquiry Unit described what was found there:

On 22 October Lieutenant Robertson located what would appear to have been the RAP [Regimental Aid Post], after the remainder of the camp had been destroyed. A large number of improvised stretchers were found under banana palms...The wreckage of a small atap hut was cleared, and items of medical stores found...No drugs of any kind were found. Used filthy bandages and dressings were scattered over the whole area. It is thought that this area is where the sick were concentrated when the compound was destroyed by fire, after the fit personnel left for Ranau.

Cemetery at Sandakan POW Camp
The AIF section of the No. 1 Cemetery at Sandakan POW Camp.
Thirty-eight of these graves were marked and identifiable.  AWM 120491

More bodies and similar personal items were found along the track to Ranau and at Ranau itself. Reports from the unit listed all items found and stated:

The items themselves have been parcelled and will be sent to Records, Melbourne, for further checking. All Paybooks and most of the other items have been damaged by weather and/or fire, and require very careful handling. Paybooks, and personal effects of PW, in a number of cases, found concentrated in small heaps, and in some cases covered over by blankets or sacking either for concealment or protection from the weather.

Typical of the few recovered remnants of the POWs’ presence at Sandakan are some items in the collection of the Australian War Memorial. These include six fire-damaged cigarette cases, two improvised smoking pipes, a shaving brush, a dixie lid used as a cooking utensil, a rosary and crucifix, and false teeth. All of these were found at the camp by 9 Military History Field Team.

Research has indicated that some 2428 Allied servicemen-- 1787 Australians and 641 British--held in the Sandakan Camp in January 1945 died between January and August 1945 in Japanese captivity. Private Ted Ings of Binalong was one of them. They perished at the Sandakan POW Camp, along the track to Ranau, and at Ranau itself. What brought about the deaths of so many prisoners so close to the Allied victory over Japan in August 1945?

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