Sandakan Memorial full audio guide with transcript
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Welcome to Sandakan Memorial Park. It was here, during the Second World War, that Australian and British prisoners were interned by the Japanese Army.
Between 1942 and 1943, about 2,700 Allied servicemen passed through the gates of the Sandakan Camp. However, a number were transferred during 1943 and 1944, leaving 1,793 Australians and 641 British. In the dying days of the war, as defeat of the Japanese Army was imminent, most of the prisoners who remained in the camp were sent on three separate forced marches. These became known as death marches. Only six Australians, all escapees from the marches, eventually returned home. Not a single British soldier survived.
Although the Sandakan Memorial Park is now used as a recreational area by local residents, please respect this as sacred ground. Do not litter, deface the signs, or light fires.
Wander up the path to the big shelter beside the pond. You can rest there while I tell you how the prisoners of war got to Sandakan.Back to top
From Singapore to Sandakan
By early 1942 the Japanese had cut a swathe through Malaya, culminating in the calamitous fall of Singapore, and capturing thousands of Allied troops - nearly 15,000 Australians among them. They were held in prisoner of war compounds at Changi, on the eastern side of Singapore. The Japanese viewed their prisoners as a powerful pool of dirt-cheap labour, and from here the men were dispatched to wherever the Japanese war effort needed them.
In July of 1942, a large group of Australian prisoners, known as B Force, was sent to Sandakan in what was then known as British North Borneo. For over 20 years, Lynette Silver has been researching and writing books about the events in Sabah during the Second World War. She describes the men from B Force.
Interview: Lynette Silver
B Force was raised of almost 1500 Australians, who happened to be in the main camp at Changi. Because there were a lot of people on working parties, the Japanese had a lot of trouble getting the 1500, which meant a lot of people convalescing; a lot of older men, and a very large number of officers - 150 - were added to the draft. They were coerced into doing this because the Japanese said they were going to a holiday camp suitable for convalescents and older men - which was anybody over 35.
They also sent this large number of officers - 150 out of 1,500, which is a very high ratio - because officers were not required to work and consequently were sitting around the camp in Changi and not doing terribly much. It was decided they might as well send them over there rather than keep them in Changi where food was getting short.
Before the sun came up on the morning of the 7th of July 1942, 1500 men were loaded onto a decrepit, rusty old coal steamer called the Yubi Maru. The centre hold had been divided into two iron decks and there were no portholes. In the relentless tropical heat, the air was stifling. For ten long days the men were packed so tightly, they could barely lie down.
Russ Ewin, a sergeant when war broke out, was with the 8th Division Signals. He remembers the journey from Singapore to Sandakan.
Interview: Russ Ewin
The Yubi Maru, for me, was actually the worst experience of the whole POW experience. If you were on the top level, as I was, you could not sit up without your head hitting the metal flooring of the deck. We were crammed in. To sleep was very difficult. You just had to squeeze in somewhere, turn over on your side to make a bit of room. It was so hot and so humid.
We were not allowed up on deck very often, only to use the toilet. We would have a cup of tea up there and then we would be sent down.
The food we were given was atrocious. We had some rice which had been treated with a preservative, and it was not a nice rice at all. It was awful. It was for some completely in edible. Apart from that there was practically nothing else in the way of food. As a result of that, when we've got to Sandakan eventually, after 10 days, most of us were covered with skin diseases and I had ringworm on my back and I had no skin on my scrotum, and my legs were affected by ulcers and the like. That was pretty typical.
We didn't know where we were going, and ultimately we worked out that it was going to be Sandakan. When we arrived, at the beautiful entrance to the harbour, we landed. It rained, so we all stripped off, to the delight of the natives, and had a first wash or shower for a while. And we started the next day to march out eight miles to the camp.
This rusty old boiler dates back to the days when this land was used as an experimental farm by the British. It was originally housed in a hut with a dirt floor, its flue poking out of an atap thatched roof. A steam-driven alternator was in another hut alongside. The boiler chugged away 24 hours a day, generating electricity for the camp.
The surrounding land had long since been stripped of trees to make way for agriculture, so the wood to fuel the boiler had to be gathered from farther afield. Work parties led by an officer would leave the camp each day to collect wood. Russ Ewin was an officer assigned to this duty.
Interview: Russ Ewin
I was working on a wood party, taking a group of 40 men out each day to cut down those huge beautiful trees. And split them into suitable logs to go back to be put into the boiler just outside the camp, which generated the electricity for the camp.
Bare copper wires, crudely strung between wooden poles, conducted 110 volt AC power to the camp. At the flick of a switch, water was pumped from the Sibuga River 2½ kilometres away, and stored in a bright orange tank beside the boiler house. This remained under the control of a Chinese engineer by the name of Chan Ah Ping. He would become an important link to the local community.
