On 8th July 1942, 1500 Australians left Changi for Borneo under the name of “B” Force, Lt-Col. Walsh, 2/10th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery was the commander. Transported on board the tramp ship Ubi Maru, arriving in Sandakan Harbour on 18 July 1942.
Sandakan was under the command of Captain Hoshijima Susumi, the prisoners were placed in Camp 1. This had a very large tree growing in the middle of the camp.
They were put to work building two airstrips and the roads to supply these. For the first twelve months the prisoners were treated well, with only six deaths in the camp. Concerts were regularly held with Nelson Short supplying music for these.
“E” Force left Changi on 28th March 1943 on board the S.S. DeKlerk arriving at Berhala Island (adjacent to Sandakan Harbour) on 15th April 1943 and was made up from 500 A.I.F and 500 from the Southern Area, the force was first sent to Kuching in Sarawak, before the Australians were transferred to Sandakan. The Australian POW's were held there until 5th June, when they were taken by barge to Sandakan. The next day they were transferred to the 8 Mile Camp (Camp 3), which was about half a mile from the ‘B’ Force compound.
The April arrivals were two parties of British both from Jesselton. The first on the 8th which consisted of the fittest and the second on the 18th at 5.30pm. The second party had many sick within their numbers, Padre Wanless being amongst this party of 570 men. This party included 240 of the very sick, the men looking gaunt and very ill and were placed, 74 to each hut.In April 1943, there were 776 British POW’s at Sandakan and were held in Camp 2.
Formosan guards were now arriving and with them the treatment of the POW’s deteriorated quickly. The Commandant refused permission for any communication between the the three POW camps, and gave orders to the guards to punish anyone who disobeyed his orders.
A “cage “ was placed near the big tree facing the guard house. It was made of wood, 130cm by 170cm with iron bars all around the outside, it was just high enough to sit in. During the first week of being “caged”, no food was allowed. At 5pm the prisoners were let out for physical exercise this was always accompanied by a beating from the guards. The allied cook used to put the scraps out at this time in a trough knowing the prisoners were about, the caged prisoners fought the dogs to obtain a scrap of food.
On Sunday, 9th May, Padre Wanless gave the Sermon at the 9am service.
During August the majority of the officers were moved back to Kuching, leaving nine to manage the men Sandakan, these were Mills, Young, Rolfe, Daniels, Blackledge, Chopping, Padre Wanless, Burgess and Linge.
The beatings got worse towards the end of 1943 and carried on into 1944.
Sandakan Airfield as taken from a B24 Liberator
The Liberator was with the 13th Air Force stationed in the Philipines. The photo has the date September 27th 1944. The bombed airfield at Sandakan can be seen and the wing of the B24.
Supplied by Tony Sklareski
During September 1944, Allied planes started raiding Sandakan and the airfield. This brought renewed hope for the prisoners, who could watch the bombing of the airfield, as it was next to the camp.
Food was rationed further in December to 140-200 grams per man. The air raids were making the airstrip unusable and the Japanese abandoned any hope of using the prisoners as a workforce, they were now surplus to requirements and the death rate climbed sharply as the rations were decreased.
In January 1945 the Japanese stopped feeding the prisoners, they could only survive on the rice the prisoners themselves had stored, 85 grams a day were issued per man.
The Japanese were now fearing an invasion of Borneo in the Sandakan area and to stop the prisoners falling into Allied hands, they decided to move the POW’s to Ranau some 260 kilometres away. This also gave them the chance to use the prisoners as a mule train, carrying the supplies on their backs.
The first party of 455 Australian and British prisoners, was split into nine groups, which, in turn left between 29th January and 6th February. They were told there was to be food for everyone at Ranau but for now they had only four days of rations, per man, for the journey. Overladen with rice sacks and supplies of ammunition they started off through the swamp land hindered by heavy rain. The natives had already cut a path using wooden walk ways across swamp land. In bare feet and mud covered planking, the walk ways were impossible to navigate, the prisoners had to wade through the swamps. Group three took 17 days to reach Ranau and out of the 50 men that started 37 only survived the march. The unfortunate who fell behind were bayoneted to death or shot.
After the final group, Lieutenant Abe Kazuo was ordered to clear up any stragglers by disposing of them, a Japanese soldier gave evidence to this to war crimes investigators after the war.
Groups 1 to 5 were to lose 70 out of 265 men on the journey to Ranau.
