Remembering Sandakan

Remembering Sandakan 1945-1999

The first information of the fate of individual Sandakan POWs reached Australia between October and December 1945. On 12 December at Grenfell Road, Cowra, New South Wales, the family of Sidney Core received the following telegram from the Minister for the Army:

It is with deep regret that I have to inform you NX48471 Pte Sidney Russell Core previously reported missing believed deceased cause and date not stated is now reported deceased cause not stated on 10 June 1945 whilst a prisoner of war in Borneo.

That phrase--cause not stated--was to bring much anxiety and heartache over the years to the next of kin. How precisely had their son, husband or brother died? Hundreds of similar telegrams reached families throughout Australia and the United Kingdom. Soon the general public witnessed that first sad act of remembrance carried out by the Sandakan families--the insertion in a newspaper of a Roll of Honour ‘In Memoriam’ notice. In the Sydney Morning Herald of Saturday, 3 November 1945, the Cole family of Parkes, New South Wales, publicly mourned the death of Tom Cole:

COLE--June 7, 1945, died whilst a p.o.w. in Sandakan, Borneo. NX72771, Pte T.W.T. (Tom). ‘A’ Coy., 2/18th Battalion, 8th Division, dearly beloved son of Mr and Mrs Wently Cole, of 4 Metcalfe Street, Parkes, and brother of Colin, Marie, Valerie, and Ethel, and brother in law of Merle. Always remembered.

Many similar notices appeared on that day.

In the immediate post-war years, as the scope of the Sandakan disaster became known, a number of official actions were taken. Japanese officers and camp guards stood trial for war crimes committed against the Sandakan POWs. Much of the eyewitness evidence given at these trials came from the six Australian survivors. Typical of the charges laid was this against eleven Japanese who had been in charge of the first death march:

Murder--in that they between Sandakan and Ranau, British North Borneo, between 29 January and 28 February murdered numerous unknown prisoners in their charge.

As a result of these trials, eight Japanese, including the Sandakan camp commandant, Captain Hoshijima Susumi, were hanged as war criminals. A further 55 were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment. Little was reported in Australia of the trials, and the families of the Sandakan dead learnt nothing from newspaper reports about the circumstances of how individual POWs had died. For many next of kin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the fact of a war death in the family was accepted fairly stoically. It was only much later, sometimes in another generation, that the desire to know more arose.

POW Cemetary
This cemetery contained the graves of most of those POWs whose bodies
were recovered from the cemeteries and other burial sites in and around
the Sandakan POW Camp. It was formed on the site of the Sandakan military
airstrip that had been constructed between 1942 and 1944 by the POWs.
As the site was too low lying and prone to flooding, the bodies were eventually
removed to Labuan War Cemetery. AWM Robertson Collection 122/1


Public honour and remembrance was, however, accorded to those who had perished at Sandakan. During 1946 and early 1947 at Sandakan itself a war cemetery was built. The remains of the POWs from the old camp cemeteries, from along the track to Ranau, and from the Ranau area were interred in the Sandakan War Cemetery, which was dedicated on Anzac Day 1947. Unfortunately, the area where the cemetery stood was low-lying and prone to flooding. The bodies of the Australian and British POWs were removed eventually to Labuan War Cemetery where they still lie in the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Most remain totally unidentified and on the plaque that marks many a POW’s grave are these words:

An Australian Soldier of the 1939-1945 War
Known Unto God

Or, more sadly, one encounters the following inscription:

A Soldier of the 1939-1945 War
Known Unto God

Situated in the Labuan War Cemetery is the Labuan Memorial to the Missing and the names of those Australian POWs whose graves remain unidentified or were never found are recorded there. The names of the unidentified British POW dead from Sandakan are recorded on the Kranji Memorial to the Missing at Singapore.

At the time it was not forgotten, either, that the only real help the Sandakan men had received had come from the local people. Some of the POWs had given hand-written notes to those who had helped them, telling them to hand these notes over to Allied representatives once the war was over. Mostly the notes told of how the villagers along the track to Ranau and at Ranau had hidden and fed escapees or given food to starving men and asking that they be compensated for these acts of mercy. Eventually these notes led in November 1946 to the Australian and British governments dispatching Major Harry Jackson to investigate these claims. Jackson, with Major R Dyce, representing the British government, travelled extensively in the area between Ranau and Sandakan, interviewing all with claims and rewarding many with money, medical attention and goods.