Under the terms of the Geneva Convention, officers were not required to work, and in the beginning they didn’t. But when they did, Russ Ewin believes it did some good.
Interview: Russ Ewin
Because the men with no buffer between them and the Jap guards were suffering the bashings all the time, whereas the officers could try to mediate, and if not, get a bit of a bashing themselves. It did take away quite a bit of the bashing that was there.
Be that as it may, like the electricity and water supply, bashings were a way of life for the men interned at Sandakan.Back to top
You are prisoners of Japan. You are here to build an airstrip. Escape is futile. If we do not get you, the jungle will. Even if the war goes on for 100 years, Japan will be victorious.
So announced Captain Hoshijima Susumi, the head of Sandakan’s prisoner of war camp. With his address at that first tenko, or daily parade, the dispirited prisoners discovered that they had been shipped over here to build an aerodrome. Lieutenant Okahara was there to oversee the work.
The landing strip will be 850 metres long and 50 metres wide. The job is URGENT.
The prisoners’ first task was to clear the entire area. All the rubber trees and coconut palms had to be cut down. The tough tangled underbrush had to be cleared. And the underlying rock had to be broken up and removed. In the scorching heat, under a blazing sun, the men were forced to work six days a week, at least ten hours a day. The work was backbreaking, tedious and slow.
They hacked out roots, cut vines, felled trees and cut away at the tufa. Tufa is a pale limestone rock, similar to travertine, which reflects the light. It singed the corneas of the prisoners’ eyes. Ever innovative, they fashioned sunglasses from two sticks placed five millimetres apart, and tied together with plaited palm leaves.
The prisoners were not at all happy about building an airstrip for the Japanese military. But they had little choice. So, in their own quiet ways, they performed myriad small acts of sabotage each day. Tools went missing. Skips rolled over, and the odd implement was appropriated for uses elsewhere. Furthermore, everyone to a man mastered the art of looking busy, even if their progress was disappointingly slow.
A few months into the job, the man in charge of all the prisoner of war camps in Borneo came to inspect the work. Major Suga strutted up to the platform on the parade ground and addressed the men.
All Japanese officers – samurai. All Japanese officers – honourable. You work hard, finish airfield, you be fine.
With that, he announced the size of the airstrip was to be increased to nearly double, more men were to be put to work - including those on the sick list - and significantly tightened the discipline. Machinery was brought in – which brings us to the excavator that sits here. This was a versatile machine that could scoop and dump all kinds of soil. But … after just one day in the field, it broke down.
The Japanese had it towed to the boiler house where they hoped someone with the right sort of technical knowledge could fix it. Before this could be organized, an Australian POW fixed it for good by placing sand in the engine sump.
Another Australian POW kept up the pretence that the excavator was repairable by coming each day to fiddle and tinker with the engine – to no avail. This Ruston-Bucyrus Universal Excavator would never work again.
Listen to how local people helped the prisoners as you continue on your way. Take the lower path to the shelter.Back to top
As rumours of Japanese occupation became a terrifying reality, locals were determined to work against them. The large Chinese population still harboured bitter memories of Nanking, where civilians were massacred and tens of thousands of Chinese women were raped.
So, during the Japanese occupation of British North Borneo, most would side with the British.
The Imperial Japanese Army’s occupation was as brutal as their reputation. 16 per cent of Sabah’s civilian population did not survive the war. Often using excessive force, the Japanese took whatever they wanted – houses, vehicles, crops, ducks, goats, chickens and pigs. They levied heavy taxes on the citizens, and recruited informers in every town and village. They posted notices on every pole reminding the locals to always remember that the Japanese commander held the power of life and death over them. It was a power they did not hesitate to exercise. Fearing for their lives, some Chinese moved out of the towns to small landholdings, while some of the local tribes people moved deeper into the jungle.
Despite the day-to-day oppression, an underground network of local people was formed in the early days of occupation. They maintained contact with European civilians being held on Berhala Island close by. They supplied them with food, medicine and snippets of news. They also established ties with the Filipino and American guerilla fighters in the Philippines.
When the Australian and British POWs arrived in Sandakan to work on the airstrip, the local underground extended their operations to the new camp. They also managed to smuggle in a pistol and ammunition, as well as the parts needed to build a radio.
The rubber plantation bordering on the camp belonged to the Funks, a well-to-do and equally well-known Eurasian family in Sandakan. Alex and Johnny Funk were active in the underground from the start, hiding their weapons, rather than giving them up. They worked with Dr Jim Taylor, an Australian doctor who organized the dissemination of news and arranged to smuggle medicine and food to the POWs.
