Laden, Fevered, Starved

 

'Once you stopped, you stopped for good'

First death march to Ranau
January-March 1945

Approximately 455 POWs left Sandakan on the first march to Ranau. They were issued with enough rations--rice, some dried fish and salt--for just four days, and the men found that they were also to be burdened with extra sacks of rice, ammunition and other pieces of Japanese equipment. Additional supplies supposedly were to be made available at various Japanese food dumps along the way but the marchers were often reduced to scrounging whatever the jungle could provide or by trading their few possessions with the local people. Most were forced to march in bare feet and the track west soon became a barely passable pathway of mud, tree roots and stones. Virtually every night it rained. Over sections of low-lying swamp a bamboo walkway had been erected. With the mud and rain, this proved impossible to walk on, so the POWs were forced to wade through the swamp itself.

Japanese POWs
Japanese POWs filling in graves at Sandakan POW Camp. The graves
have been examined for relics that might have helped to identify the occupants. AWM 120451

Keith Botterill was with the third group to leave Sandakan on 31 January. For their first three days in the swamp country they had a small amount of rice and six cucumbers among 40 POWs. This was, in Botterill’s words, just enough to keep them alive. Group 3 took 17 days to make the trip through swamp, jungle and mountain forest. Of the 50 who had started out, only 37 reached Ranau. Some had simply died of exhaustion and disease: others, unable to go on, were shot or sometimes beaten to death. As Botterill later recalled:

I’ve seen men shot and bayoneted to death because they could not keep up with the party. We climbed this mountain about 30 miles out from Ranau, and we lost five men on that mountain in half a day. They shot five of them because they couldn’t continue. But I just kept plodding along. It was dense jungle, I was heartbroken; but I thought there was safety in numbers. I just kept going.

As Botterill went on towards Ranau he realised that others in the earlier parties had suffered a similar fate:

Although I did not see the bodies of any men who had been shot in the parties that had gone before, often I could smell them.

This ruthless disposal of incapacitated POWs seems to have been official, if unwritten, policy on all the POW marches which left Sandakan between January and June. Behind the final group on the first march came Lieutenant Abe Kazuo’s killing squad which had been given the task of making sure that no POW survived if he became unable to go on. If they came across POWs who had fallen out from earlier groups, but were clinging to life when Abe’s squad came through, they were to dispose of them. A Japanese soldier who was with Abe later testified to war crimes investigators:

Two soldiers ... were the ones who had been detailed to come at the rear and they may have received the orders you refer to directly from Abe ... About two or three hours after leaving Boto one PW became very ill indeed and Sato [Sergeant Sato Shinichi] without telling me anything about it took him into the jungle and bayoneted him to death. Endo [Private Endo Hirkaki] and Sato told me that 16 had died on the way from Sandakan to Boto but they did not give any details of the deaths.

Groups 1 to 5 all marched through to Ranau, losing 70 out of 265 POWs along the way. Groups 6 to 9 were held at the village of Paginatan, ostensibly because there was no accommodation for them at Ranau. Private William Dick Moxham, 2/15th Australian Field Regiment, was with Group 7 and he recalled their progress over the 200-odd kilometres between Sandakan and Paginatan:

Men from my own party could not go on. Boto was the first place where we actually had to leave anyone. They remained there, at this Jap dump. At the next place, at the bottom of a big hill, we left two more men. Later, we heard shots, and we thought the two men must have been shot... In all of my dealings with the Japanese, I have never seen anyone of our chaps after they had been left with the Japs. Once you stopped--you stopped for good.

Paginatan village
Paginatan village is approximately 42 km east of Ranau on the road back
towards Sandakan. In 1945 it was a Japanese food dump and POWs were
forced to carry rice between the village and Ranau. A number of men died
or were beaten to death on these rice-carrying parties. AWM 042511

Groups 6 to 9 remained at Paginatan for about a month. There, many simply wasted away and died. Some, including the sick, suffered the same routine of brutality that they had encountered from the guards at Sandakan. Of the 138 POWs from groups 6 to 9 who had reached Paginatan, there were but 68 left one month later. At the end of March approximately 50 to 60 Paginatan survivors set off for Ranau. Dick Moxham remembers the nightmare journey:

One man was puffed up with beriberi in the legs and face, and was getting along all right on his own and could have made it; but the Japs would not let him alone, but tried to force him along, and eventually he collapsed. They kicked him on the ground. The Jap turned and saw the man had gone down, and he struck him over the head with his rifle butt. The soldier was left there. The party marched on.