Group 6 to 9 were taken to Paginatan, near Ranau, out of the 138 POW’s who reached there, only 68 were left after one month, being starved to death. At the end of March those who survived were marched on to Ranau, only 46 survived the march.
At the end of April another 89 prisoners had died at Ranau and another 21 died carrying rice back to Paginatan for the future parties of prisoners leaving Sandakan.
The insinuatory and crowded huts of Ranau did nothing to help the conditions the POW’s had to suffer, every morning the dead were buried.
By 26th June only six out of the 455 prisoners that left Sandakan in late January were alive.
The prisoners that had stayed at Sandakan were not fairing any better, starvation diets, and disease had taken their toll, 885 British and Australian prisoners had perished.
In April the Japanese decided to move the remanding POW’s to Ranau and after a sea bombardment on 27th May the Japanese evacuated the 800 POW’s which were left and burnt all the huts in the camp except one. 530 of these prisoners were then sent on another march to Ranau.
This second march was even worse then the first with the prisoner too weak to withstand the long trek. At the beginning of the march, three Chinese reported these killings.
Chinese peasants:- About the end of May or it may have been early June 1945, a large number of Australians and other allied servicemen were being marched along the Labuk road from the prisoner of war camp at Sandakan.
They arrived at the fifteen milepost at approximately 11am. They stopped there and had a meal. At about 2pm four allied planes came over and the party scattered. About 5pm the Japanese guards ordered the prisoners to up and fall in. All obeyed except seven who were too ill to walk and had arrived hobbling on sticks. Two Japanese guards and one Malay soldier remained behind when the others started off. The guards then started to urge the seven men along, kicking them and hitting them with their own sticks. Although they were very weak the Japanese guards succeeded in beating them along for about thirty yards. The two Japanese guards then took the rifle from the Malay soldier, and driving the prisoners off the road started shooting them in the back.
They were just behind Chin Kin’s house. Four of the prisoners were instantaneously killed, and the two others were wounded. One managed to get away and hid a little further up the road. The two Japanese guards, together with their Malayan comrade, carried on in the direction of Ranau with out waiting to examine the prisoners who, presumably, they believed to be dead. The prisoner who ran further up the road and gone into hiding was found by one of the Kempei Tai on the following afternoon.
This soldier first went into his house next door, brought his rifle, and shot the other two men, who were still alive, through the head.
The shooting of these men took place as the three of us were digging a grave for the four who had been shot the previous evening. The Kempei Tai soldier then left the spot where we were going to bury the six prisoners, and started looking around. We then heard a shot fired, but were afraid to go and look in the direction whence it came, and continued to dig the garden as though we heard nothing. When we had finished burying the six dead prisoners we went to look for the seventh, the one who had tried to hide. We went in the direction from which we had heard the shot fired and there we found him lying dead. He had been shot in the stomach.
The story from the Chinese was corroborated after the war.
Private Botterill, an Australian reported: - At one time the only food that forty of us had was six cucumbers. When we were about a week away from Ranau we crossed a large mountain, and while we were making the crossing two Australians, Private Humphries and a corporal whose name I cannot remember, fell out. They were suffering from beri-beri, malaria and dysentery and just could not continue any further. A Japanese private shot the corporal, and a Japanese sergeant shot Humphries. Altogether we lost five men on that hill. As we were going along men would fall out as they became too weak to carry on. We would march on and then, shortly afterwards, hear shots ring out and the sound of men screaming. When this occurred there was always a Japanese guard who had stayed behind to “take care” of the stragglers.
Group Two had lost 12 of the 50 in the first day with stragglers being dealt with in the same manner as before.
Ryoichi Nakano, Japanese Guard: - During the march many prisoners fell out and were left behind at camps. In the rear of the march there was a special three guard section commanded by Sergeant Major Tsuji and I took my turn in this party three or four times. I guarded prisoners who fell out while the other POWs went past and then handed them over to Tsuji's party who disposed of them.
I saw five POWs being taken away into the jungle after which I heard shots. When we reached camp that night the guards were talking about the killings and about the guards who had carried them out. Guards were forced to kill under the orders of Lieutenant Wantanabe and Sergeant Major Tsuji.
Nelson Short noted:
And if the blokes just couldn’t go on, we shook hands with them, and said, you know, hope everything’s all right. But they knew what was going to happen. There was nothing you could do. You just had to keep yourself going. More or less survival of the fittest.