Lynette Silver, a historian, describes the bravery of a young 18-year-old named Sini. As a fiercely patriotic member of the resistance, he exploited the benevolence of the Japanese, who thought him to be much younger than his years. This allowed him free movement in and out of the airstrip, where he made contact with the Australian prisoners. When asked by one of the Australian officers if he knew what risks he was taking, he replied, “Yes, sir, I know what will happen if the Japanese catch me, but I must do my duty. I am British, and I am also a Boy Scout.”
When the war was over, Sini was awarded the Scouting Movement’s highest award for bravery.
By now you should have reached the shelter, and you can listen to the next message about daily life in this inhospitable terrain.Back to top
When Sandakan was the peacetime capital of British North Borneo, this was the site of an experimental farm run by the colonial government.
Interview: Lynette Silver
The experimental farm was run by the conservation department and agricultural department before the war, the idea was to grow plants and crops which could then be planted locally.
So, the jungle had already been cut down to make way for fruit trees, crops and farm animals.
Interview: Lynette Silver
It sat basically on a pudding shaped hill, and so the camp itself started at the top of the hill and ran down the far side. It was quite hilly which meant that the huts, which had been built at the top, were fairly close to the ground. By the time they got down to the bottom of the hill, some of them were on stilts and quite a height above the ground, so the whole camp clustered really on the side of this hill.
But when all is said and done, the terrain was typical of tropical jungles. The climate is hot and humid. It rains all through the year, although in Sabah Province, between November and March, the north-east monsoon brings on torrential rains. The annual rainfall measures around 400 centimetres, a whopping four metres, or 13 feet.
The plant world flourishes in the heat and the wet. Trees grow tall, strong and dense. And the largest flower in the world, the Rafflesia, grows along the forest floor. When in bloom, the flower measures an astounding one metre in diameter.
The flipside of this natural abundance is muddy swamps, mosquitoes, mould, and mildew. Everything rotted in the damp - clothing, boots, bags, and, more catastrophically, food. Besides which, the climate was totally unsuited to storage of any sort. Tropical weevils and moths wasted no time in tucking into whatever grains they could find – mostly rice.
The camp was surrounded by barbed wire. There was lighting around the perimeter and sentry boxes at strategic points. The rank and file were housed in huts with rough timber frames, clad and roofed with nipah palm, more commonly known as atap. There were 64 men to a hut. The officers were far better off. They were accommodated in sturdy wooden shelters, and only 30 to a hut. But regardless of rank, the huts were all overrun with rats, snakes, lice and bed bugs. The prisoners resorted to all kinds of tactics to exterminate the pests. A few even shaved their bodies to rid themselves of lice. They formed rat-hunting parties, and when the rats were gone, the snakes had no reason to be there.
Gradually the POWs made the place more habitable – as habitable as it could be under the circumstances.
During the first year at Sandakan, life could have been a whole lot worse.
Interview: Russ Ewin
We landed in Sandakan and it seemed to be lovely. It was not populated like it is now. And you were only a very short way out of the city before there were native gardens and huge jungle trees, and it was colourful and so different to the Australian bush. I remember thinking that this is not going to be too bad.
Interview: Lynette Silver
The camp was no better or worse than any other camp that the Japanese were running at the time. One thing they had was plenty of food - 770 grams of rice per man per day. Consequently, the prisoners were able to trade their rice for other food with the locals down at the airstrip. The Japanese also allowed canteens to be the set up, and as the men were paid. They could buy various bits and pieces at the canteen.
Those that worked on the airstrip were subjected to the usual hardships of prisoners of war, but all in all, Private Keith Botterill of 2/19 Battalion considered life bearable.
Private Keith Botterill
We had it easy the first twelve months. I reckon only half a dozen died. 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 10 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.
The officers were allowed to dig and maintain a vegetable patch just outside the camp, to supplement their rations. A choir was formed, sketches and musical revues were written and performed, there were educational lectures, and an art and craft show where drawings, paintings and wood carvings were exhibited.
Despite the daily slog of working on the aerodrome from sun up to sun down, the prisoners’ morale was generally buoyant. Each month, there were boxing matches, and the occasional bout of wrestling in a makeshift ring near the parade ground. There were cards and impromptu games of two-up. Everything was gambled on with passionate gusto.
Interview: Russ Ewin
As an officer, for a while it was not too bad. I started learning a bit of bridge and doing a bit of reading, and then meeting other people - which was one of the great advantages. I found that meeting other people, doctors, barristers, labourers - the whole range in the officers was just so enlightening. I have always said that for me that experience was a very rewarding one, and really enhanced my life very considerably.
The good days were not to last. The aerodrome project became more urgent. Officers were forced to work. Sick men were forced to work. Punishments increased. Food rations decreased. In order to speed up construction, in early 1943 an additional 500 Australian POWs arrived in Sandakan from Singapore, along with more than 750 English prisoners. The British had been transferred from a POW camp at Jesselton, on Borneo’s west coast.
Life got considerably tougher.