Just 46 of them reached Ranau alive to join the remnants of groups 1 to 5.

Of the approximately 195 POWs who had made it through to Ranau from these first groups, by 1 April another 89 had died at the camp and 21 on rice carrying parties between Ranau and Paginatan. The purpose of the carrying parties was to take supplies back to Paginatan for subsequent POW and Japanese groups making the trek from Sandakan. Most of those who died on these nine-day trips were either shot or bayoneted to death for their inability to walk any further. As Keith Botterill, who went on all six journeys, recalled:

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

At Ranau the POWs were herded into insanitary and crowded huts. Dysentery became endemic and eventually three-quarters of the available living space was occupied by the sick and the dying. Dirt and flies covered everything and the weak, but still relatively healthy POWs, could only watch helplessly as their comrades wasted away with dysentery or their bodies became distended with the accumulated fluids of beriberi. Each night, Keith Botterill recalls, was a night of death followed by a morning of burial:

You’d wake up of a morning and you’d look to your right to see if the chap next to you was still alive. If he was dead you’d just roll him over a little bit and see if he had any belongings that would suit you; if not, you’d just leave him there. You’d turn to the other side and check your neighbour; see if he was dead or alive.

There’d be a burial party every morning ... which consisted of two men to each body. We used to wrap their wrists and ankles together and put a bamboo pole through them and carry them like a dead tiger. We had no padre. And no clothes on the bodies, just straight into six inch deep graves. The soil was too hard to dig any deeper. We’d lay the body in and the only mark of respect they got, we’d spit on the body, then cover them up. That was the soldier’s way.

Balabiu listens to her story
Balabiu, a nine-year old from the Ranau area, who gave food to starving
Australian and British POWs during the death marches, listening to a
recording made of her story. Also listening is a missionary, Mr Trevor White (left),
and Major Harry Jackson (right), the leader of the combined Australian-British
Borneo Reward Mission, 1946-1947.   AWM 042565

By 26 June, just under five months from when the 450-odd Australian and British POWs had set out from Sandakan, there were only six of them left alive at Ranau--five Australians and one British soldier.

Over those months those who had stayed behind at the Sandakan camp fared little better than their comrades at Ranau and Paginatan. Malnutrition caused by the reduction in the rice ration to virtually starvation levels, disease and the failure of the Japanese to issue needed medicines brought inevitable results. From the beginning of February to the end of May, 885 Australian and British POWs died at the camp. One Australian who died in February was Private Ted Ings, 2/19th Battalion, of Binalong, New South Wales. The official cause of his death was given as malaria but certainly he was also suffering at that time from malnutrition and possibly also from one of the other diseases which by that time were endemic at Sandakan.

Ted Ings’ death was typical of those hundreds of Australian and British POWs who between January and August 1945 expired at Sandakan camp from ill-treatment in a situation where their captors possessed locally enough medical and food supplies to adequately care for them.

By mid-April the Japanese had decided to move the rest of the POWs away from Sandakan, an area where they expected an Allied landing. However, a final evacuation of the camp came about only after a large sea-air bombardment of Sandakan on 27 May. This attack severely damaged most of the town and convinced the Japanese that the foreshadowed invasion was imminent. They withdrew their defences inland beyond the POW camp that now stood between them and any Allied troops who might be landed at Sandakan. In these circumstances, the camp, which contained approximately 800 malnourished, ill and, in many cases, dying POWs was evacuated and burnt. Dick Braithwaite watched his home of three years go up in flames:

It was a strange, sad sort of feeling to see those huts going up. Knowing also, of course, that any records of our friends that had died, things that we’d made and cherished, the little pieces of wood that had become more or less like the family jewels, they were going up in smoke. It was a great loss. It must have been in the back of our minds all the time that this was it for us.

Some 530 prisoners were gathered together in eleven groups for another march westwards to Ranau. The remainder, all too incapacitated to move, were left behind in the smouldering ruins.