Also with Jackson were Colin Simpson and Bill MacFarlane from the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Simpson was very moved as he discovered the story of the POWs. Walking the jungle track the prisoners would have taken between Paginatan and Ranau, he wrote a poem in which he attempted to recapture something of their suffering on the death marches. The second verse of Simpson’s poem reads:

From walking in the footsteps of the dead,
Feeling their presence in a rotten boot,
A blaze upon a tree that marks a grave,
A bullet scar still unhealed in the bark,
A scrap of webbing and an earth-stained badge,
A falling bamboo hut, a giant tree
They rested at; this creek,
This climb that runs the sweat into your eyes--
Though you aren’t laden, fevered, starved...
You tell yourself you know how they went by.

[Colin Simpson, from script of Six from Borneo, reproduced by kind permission of the ABC.]

Together, Simpson and MacFarlane interviewed and recorded many local people who had helped the POWs. Later they interviewed the six survivors and put together a radio program about the Sandakan POWs--Six From Borneo--which was broadcast throughout Australia on 31 May 1947.

Typical of those rewarded by the Jackson mission was the Widow Burih of Paginatan village. Survivor Hector Sticpewich told Jackson that Burih had been well known to the POWs passing through this village. Jackson took a statement from her that reads in part:

When the war was in progress the Japanese came here with PW. The PW came around the kampong [village] looking for food. I gave them food on different occasions, mainly sweet potatoes, Ubi Kayu [yams] fowls and eggs. As the many parties came through Paginatan I gave them food. They were very thin and a lot had fever. The Japanese did not see me give food, if they had they would have struck me or shot me.

Burih’s assistance to the POWs is all the more remarkable when it is realised that her husband in August 1945 had died of malnutrition and beriberi from lack of food during the Japanese occupation.

Burih has her story recorded
The widow Burih of Paginatan, who gave food to starving Australian and
British POWS during the Sandakan-Ranau death marches, having her story
recorded by members of the Joint Australian-British Borneo Reward
Mission, 1946-1947. AWM 042514

Eventually the war crimes trials came to an end, the recovery of bodies was finished, Labuan War Cemetery built, and local people rewarded for their help to the POWs. After that, for nearly 40 years, by comparison with what had happened to the Australian POWs on the Burma-Thailand railway, little was done to remind the Australian or British public about the terrible fate of the Sandakan prisoners. Partly, this can be put down to the fact that there were only six survivors who would have been unable to do much on their own to make the story known.

One of the first major efforts to commemorate what had happened at Ranau took place in 1985. In July of that year a memorial was dedicated at a Ranau church in the presence of Datuk Joseph Pairin Kitingan, Chief Minister of State of Sabah, Malaysia. The memorial was the initiative of the Victorian Branch of the Returned and Services League and, in particular, of its President, Mr Bruce Ruxton. In 1981, Bruce Ruxton had been at Ranau with Sandakan survivor Keith Botterill. Botterill had pointed out to him various locations within the old Ranau POW Camp and especially the place where Gunner Albert Cleary had been tied to a tree, beaten, and left to die. This spot became the site of the Ranau memorial, popularly known as the Gunner Cleary Memorial.

Commemoration Certificates
Examples of the commemoration certificates issued to local people in
north Borneo by the Australian Government in the early 1950s. AWM EXDOC098

In 1988 there appeared Sandakan--The Last March, a book by Don Wall, himself an ex-POW of the Burma-Thailand railway. The Last March used the testimony of the six survivors, Japanese guards and local people to reveal the horrific circumstances in which the Sandakan prisoners had died. Wall also produced a list of all those Australians who had died at Sandakan, supplemented in 1997 by a list of the British POWs which appeared in his subsequent work--Kill the Prisoners.

Also in 1988, historian Hank Nelson and the ABC’s Tim Bowden brought Sandakan to an Australia-wide public with a radio documentary series entitled Prisoners of War. Their sections on Sandakan were based on the testimony of the six survivors and others who had escaped in earlier years from among those Australians brought to the area. Subsequently Nelson produced a book of the series--Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon. By the end of that Australian bicentennial year the events of Sandakan were no longer buried from the Australian public.

Wall and Nelson’s work was added to in 1989 with the publication of Athol Moffitt’s Project Kingfisher. Moffitt, who had been the Australian prosecutor at the trial in 1946 of Sandakan camp commander, Captain Hoshijima Susumi, was able to reveal from his knowledge of the war crimes interrogation documents that the last POWs had been killed at Ranau on 27 August 1945, well after the Japanese surrender. They had undoubtedly died, in Moffitt’s view, to stop them being able to testify to the atrocities committed by the guards. Moffitt also revealed, for the first time since the 1940s, that there had been a plan--Project Kingfisher--to rescue the prisoners. The reasons why the plan was never put into operation remain contentious. For whatever reasons it was never implemented, it is still sad to think that it might have been possible to rescue some of the POWs and so to have prevented the final catastrophe of Sandakan.