We’ll now continue on to the camp gate as we listen to the stories of the ill-fated escape attempts made in the early days of internment.Back to top
Let’s take a moment to contemplate what it meant to escape Sandakan, the Number One POW Camp in British North Borneo. Beyond the wire, there were rubber plantations and dense jungle. Add to that regular torrential tropical storms that turned the ground into a quagmire of mud and slush and swamp. Where would you go? Who out there would be a friend? Would you recognize an enemy? And yet, despite all this, not more than twelve days after B-Force arrived, eleven men escaped. Two officers, despite having grave doubts about the men’s chances of success, equipped them with rations, anti-malarial drugs and a compass.
They separated into two groups. The first six hid deep in the jungle in an abandoned timber cutters’ hut. Desperate for food they knocked on the door of a Chinese farmer named Chu Li Tsia. He told them that they could possibly get help from a Mr Phillips, a member of the resistance, and manager of the North Borneo Timber Company.
Two of the six decided to head to the coast where they hoped to find a boat to carry them to the Philippines. The other four were seen going into Mr Phillips’s house and given the risk this posed to the underground, he had little choice but to turn them in. The other two from this group were given up by a local villager, and it was merely days before they joined the others in Sandakan Gaol.
The second group of five managed to evade captivity for five months. They hid in a tobacco farm owned by Foo Seng Chow. When he discovered them stealing vegetables from his garden, he offered to help. He put them in touch with others, who kept them supplied with food. The underground eventually helped them secure a boat, which they ambitiously hoped to sail to Australia.
But the season and the tides were against them. They didn’t get much beyond the harbour before they were marooned on a mudflat. They easily swam ashore, but were seen by a few who were less than sympathetic. For a few occupation dollars, the civilians turned them in to the kempeitai, or military police. The five men racked with beriberi and malaria stood trial in Kuching, were sentenced and transferred to Outram Road Gaol.
Needless to say, the consequences of the escape attempts were dire. The POWs were herded at rifle point onto the parade ground. There they were forced to stand for hours in the blistering sun. Finally, flanked by two guards, Captain Hoshijima strutted onto the raised platform. His interpreter read a statement.
- We abide by the rules and regulations of the Imperial Japanese Army.
- We agree not to attempt to escape.
- Should any of our soldiers escape, we request that you shoot him to death.
Then, Lieutenant Colonel Alf Walsh stood on a table and reread the statement. To the amazement of the assembled men, he loudly declared:
Lieutenant Colonel Alf Walsh
The Japanese are demanding that I, on behalf of you all, sign this statement.
Then, to the further amazement of all, he clearly stated:
Lieutenant Colonel Alf Walsh
I am not ordering anyone to do anything, but I, for one, will not sign such a document.
With that he threw the document at Captain Hoshijima’s feet. The response was immediate. Walsh was roughly grabbed by the guards. They tightly bound his hands behind his back, and then dragged him outside the gate, and tied him to a post. In full view of the men on the parade ground, Captain Hoshijima struck Walsh on the face, and a firing squad cocked their rifles.
Major Workman, the second-in-command of B-Force, immediately stepped up, and showing great courage and quick thinking, he explained to Captain Hoshijima that no single representative can sign on another’s behalf. A compromise was reached. Every man was to sign for himself. Captain Hoshijima saved face.
Colonel Walsh’s life was spared, and at the end of the day there were a list of signatures with an overwhelming number of Ned Kellys, Don Bradmans and Bob Menzies.Back to top
The Sandakan incident
Of all the camps where the Japanese held prisoners of war captive, Sandakan elicits the most horror. The reason is this – in the final days of the War, as the Japanese began to contemplate their imminent defeat, and fearing invasion, they decided to move the prisoners to Jesselton (as Kota Kinabalu was then known). Three groups of men set out over a period of six months to make the march to Ranau. They all left from this gate. Of the 1,066 men who set out, only six made it home to Australia. There was not a single British survivor.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Let’s keep on the path. Head to the benches up the hill.
From the moment B Force arrived at Sandakan in 1942, they began scouting for sympathetic connections beyond the wire. Apart from the usual hardships of prison camp life, rice rations were decent, they had clean water and electricity, and the men were allowed to trade with the locals down at the aerodrome – many of whom remained loyal to the British.
The first prisoner to make contact with the local underground network was Captain Lionel Matthews. Just thirty years old, he headed a work party that collected nuts outside the camp, unsupervised. In a grove of palm-oil trees behind the police station he established a connection point with the local underground. They, in turn, put him in touch with future members of the wider network, including Dr Jim Taylor, a civilian in the Sandakan region.
With their help, a crystal detector, valves and a headphone slowly found their way to Lieutenant Rod Wells, an expert in wireless technology. Together with signaller Lieutenant Gordon Weynton, the two men set about the task of building a radio set that could receive shortwave signals. After weeks of trial and error, and more than one false start, they finally heard the crackling tones of a distinguished English voice announcing, “This is the BBC”.
