The Sandakan Death Marches are the most infamous incident in series of events which resulted in the deaths of more than 6,000 Indonesian civilian slave labourers and Allied prisoners of war, held by the Empire of Japan during the Pacific campaign of World War II, at prison camps in North Borneo. Of all the prisoners held at the camps at the time of the marches, only about 6 survived the war.
In 1942, Indonesian civilians, imported from Java, along with Australian and British POWs, who had been captured at the fall of Singapore, were shipped to North Borneo, to build a military airstrip at Sandakan. As on the Burma Railway, the prisoners were worked hard at gunpoint, were often beaten and received little food or medical treatment. They were held in the area once construction was completed. Most had died as a result of their treatment by early 1945. When Allied landings in the area appeared increasingly likely, the camp commandant, Captain Susumi Hoshijima decided to move the remaining prisoners inland to Ranau, a distance of approximately 250 kilometres (160 miles).
The First Marches
A first phase of marches – through swamps, jungle and mountainous areas – occurred between January and March, 1945. In several groups, 455 POWs, all of whom were malnourished and/or suffering serious illness, started the journey. Although the route took nine days, they were given and made to carry four days’ rations. As on the Bataan Death March, POWs who were not fit enough to complete the journey were either killed or left to die en route. The worst was yet to come for the roughly 140 men who completed the journey. In the words of one historian: “Those who survived to reach Ranau were herded into insanitary and crowded huts and many died from dysentery. By 26 June, only five Australians and one British soldier were still alive.”
The Second Marches
Meanwhile, at the Sandakan camp, some 885 POWs died of hunger and illness between February and May. A second wave of forced marches to Ranau began on May 29, when the camp was closed and destroyed by the Japanese. A group of 536 POWs were sent towards Ranau; almost 300 prisoners who were not well enough to move were either killed, or left to die in the ruins of the Sandakan camp. The marchers were even less fit than those in the first phase, were provided with fewer rations and were forced to forage for food along the way. Only 183 POWs remained when the group reached Ranau on 27 June.
By the end of July, when four prisoners escaped, the last to do so, there were only 40 POWs still alive at Ranau and none of these 40 survived the war. They were killed by the guards in August, possibly up to 12 days after the war ended on August 14.
Of the six Allied survivors, all of whom were Australian soldiers, only three survived the lingering effects of their ordeal to give evidence at war crimes trials in Tokyo and Rabaul. Hokijima was found guilty and hanged on April 6, 1946.
It is believed that almost 4,000 Indonesians, 1,381 Australians, and 641 British prisoners died at, or between, Sandakan and Ranau.
The Sandakan Death Marches have been dramatised in the 2004 play Sandakan Threnody – a threnody being a hymn of mourning, composed as a memorial to a dead person. The play was written by Australian composer Jonathan Mills, whose father survived a term of imprisonment at Sandakan, in 1942-43.
Nelson Short went on the second death march in June 1945. He recalled the camp at Ranau:
To think that a man was going to survive. You saw these men every day when you were getting treated for ulcers. The dead were lying there, naked skeletons. They were all ready to be buried. You thought to yourself, well, how could I possibly get out of a place like this? We’re in the middle of Borneo, we’re in the jungle. How possibly could we ever survive? Sydney was a long way from there.
Nelson Short did make it back to Sydney, one of six POWs– all Australians–who went through Sandakan, the death marches, and Ranau and lived. Four of them escaped towards the end at Ranau. As well as Short from the 2/18th Battalion, the others were:
- Warrant Officer ‘Bill’ Sticpewich, Australian Army Service Corps;
- Private Keith Botterill, 2/19th Battalion; and Lance Bombardier William Moxham, 2/15th Australian Field Regiment.
Two others escaped earlier from the second death march:
- Gunner Owen Campbell, 2/10th Australian Field Regiment; and Bombardier Richard ‘Dick’ Braithwaite, 2/15th Australian Field Regiment.
Picture & Information credit to: Sabah Tourism Board | Wikipedia.org | Australian War Memorial