'We are well. We are happy. We are well fed'

Sandakan POW Camp, 1942-1944

After the fall of Singapore in February 1942, numbers of Allied POWs--Australian and British--were brought progressively to Sandakan. The first large group of Australians--about 1500 men--to arrive from Singapore was ‘B’ Force. They steamed along the east coast of Borneo on the Ubi Maru and arrived at Sandakan on 17 July 1942. Lieutenant Rod Wells thought the scenery beautiful:

From the sea it’s lovely. With the red chalk hills on the side of Berhala Island it really is very impressive. I suppose for a split moment we thought, with a sigh of relief, that here’s some beautiful, peaceful land where there may not be any Japanese.

Once ashore, the Japanese marched them to Sandakan POW Camp, which was under the command of Captain Hoshijima Susumi. In April 1943, ‘B’ Force was joined by 776 British POWs and, between April and June, by another group of 500 Australian prisoners--’E’ Force.

Captain Hosijima Susumi
Captain Hosijima Susumi (centre), Commandant, Sandakan POW Camp,
1942-1945, talking with his defence counsel outside the courtroom
where he is being tried for war crimes at Labuan, January 1946. AWM 133913

The POWs were brought to Sandakan to build two military airstrips and their service roads and dispersal pens. Each day at 7.30am, work details left the camp for the airfield where they cleared and burnt off scrub, filled in swamps, dug gravel, and pushed trucks along a light railway to where the gravel was dumped for levelling. At 5.30 pm they marched back to camp. In the early days this life was almost bearable. Private Keith Botterill, 2/19th Battalion, remembers:

We had it easy the first twelve months. I reckon only half a dozen died at the top...Sure we had to work on the drome, we used to get flogged, but we had plenty of food and cigarettes...We actually had a canteen in the prison camp. We were getting ten cents a day...I think a coconut was about one cent, and a turtle egg one cent...And a fair sized banana went for a cent...It was a good camp.

Concerts were held and one of the best entertainers was Private Nelson Short, 2/18th Battalion, who composed songs. Short adopted the popular Irish-Australian song Ireland Over Here to their situation at Singapore and at Sandakan:

If the Harbour Bridge was spanned across the causeway
And old Fremantle came to Singapore
If Adelaide bells rang out in Bukit Timah
And Bondi Beach was lined around these shores
If the River Yarra flowed into the harbour
And old Rockhampton on this island did appear
Then we wouldn’t want to roam
We would always feel at home
If we only had Australia over here.

Although prisoners, their position might at that time have been summed up in the words, chosen by the Japanese, on a postcard that Bombardier Dick Braithwaite, 2/15th Australian Field Regiment, recalled they were allowed to send home:

We are well. We are happy. We are well fed. We are working for pay.

This tolerable situation did not last long. One significant change came with the arrival in April 1943 of new Formosan guards. With the advent of the Formosans, who lived in the camp, and the earlier establishment in late 1942 of a system of punishment known as the ‘cage’, the POWs began a journey into a world of systematic depravation and violence. Mass beatings during work details began, as recalled by Warrant Officer William Hector ‘Bill’ Sticpewich, Australian Army Service Corps:

My gang would be working all right and then would be suddenly told to stop...The men would then be stood with their arms outstretched horizontally, shoulder high, facing the sun without hats. The guards would be formed into two sections, one standing back with rifles and the others doing the actual beating. They would walk along the back of us and...smack us underneath the arms, across the ribs and on the back. They would give each man a couple of bashes...if they whimpered or flinched they would get a bit more.

Gunner D S Folkes
Gunner D S Folkes, 12 Battery, 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, examining
a wallet belonging to a deceased POW which he found in
the mud at Sandakan POW Camp, October 1945. AWM 120438

The cage, which was placed near what was known as ‘the big tree’ facing the guardhouse, was a more prolonged and agonising form of punishment. It was a wooden structure, 130cm by 170cm, with bars on all sides and high enough only to sit in. Prisoners crawled into the cage through a narrow opening. A POW undergoing punishment would have to sit at attention through the heat of the day. At night he had no bedding or mosquito netting. During the first week no food was permitted and the guards twice daily administered beatings. Sentences to the cage for trivial misdemeanours varied from a few days to over a month. Keith Botterill spent some time in the cage:

The time I was in for forty days there were seventeen of us in there. No water for the first three days. On the third night they’d force you to drink till you were sick. For the first seven days you got no food. On the seventh day they started feeding you half camp rations. I was just in a ‘G’ string, never had a wash. We were not allowed to talk, but we used to whisper...Every evening we would get a bashing, which they used to call physical exercise...The [cooks] knew we got out at five so they’d come down then to feed the dogs with swill, the kitchen rubbish. They’d pour it into this trough. We’d all hit together, the dogs and all of us, and we’d fight the dogs for the scraps.

If you’ve ever tried to pull a bone out of a starving dog’s mouth you’ll know what it was like. The dog would fasten onto your wrist to take the bone off you, and you’d still be putting the bone into your mouth. And you’d finish up the better.

Sandakan POW Camp
Looking towards the big tree in the burnt-out remains of the Sandakan POW Camp.
To the right of the big tree stood the cage in which prisoners were tortured.
The Japanese guard house was to the right of the cage. AWM 120461

In July 1943 an elaborate local intelligence network, built up at the camp and connecting it with the local civilian internees and guerrilla units even further afield, was betrayed to the Japanese. Captain Lionel Matthews, 8th Division Signals, was the organiser of this network. Matthews was arrested, tortured and eventually shot, along with eight local people who had been part of the organisation.

Following the breaking of the intelligence ring, the Japanese, hoping to take out the source of such resistance from the camp, removed all but eight officers to Kuching, hundreds of kilometres away on the far side of Borneo. Discipline and security at the camp were tightened.

Captain LC Matthews
Captain L C Matthews GC, MC, 8th Division Signals, 2nd AIF. Captain
Matthews was executed by the Japanese on 2 March 1944 for his part in
the secret intelligence organisation run between Sandakan POW Camp
and Sandakan town during 1942 and 1943. Matthews was posthumously
awarded a George Cross for gallant and distinguished service whilst a
POW at Sandakan. AWM059358

The rest of 1943 and 1944 were characterised by an increased number of beatings--’almost daily occurrences’ is the phrase used in the official history--prolonged work, diminishing rations and sickness. In September 1944 Allied planes began raiding Sandakan and the airfield. December saw a reduction in the daily rice ration to between about 140 and 200 grams per man, despite there being adequate supplies in the camp. By the end of the month further air raids had rendered the airfield inoperable and any real usefulness the POWs had for their captors was at an end. The health of the POWs deteriorated rapidly and the death rate crept up. In January 1945 the Japanese issue of rice ceased altogether and men were given just 85 grams per day from accumulated stores built up by the POWs themselves.

January 1945 saw the Japanese on the defensive throughout that vast Pacific and Asian territory they had conquered so swiftly in late 1941 and early 1942. To the Japanese, it must have seemed only a matter of time before the Allies struck at Borneo. Fearing that this invasion might occur in the Sandakan area, they made provision to move the POWs over 260 kilometres westward to Ranau where they might prove useful as supply carriers in the mountains. A track, or rentis, was cut by local labour through the low-lying swamps and jungle to the south of the Labuk River and its tributaries--the Dusan, the Kolapsis, the Muanad, the Pandan Pandan, and the Mandorin--up into the dense rainforest of the Maitland Range, past Paginatan village into the Crocker Range (which formed the foothills of Mount Kinabalu) and on to a highland plateau at Ranau. In the swamp lowlands this track was made of logs and proved dangerous to walk on. It was often easier to wade through the swamp itself. Through the mountains the track became narrow, slippery and, in many places, steep.

On 26 January 1945 the POWs were informed that a party consisting of approximately 455 Australians and British were to leave Sandakan for another part of Borneo where there was plenty of food. The prisoners were divided into nine groups which left the camp progressively between 28 January and 6 February. Bill Sticpewich remembers them leaving:

None of them were fit. They were all suffering from beriberi and malnutrition. They were all issued by the Japs with crude rubber boots but nobody could wear them. Some of them had their own boots but more than sixty per cent of them were bootless.

In this state the marchers set off westward into the swamp and the jungle.

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