The penalty for an act of subversion such as this was certain death! So, they kept their excitement at bay, wrapped the receiver in a groundsheet, and lowered it into an unused toilet pit. Under the cover of dark, they developed a system of copying and distributing the news to officers in the camp. Russ Ewin was responsible for passing on the latest bulletins to the outside underground network.
Interview: Russ Ewin
The police station was the contact for me. I would report each day to Lionel. If he had anything to be taken out of the camp, I would take it. It usually was the news, and it was rolled up tightly in a wad of paper sealed with sealing wax. When we came to the police station, I would just nod my head slightly, and the police sergeant, Sergeant Abin, who I had met, would just watch my hand and I would open it and drop the news. He would pick it up afterwards..
For eight months the BBC bulletins were summarized and circulated. Until, ridiculous as it may sound, a petty argument broke out amongst two traders at the aerodrome. The disgruntled trader, with an inkling the other was a member of the underground, took his suspicions to the Japanese. The dreaded military police - the kempeitai - were called in. There were arrests, brutal interrogations and horrific, but highly effective methods of torture applied. Names were named – Lionel Matthews, Rod Wells and Gordon Weynton among them.
The kempeitai swooped down on the camp, and amidst much yelling, beatings and brandishing of weapons, more arrests were made. The screws were tightened. There was water torture and body suspension. Fingernails were torn out. Bones were broken. Bowels were ruptured. Ear drums were perforated. But, despite these horrors Matthews, Wells and Weynton revealed nothing. In a little over six weeks, almost every member of the underground network was behind bars.
The radio was eventually discovered. 52 civilians and 20 prisoners of war were shipped off to stand trial in Kuching, the administrative headquarters of all the POW camps in Borneo.
Gordon Weynton was found guilty of spreading rumours, and sentenced to ten years’ jail. Rod Wells was sentenced to 12 years hard labour, to be served in solitary confinement. They were both transferred to the dreaded Outram Gaol in Singapore. Ironically, their convictions spared their lives.
Lionel Matthews did not fare so well. He was sentenced to death, and along with eight local men, he was taken to a clearing in the jungle. There they were executed by firing squad.
This whole affair was called the Sandakan Incident.
A year after the war ended, Captain Lionel Matthews was posthumously awarded the George Cross. The medal is the highest award for bravery not in the face of the enemy, and it’s only given for the greatest acts of heroism or courage in circumstances of extreme danger. Captain Matthews is the only member of the Australian Army to be awarded the George Cross in the Second World War.
During the Sandakan Incident, Johnny Funk, a member of the local resistance group, was arrested and taken to the kempeitai headquarters at Sandakan, where, over a long month, he was systematically tortured.
They had four bungalows which were used for torture rooms. One form of torture was to make you kneel on a plank specially carved like spikes. They then placed a heavy plank behind the knees and two Japanese got on each end and worked it like a see-saw. Another torture was carried out by a Jujitsu expert. He flung you all around the room. He badly twisted limbs and used his boots freely. I was also jammed in a specially constructed chair, in a cramped position. For half a day I was whipped around the head.
Doreen Hurst is Johnny Funk’s daughter. She was too young to remember the wartime years where fear was widely prevalent.
What I found out about my father, is that he never broke, despite all the torture, he never even admitted to being part of the underground. He never gave any names.
Doreen Hurst’s mother, Lillian, was a vital member of the underground organisation. Before the war, she had the foresight to convert some of her assets into gold, pearls, foreign notes and gemstones. She sewed these items into the hems of her clothing. As the occupation wore on, for as long as Lillian Funk was able, she sold whatever she needed to buy food and medicine for the prisoners of war, and maintained the link with the guerrillas in the Philippines. Lillian Funk’s bravery has never been officially recognized. [PAUSE]
You may want to rest awhile on the wooden benches on the hill, as you listen to the next message.Back to top
Japanese and British barracks
In the early days of the Sandakan prisoner of war camp, the guards were trucked in each day from the central barracks in town. But after the escape attempts, and the final discovery of the radio in July of 1943, everything changed.
Night surveillance was escalated, and guard dogs were brought in. Just over to the right, where you see the housing estate, is where barracks were built for guards who were plucked from the ranks of the Bushido youth groups in Taiwan. These guards were very young (mostly aged between 16 and 20). They were also brutally aggressive and exceedingly violent.
Life in the Japanese Army was not easy for any lower-ranking soldier. There was a very strict chain of command, and each rank was free to bash the ones below. At Sandakan, the only group lower than the young guards was the prisoners. In addition, they were commanded by a Japanese officer who gave them carte blanche to treat the prisoners as viciously as they wanted.