The most recent attempt to come to grips with what happened at Sandakan is Lynette Ramsay Silver’s Sandakan--A Conspiracy of Silence, published in 1998. Silver draws on an immense amount of hitherto little-used archival material to tell the story of the POWs. Most significantly, using original burial and exhumation documentation, her work gives hope that some of the unidentified graves at Labuan War Cemetery may be able to be marked with the name of the soldier whose remains lie buried there.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the development of a movement to commemorate the Sandakan dead in the communities from which they had gone to war. On 2 September 1989, in the presence of three of the Sandakan survivors--Owen Campbell, Nelson Short and Keith Botterill--the Mayor of Ku-ring-gai, Sydney, unveiled the Sandakan Memorial in the Sandakan Memorial Park, Turramurra. This was a local council initiative and it was clearly deeply appreciated by relatives of deceased Sandakan POWs who attended the ceremony. One lady wrote:

For the first time I felt my boys hadn’t been forgotten, dying in that hell before they’d had a chance to become men, that someone cared enough to call them heroes.

In 1991, Ted McLaughlin, an ex-POW of the Japanese and a resident of Boyup Brook, Western Australia, erected a memorial there to three of his friends who had died at Sandakan and to all those who had perished in that place. To Ted’s surprise, over 200 people turned up, many from hundreds of kilometres away, for the dedication of the memorial. In September 1993, over 300 came to Boyup Brook for a Sandakan memorial service, a situation which led to the erection and dedication of an even larger memorial on 14 September 1994. This memorial contained the names of all those Western Australian soldiers who had died at Sandakan.

This pressure for local remembrance of Sandakan was reflected in the eastern states by the establishment in 1993 of the Sandakan Memorial Foundation. The Foundation flowed out of a special Sandakan Memorial Service held at the Kirribilli Ex-Services Club on 1 August 1992, organised by the Sandakan Memorial Committee. The importance to the Sandakan families of such occasions was evident:

Whilst it was an extremely sad and moving ceremony, bringing tears, you came away with a feeling that at long last your loved ones had received a form of funeral service. At last, after so many, many years, families and friends had been granted the opportunity to pay their respects.

Sandakan Memorial
Sandakan Memorial in the Sandakan Memorial Park, Turramurra.
The memorial was unveiled on 2 September 1989 in the presence of three
Sandakan survivors--Owen Campbell, Keith Botterill and Nelson Short. The
memorial was built by Ku-ring-gai Council and dedicated to those who
died at Sandakan in 1945.AWM P1188/04/03

Between 1993 and 1995 the Sandakan Memorial Foundation was instrumental in the erection of several Sandakan memorials at various locations in the eastern states--Burwood, Sydney; Tamworth, NSW; Wagga Wagga, NSW; Maitland, NSW; Bendigo, Victoria; and New Farm, Queensland. These memorials provided a place of remembrance for the Sandakan families living in the surrounding districts, as on each memorial were the names of the local men who had died at Sandakan. The ceremonies of dedication at these memorials would all have been moving events but perhaps one of the high points of the Foundation’s work would have been the dedication ceremony for the New Farm memorial in September 1995. On that occasion, death march survivor Owen Campbell read two passages, the first of which, from the Wisdom of Solomon, Chapter 3, contains these words:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them.

In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.

Of recent years the Sandakan story has also received national recognition. In 1995, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Australian Government conducted a number of official veterans’ pilgrimages to former battlefield sites. One of these pilgrimages commemorated the 1945 Australian landings in Borneo as well as the events at Sandakan, on the death marches and at Ranau. Owen Campbell and others associated with Sandakan were able to take part in ceremonies there to dedicate the Sandakan Memorial Park.

In 1995 the Australian War Memorial also produced its own tribute to the memory of Sandakan. Throughout the 1980s, the long-running POW exhibition at the Memorial had made little detailed reference to the Borneo prisoners. By 1995 it seemed appropriate, even overdue, that the Sandakan story be brought to the Memorial’s millions of visitors. In a Sandakan section of the new 1945 exhibition, visitors saw the few pitiful relics from the camp in the Memorial’s collection. These included false teeth, a rosary-crucifix and a battered drinking mug. Around the walls were placed the small paybook photographs of every Australian who had perished at Sandakan--an attempt to help us visualise the individual tragedy hidden in the grim statistic of over 2400 dead POWs.

