Research & Articles by Lt. Col. Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (Retired), JP
Research, Interviews and Articles about the Prisoners Of War of the Japanese who built the Burma to Thailand railway during world war two. Focusing on the doctors and medical staff among the prisoners. Also organised trips to Thailand twice a year.
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Sandakan Death March – Annihilate Them All
By Lynette Silver

I am privileged to present the following material which has been produced with the kind permission of Lynette Silver.

15 June 1945. Clad only in ragged loin-cloths, 75 skeletal creatures, barely recognisable as human, struggle to their feet at the Sandakan POW Compound, on Borneo’s north-east coast. Three long years in captivity, half of them on starvation rations and with little or no medical attention, have taken their toll. The grimy, wasted bodies of these once fit and strapping Australian and British servicemen are covered in sores and scabies, their filthy hair and beards matted and lice-infested. Many are suffering from tropical ulcers, some so large that shin bones are clearly visible. Others, bloated from beriberi, lumber along on grossly distended, sausage-like legs.

They are bound for Ranau, a small village on the flanks of Mt Kinabalu, S E Asia’s highest peak, situated 250 kilometres away to the west, in the rugged, jungle-clad interior. Not one of these prisoners will reach Ranau. All will be dead, from exhaustion, illness or at the hands of their captors, before they cover 54 kilometres.

The 75 prisoners were all members of a 2700-strong contingent, 2000 of them Australian, transferred to Sandakan by the Japanese in 1942-43, following Singapore’s fall. Their task? To construct a military airfield, using not much more than their bare hands.

For the first eighteen months or so, conditions at Sandakan were no better or worse than any other POW camp. The work was hard, and the guards inclined to brutality at the slightest provocation, but food was plentiful. Indeed, the situation remained good until the latter part of 1943, when the Japanese discovered that the POWs not only had a radio but were in league with a local resistance organisation. The kempei-tai, or secret police, swooped and arrests followed. One Australian, Captain Lionel Matthews, and eight civilians were tried and executed by firing squad. Many others were sent to varying terms of imprisonment and, in order to reduce the possibility of further ‘incidents’, almost all Sandakan’s officers were transferred to the main POW Camp at Kuching, on Borneo’s south-western coast. Discipline at the Sandakan Camp was tightened considerably and, from October 1943 onwards, life became much more difficult.

As the war ground on, conditions deteriorated. In late January 1945, with rations reduced to below subsistence level and, with the airstrip unusable owing to repeated Allied attacks, the Japanese decided to move 455 of the fittest prisoners to Borneo’s west coast, to act as coolie labourers. They were to be accompanied by a regiment of Japanese troops, recently withdrawn from the Philippines. As both sea and air were under the complete control of the Allies, any movement to the west was now by foot, along a track which had been cut through the mountains, linking existing bridle-trails. Unaware that it was to be used by POWs, the fiercely pro-British local headmen who had been given the task of creating this track had deliberately routed it away from any habitation, across the most inhospitable and difficult terrain possible.

There was no medical assistance and precious little food. Furthermore, Japanese army regulations decreed that anyone in retreat who could not keep up was to be ‘disposed of’. This applied to both prisoners and soldiers, who were dispatched with ruthless efficiency. Despite this, 75% of the prisoners completed the march which, for them, unexpectedly ended at the villages of Paginatan and Ranau, owing to increased Allied air activity on Borneo’s west coast.