Out on the aerodrome, prisoners would be subjected to group discipline. A favourite punishment amongst the guards was known as ‘Flying Practice’. Warrant Officer Bill Sticpewich, one of the six survivors to return home, describes what this involved.
Warrant Officer William Sticpewich
The men would then be ordered to stand with their arms outstretched horizontally, at shoulder height, facing the sun without hats. The guards would then form two sections – one behind with rifles and the other doing the actual beatings. They would walk at 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.
From the end of 1943 onwards, the beatings and bashings got worse. The war was not going as well as the Japanese hoped. Rice was scarce. Rations were cut, and as a result, rotting maggoty food took a heavy toll on the bodies of the disease-racked prisoners.
The camp commandant, Hoshijima, introduced a more prolonged and agonizing form of punishment. Prisoners called it the “cage”. The cage was an all-wood construction, built on stilts, with five-centimetre wide wooden slats. It was just over a metre high, making it impossible to stretch out, let alone stand up in. Cramped prisoners were forced to sit at attention all day, regardless of the weather. Keith Botterill, a 19-year-old private who’d lied about his age to enlist, spent a 40-day stretch in the cage.
Private Keith Botterill
There were 17 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 not 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 called 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.
Over to the left was where the British Barracks were. Although both Australian and British troops were held prisoner at Sandakan, they were kept strictly segregated. In fact, even amongst the Australians, B Force was not allowed to communicate with E Force. Russ Ewin explains.
Interview: Russ Ewin
We did not have contact with them. In fact we had to shave our hair off, and they were not allowed to shave theirs off. So if the guards saw two people talking and one had his hair cut, they would know they were in contact.
At first, the British were kept in a camp near the airstrip. But in late 1943, they were moved to a compound near the Australians. Little remains of their compound, which is beyond the park’s boundary, not far from the Japanese barracks. For a number of reasons, not much is known about their time in Sandakan. Lynette Silver has spent decades researching the Sandakan story, and she finds the lack of information about the British problematic.
Interview: Lynette Silver
It is difficult, because nobody survived. The 641 British died, to the last man. We do know something about them - not a lot, because the British were kept segregated from the Australians all the time.
The British tended to behave themselves much better than the Australians. They didn't annoy the Japanese as much. They did not antagonise them. They didn't do anything to rock the boat, and as a result, the camp commandant, for instance, had special events that he put on for the British officers, and the Captain Nagai, who was quite a brutal person. He even loaned the British his gramophone and his collection of records. So they tended to have a better relationship with the Japanese.
In October of 1943, most of the officers were transferred to another POW camp in Kuching. In Kuching, the officers were not allowed to work, and were confined to their camp. This meant that they could not make any contact with the outside.
The Australians were generally in better shape than the British, but that’s because none of the Australians were working. Indeed the British had other ranks in Kuching and they were doing backbreaking work for long, long hours.
Interview: Russ Ewin
The British were skin and bone. As the rations went down, we just reduced our weight very substantially. But towards the end of the war, the British were dying from a 4 to 12 a day. You would hear the Last Post being blown. It was years before I could listen to the Last Post without crying. Even now I am affected. We lost only nine or so, out of 150.
Although the POW camp in Kuching was not exactly a holiday for the Australian officers, they were ultimately spared the abysmal fate of their men who remained in Sandakan.
We’ll now make our way back to the gate, and into the main park.Back to top
Japanese kitchen and death march
The cement water tanks we see at this intersection were a part of the Japanese cook house. Unlike the prisoners, they were always well fed. However, by 1944, plenty turned to paucity for everyone.
As 1944 rolled on, the Allies were steadily gaining ground. In October, the Americans launched their first air strike on Sandakan. Then, after many more air raids, a heavy bombardment on Christmas Day rendered the airstrip useless.
Interview: Lynette Silver
By the end of 1944 it was mostly rice, a few bits of kankong, occasionally some dried fish or a bit of inedible meat. And the men were trapping small animals. At one stage, they were trapping slugs and then threading them onto little bits of wire and roasting them for extra bits of food.
By early 1945, the Allies had taken complete control of the air. Fearing a direct invasion, the Japanese decided to move the prisoners to Jesselton, where they would be used as labour. Meanwhile, American submarines patrolled the waters constantly, making it impossible for the Japanese to ship anything, let alone transport prisoners. The only way to go was over land. And the only way to go overland was to walk.
The Japanese hired local labour to clear a track through the jungle. The locals were generally disinclined to expend any great effort for the Japanese, and the finished route was very rough. It took in every swamp, awkward river crossing and mountain. Following in the British tradition, they used mile-post markers. They didn’t know that this track would be the track that sick, hungry, emaciated prisoners of war would be forced to take.
Now, let’s make our way down the stairs. Well head to the next shelter over on the right as I tell you about the death marches.