Through its Their Service-Our Heritage program, in March 1999 the Australian Government and people further honoured those lost at Sandakan. During a special mission, the Sandakan Memorial Park was re-dedicated. Originally developed by the Returned & Services League of Australia on what is now a Sabah State Forestry Department reserve, the Memorial Park has been substantially upgraded by the Office of Australian War Graves to provide an interpretative facility and commemorative site. Here, visitors can follow on text panels in a commemorative pavilion the story of the Sandakan camp and the death marches. Nearby, a polished stone memorial--the Sandakan Memorial--stands in the centre of a ceremonial space. On it is the simple inscription:


Owen Campbell
Owen Campbell, one of the six survivors of the Sandakan death marches,
points out the site of the old boiler house at the Sandakan POW Camp, 1985. AWM P0495/05/02

A walk around the park pathway reveals pieces of old heavy machinery used here between 1942 and 1945--a trenching machine from the airfield, part of the generator used to supply power to the camp and a boiler. Owen Campbell senses there are presences in this place that no memorial, relic or exhibition can reveal. In 1995, fifty years after the Sandakan death marches, Campbell returned to the camp site and to that track where so many of his mates perished. He described the emotions he felt that day:

I did have feelings at Sandakan when I walked up to where the old camp was. You never forget because when you are in the services you create a bond with your fellow man that you don’t create in civilian life. You discuss things with him that you won’t discuss with anybody else and you create that great bond of friendship and no matter what happens it will endure for ever and you will never forget it--I can’t anyway. There are still some buried there somewhere I’m sure because I had that feeling when I was there...that there were spirits waiting to be released from where they were. You get those feelings after a while.

How should we now remember what happened to the Australian and British POWs at Sandakan in 1945? Those who suffered captivity at the hands of the Japanese in World War II carry that memory in their bones. Understandably, many ex-POWs found it--still find it--hard to forgive those who inflicted so much upon them. Those who were not there probably can never fully comprehend the depths of pain and, at times, despair to which the Sandakan POWs were forced to descend by their enemies. Then there is the grief of their families who until recent years knew little of what had happened to their loved ones beyond the fact that they had disappeared in the jungles of Borneo. Owen Campbell was well aware of their agony:

War is painful not only for the soldiers fighting on the front line but for the ones who are left behind. Consider the worry they must go through and the anxiety they must suffer. You take our wives when they heard we were prisoners of war, what they must have gone through, it’s unbelievable. They suffered just as much in their own way as we suffered in our way...the wives and mothers are wondering are we ever going to meet again.

The brothers and sisters of Ted Ings never saw their brother again. They came together as a family and built the memorial gateway at Binalong’s Anglican Church to make sure that future generations would know that Ted had died on 24 February 1945 at a place called Sandakan-Ranau. Perhaps what the prisoners of Sandakan deserve of the future is that each generation asks itself the question--what happened at Sandakan? In asking how we should remember Sandakan, we could heed Owen Campbell, who said at the camp site in 1995:

The Sandakan story has got to be brought out into the light. That’s what I reckon. Bring it to their [young people’s] notice and then they’ll start to talk and that will bring it further into the minds of the younger generation that is coming up. That’s the only way I can do it. When you realise it’s got to be told then you don’t mind the personal anguish, as long as it does some good somewhere along the line and opens people’s eyes.

The Australian servicemen who died at Sandakan were a long way from home.

Memorial Plaque
Plaque on the memorial gateway to the Anglican Church of St Thomas,
Binalong, New South Wales, erected to Private Ted Ings, 2/19th Battalion,
who died on 24 February 1945 at Sandakan POW Camp.

The British POWs who died there were a lot further from their kith and kin. Even now, the fate of that particular group of prisoners is little known in the United Kingdom, except by their families. In 1945, Christopher Elliot visited Borneo in search of information about his missing brother, Corporal Donald Elliot, Royal Air Force, of Beccles, Suffolk, England. Donald, who was on the first death march and whose will was found near Ranau, died on 17 March 1945 in the vicinity of Paginatan. In 1996, Christopher Elliot returned to Sandakan and Ranau with the next generation--his daughter and Donald’s niece, Anne Elliot. Anne wrote the following tribute to her uncle’s memory. It may be allowed to speak for all the Sandakan POWs--Australian and British--and how they might like to be remembered by those who loved them and missed them down the years:

To the spirit of Donald Elliot

You don’t know me.
But I know you
Through my father, he has not forgotten you
And never will.
His life has been greatly affected
By your death.
He always looked up to you, you were his hero.
I will never forget.
Hope that you are at peace here.
And that you didn’t suffer too much pain.
And that you can forgive your enemies
For what they did to you.
I thought of you at the VJ Day March
In Pall Mall, London.
I stood and watched the veterans walk
By--the lucky ones.
I was quite choked but proud.
You did it for me and the likes of me.
Thank you.
I think things would have been
Different if you were still around.
But life isn’t always fair, is it?

Captain R A Houghton
Captain R A Houghton, 23 War Graves Unit, reading an inscription on a monument
erected by Australian and British POWs at the Sandakan No.1 Cemetery.
The inscription read: ‘To the memory of British and Australian fallen in Malaya’. AWM 120490

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