During this march there were two escape attempts. The first, Gunner Owen Campbell of the 2/10th Field Regiment escaped with five others. Campbell looked after one of these, Ted Skinner, as he was very ill, Skinner later died. It is believed Skinner cut his own throat, to give Campbell a chance to survive. When Campbell caught up with the remaining four, they tried to get help from a canoe. A Japanese soldier shot and killed two more, Webber and Emmett. Three days later Costin died. Campbell went on alone until he was helped by two local men who delivered him to a local guerrilla leader. In time he was taken to an Australian Service Reconnaissance Department unit behind enemy lines.
In the second attempt, Richard “Dick” Braithwaite, 2/15th Field Regiment was very sick with malaria, but had a lot of luck on his side. As he was very ill, he could not keep up on the second death march, so he hid until the column of prisoners had passed. He followed a river hoping it would come out at the sea, it eventually came out at the Lubak River, where he was helped by Abing, a local man. Braithwaite was carried downstream to Liberan Island where he was rescued by an American PT boat.
After 26 days the men reached Ranau with only 183 left, 142 Australian and 41 British.
The 288 POW’s left at the Sandakan Camp were very ill and sick. Leaving the very sick to care for themselves, 75 of the fittest started the third march to Ranau, most died within 60 kilometres from the camp.
The remainder were left at Camp 2 in the open, as the remaining hut was burnt down.
A Chinese, Wong Hiong, reported to the war crimes investigators, that it was about this time, Lt. Moritake killed a prisoner from the cage by ‘crucifixion’. Lt. Moritake was never brought to trial for this crime as it is believed, he had committed suicide.
In July, 23 prisoners were taken out to the airfield, a Chinese worker said he then heard shots, the prisoners never returned. It was later described as a duck shoot by a Japanese guard.
Yoshinori Nishikawa, Japanese Guard: - There was an order to send 23 more prisoners to Ranau. The truth, however, is that on 13 July we took them out to the airport to a deep air raid shelter. We lined them up and all of us fired at them. Any that were not killed by the first shot we fired at again until they were all dead. Then we dragged their bodies to a hole and covered it up.
As the last lot of prisoners died at the camp the Javanese came in and buried them. When all were dead we burnt everything and left.
It was later established at the war crimes investigation that Captain Takakuwa Takuo gave the order to dispose of the men and Sergeant Major Hisao Murozumi ordered them lined up to be shot.
Pictured in October 1945, the burnt-out remains of a compound at Sandakan where the bodies of 300 murdered prisoners of war were discovered.
Australian War Memorial
28 men were now left to die of disease and starvation, leaving one remaining Australian.
Major Hisao Murozumi made the man kneel beside a drain and beheaded him with one stroke of his sword. This was on the day the emperor declared the war was over and Japan was surrendering.
Back at Ranau the men were being treated miserably and were dying at an alarming rate, with an estimate of seven a day. Reverend John Thirwell Wanless was one of these, dying on the 30th June at Ranau Camp 2J, cause of death was given as acute enteritis, he was buried in the camp cemetery.
The men could see their end was near and on the 7th July 1945, four Australians decided to make their escape. Keith Botterill, Nelson Short, William Moxham and Andy Anderson, knew there was little hope if they stayed, a guard had leaked to them they were to be disposed of.
They were helped by a local man, Bariga. He hid them and cared for them until August, when Bariga found out there was an Australian unit operating in the area behind Japanese lines. Bariga helped them find this unit. Unfortunately Andy Anderson died on the journey.
Bill Sticpewich following Botterill’s example escaped on the 27th July.
By this time the survivors at Ranau were down to 40.
In August 1945 the remainder of these survivors were put to death with a single shot each, through the head.
The six surviving Australian's who had escaped, gave evidence to the war investigators and this helped convict some Japanese for their crimes.
It was also reported the help which the local villages had given. The allies provided financial assistance to the local villagers for their humane actions.
A touching finish to end this horrific tale of misery.
Laden, Fevered, Starved - The POWs of Sandakan, North Borneo, 1945
Researched by Dr Richard Reid
with assistance from Robert Pounds and Courtney Page
Australian War Memorial - http://www.awm.gov.au
Kill the Prisoners by Don Wall
Knights of Bushido by Lord Russell
Sandakan - A Conspiracy of Silence by Lynette Ramsay Silver