All in all, there were three separate death marches. The story of these marches is a long one. The first march of approximately 455 POWs, was divided into nine groups of roughly 50 men, and began leaving Sandakan on the 28th of January, 1945. As well as having to drag their half-starved, disease-ridden bodies along the track, they were also forced to lug sacks of rice and equipment for the Japanese.
Interview: Lynette Silver
The first march went in the middle of the wet season. It rained constantly, every day. To make sure they could get through the swamps, they had to take to this boardwalk which was split bamboo about a metre wide. They were told if they slipped and fell and broke a leg, they and any Japanese soldiers who had the same misfortune would be shot.
It took several days to get through the mud and eventually they reached the area which had been cut by the locals which was a series of a difficult short, sharp rises and equally difficult downward slopes on the other side. However, it is relatively flat considering the terrain that they were about to meet when they reached the 85-mile peg. The jungle was extremely dense. You could not see where you were. There was no light getting through. The prisoners did not know which direction they were going in - probably the Japanese did not either.
This whole route was a mixture of quite difficult terrain for the most part, exacerbated by torrential downpours, mud up to their knees. There was lack of food, leeches as thick as pencils, mosquitoes, guards prodding you in the back with a bayonet to keep you going. And then you had your friends dropping out and being shot or being bayoneted to death along at the side of the road. They were not supposed to stop at Ranau, they were supposed to go to Jesselton.
Ranau is a small village 250 kilometres west of Sandakan. That’s roughly 140 miles. Keith Botterill was on the first march.
Private Keith Botterill
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.
Interview: Lynette Silver
At the end of April that year, there were only 56 people left alive out of 455 who had set out from Sandakan in the January. On the evening of 10th June, there were just 20 left alive. The next day, the 10 who were sick were shot dead and the last 10 were taken down and hidden away in a remote camp which became the third camp at Ranau and which we call today the Last Camp. By the end of June, there were 6 left out of 10, and those six were collecting sticks for their evening rice ration when they looked up to see a straggling line of people barely recognisable as human, coming into their camp area.
This straggling line of men had left Sandakan on the 29th of May, on the second death march. If possible, this march was worse than the first. Just three weeks after the this group of 536 marchers left Sandakan, only 183 made it to Ranau.
Interview: Lynette Silver
The second march was the result of intense bombing by the Allies of Sandakan. Although there was a plan to rescue the prisoners of war, incorrect intelligence had been sent through to Australia, which said that there are no POW’s left at Sandakan. There was in fact about at least 1,000 still alive when this bombing took place.
As the Japanese and the Second Death March people made their way along the track, the pilots of allied aircraft, who were keeping an eye on everything, thought they were all Japanese in retreat and started to strafe the column. And so one terrible mistake was now leading to another.
The death marches were really a march to death in the case of the first march. And a march of death in the case of the second march. The Second March prisoners were in much worse shape. They had been on starvation rations for a very long time. Most had malaria, beriberi, dysentery - suffering from all sorts of skin diseases like scabies. Most of them had ulcers. On some it was so bad on their legs, that shin bones were visible….and yet they got up and got going.
Exhaustion and disease took their toll, and those who could not go on were shot or bayoneted. Whatever relief was offered to the POWS as they stumbled along the track to Ranau, came from the local community. At one point during this second march, it dawned on Dick Braithwaite that it was the intention of the Japanese that no one would get out alive.
It was a one-way trip. When we started to hear shots, we felt there was no hope for anyone who fell out.
During the course of the march, Dick Braithwaite miraculously escaped. His son, Richard Braithwaite, picks up the story.
Interview: Professor Richard Braithwaite
About a third of the way, he was finding it very difficult to continue. He had been slipping as he was going up a greasy slope and not making any headway; a Japanese guard hit him with his rifle on the back of the head and knocked him down. And he was left for dead. He had to struggle to get to his feet again, because if he was left behind, the clean up spotters at the end of the march would have shot him.
He made his way along the track back towards Sandakan to find the river to cross and make his way to the coast. He found it very easy, but it was very hard country and quite an impossible task to follow the river down to the coast because of dense mangroves and vegetation. He tried to make a raft and failed in his ability to do that.
Early the following morning, he saw a man fishing on the river. He was quite an elderly man, who was wary about coming across, where my father was. He eventually did and took my father back to the Kampong which was not very far away.
He had malaria and was coughing and was a risk to the people who were there. They were very keen for him not to stay there very long in case he gave them away to the Japanese inadvertently. So they decided they would go to the entrance of the river.
They got down to the entrance to the estuary, and that night my father could see this large American task force out there. The next day a couple of American PT boats came by. The people that had been so generous to help him at great risk to themselves, hailed the American PT boat. After a few days he was transferred to the Australian base where he was interrogated for 6 weeks and then repatriated by hospital ship back to Australia.
As the second march left, the Japanese set fire to the Australian compound, leaving 288 prisoners, too sick to leave, exposed to the elements. In June, another 70 or so were forced to leave on a third death march, but no one survived beyond 42-mile post. The rest died over the next few weeks.
Ali Asa, a local man who worked for the Japanese, described the camp after the final group of men were taken away.
All the remaining prisoners were left in the open. About 10 to 12 died every day.
In the days leading up to the Japanese surrender, the men left in the camp died from disease, starvation and exposure. 23 were taken to the airfield and shot. Wong Hiong, a young Chinese man, heard the shots and spoke to the guards.
I asked them what they had been shooting, and they said ‘ducks’. I asked how many they shot, and they said 23. One of the Japs told me that the 23 prisoners were shot because there were not enough trucks left to take them away for the march.
Clearly the Japanese had no intention of allowing any prisoners to survive. The last remaining POW at Sandakan was beheaded with a single swipe of a sword just five hours after the Emperor of Japan broadcast his country’s surrender.
Although the war was over, the slaughter continued. Dr Bob Oakeshott’s father had survived the march to Ranau, although he never made it home.
Interview: Bob Oakeshott
On the 15th August, the day that Japan capitulated, there happened to be 15 POWs still alive in the last camp at Ranau. My father was one of the five officers in that group of 15. Those five officers were being walked back to Ranau with the Japanese ‘guard’, in inverted commas. I understand that their expectations were that they knew the war was over because leaflets had been dropped in the area. And I believe they believed that they were walking to freedom. They sat down under a tree to have a cigarette and it was then that they were each shot in the head. Five of them murdered. My father was one of those five officers.Back to top
This memorial obelisk stands near the site of the ‘Big Tree’. It was a huge Mengaris, one of the tallest trees in the world, and reached a dizzy height of 76 metres, which is more than 250 feet.
This landmark tree could be seen from any part of the camp, and beyond. It became a common point of reference. Russ Ewin wrote of Sandakan as a place ‘Bereft of beauty’ and ‘Devoid of all that pleases… Save the tree!’
This tree, was the focal point in the camp.’ I’ll meet you at the Big Tree…’ or ‘I’ve got something for you…bring it over to the Big Tree.’
And when it stormed, as it often did, it was just magnificent.
As the Big Tree survived the continuous onslaughts of nature, it became a symbol of resilience and endurance.
This obelisk now forms a meeting place for those who come to commemorate the lives of the people who died in Sandakan during that dark period of Japanese occupation. Engraved into the stone are three floral emblems – the waratah for the Australians, roses for the British, and a hibiscus for the Malaysians.
You may want to wander through the Memorial Pavilion now. Wall panels surrounding the hall tell the story of the POW camp. There is also a model of the site based on aerial photographs. You will see that the leadlight window uses similar floral symbols to those engraved into the obelisk.
Each year, on Anzac Day and Sandakan Day, a service is held here to honour everyone who died during the Japanese Occupation between 1942 and 1945.Back to top
In the aftermath of the war in the Pacific, the Australian War Graves Unit, along with Prisoner of War Contact Teams, began searching what remained of Sandakan camp. The official diarist of a War Graves Unit wrote:
War Graves Diarist
22nd 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 60 paybooks, and various other articles bearing numbers and name.
There were also meager artifacts of everyday life – shaving brushes, smoking pipes and tobacco tins.
Then there were the bodies.
War Graves Diarist
26th 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 to 150 bodies. Went to Number 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 to 8 bodies.
The teams searched the death march route to Ranau. Along the way they found the remains of many POWs. They were eventually buried in Labuan War Cemetery. Only a small number were identifiable. The others lie in graves inscribed “Known unto God”.
Japanese officers and guards stood trial for their war crimes. The only witnesses were the six Australians who made it home and the local people who came forward to report the atrocities.
Shortly after the surrender, news of Sandakan reached Australia. But since so few had survived, the story of Sandakan was overshadowed by those of the Burma-Thailand Railway, Changi, Japan, and other areas where many died, but thousands came home.
At the 50th Anniversary commemorations marking the end of the war, Sandakan was included in official pilgrimages to former battle sites. Owen Campbell, one of the six who survived, revisited the site of the camp.
The Sandakan story has got to be brought out into the light. That’s what I reckon. Bring it to their 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. When you realize 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.
We have now come to the end of our podcast on Sandakan Memorial Park. We would like to acknowledge the many people who gave so freely of their time. Their participation has made the telling of the Sandakan story all the richer. We would particularly like to mention Russ Ewin, who, all these years later, still clearly remembers his time as a POW in Borneo. We are equally indebted to Lynette Silver, whose scholarship has informed the project from the very beginning.
© Commonwealth of Australia 2018
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