The two villages were ill-equipped to cope with an influx of over 350 prisoners and their guards. Food was scarce, so scarce that at Paginatan the Japanese resorted to acts of cannibalism, completely unacceptable to western civilisation but sanctioned by the Japanese army to eat the flesh of enemy dead. The big killer, however, was dysentery. So many POWs had died by 30 March that there was enough room in the open-sided bamboo hut at Ranau to accommodate everyone. By the end of April there were only 56 left alive, and by 10 June, only ten. The rest had either been murdered in cold blood or perished from starvation, illness or exposure during the cold mountain nights.
By 16 June, these ten, who had been moved to a new camp hidden deep in the jungle to the south of Ranau, had been reduced to just six. Ten days later, another 183 emaciated men straggled into the camp, all that were left of 536 prisoners who had left Sandakan a month before. The level of fitness of this group was poor, and a considerable number unable to keep up had been murdered en route. There were a few escape attempts, either singly or in small groups, but only two men had succeeded, due to the efforts of villagers who had organised their evacuation to American troops operating in the area from bases in the Philippines. Survivors of another group of 100 POWs, siphoned from the second march, were carrying rice and other supplies for the Japanese, at the Sandakan end of the track.

For the prisoners who reached Ranau, forced to live in the open until they built themselves a hut, there was no respite. Realising that death was probably inevitable, four more Australians eventually managed to escape into the jungle, where they were cared for by villagers. The rest died in increasing numbers. On 27 July, only forty of Ranau’s POWs were left alive - 32 Australians and 8 British. On 1 August, the Japanese ordered seventeen who were very ill to be either carried or to crawl to the cemetery, where they were shot dead.

The last fifteen hung on. Surrender leaflets were dropped by Allied aircraft on 18 August and again, a few days later. Finally, on 27 August, twelve days after the war ended, the five officers received the news all were undoubtedly waiting to hear - they were to go to Ranau, for talks at Japanese headquarters. Freedom, surely, must be only a day or two away. In the meantime, the ten ‘other ranks’ were to walk to a village, five kilometres away, to collect fresh vegetables.

The two groups set off in opposite directions, under armed escort, only to be stopped a short distance from the camp. Without warning, the five officers were shot dead in a hail of rifle fire. A kilometre or two to the south, the ten men were taken down a side-track and killed with a single bullet to the head. All ten had been told what was in store, and each faced the inevitable with great bravery. In what appears to be in response to a simultaneous order, issued at Ranau, the surviving members of the rice-carrying party were also shot dead at Muanad, 80 kilometres from Sandakan. Apart from the escapees, not one of the 1053 men who had set out for Ranau was left alive.

Back at Sandakan, almost 300 prisoners deemed too weak or ill to undertake the second march to Ranau had been herded into a fenced-off section of the old British compound on 29 May. The adjoining Australian camp was torched. Convinced that increasingly heavy attacks, which had culminated in a huge combined air and sea strike two days previously, heralded an Allied invasion, the Japanese had decided to pull out, taking as many prisoners as possible with them. Before they left, the kempei-tai extracted a terrible price from the civilian population, executing many who were believed to be in communication with the Americans.

There is a widespread belief that Sandakan’s prisoners were deliberately marched to death to eliminate all eye-witnesses to the ill-treatment and atrocities which had taken place there. However, the facts indicate that this is not the case. While there is no doubt that prisoners were subjected to terrible and inhumane treatment over a long period, and that orders were issued for the annihilation of POWs held in S E Asia if Japan lost the war, with few exceptions this final solution was not put in place, and definitely not at this stage of hostilities.

The prisoners on the first march, made redundant when the airstrip was bombed beyond repair, were transferred from the camp as a potential labour source. The second group was moved when the Japanese decided to pull back from a supposed invading force, and the third in response to a further order to retreat. All marchers unable to keep up, including Japanese soldiers, were eliminated in accordance with military regulations. To send hundreds of prisoners on a march, in the hope that they would die, is a most inefficient method of disposal and not in keeping with instructions issued by the Japanese government in April 1945, that any prisoners, unable to be moved to prevent them falling into enemy hands, could to be set free as a last resort or, in ‘extreme circumstances‘, killed by mass bombing, gassing, drowning or decapitation.
Those unable to join the second march were left behind in the open, not in the hope of bringing about their demise, but in the belief that they would be soon liberated by invading Allied forces - a belief held by the prisoners themselves. Logic dictates that had the Japanese wished to ensure, at this juncture, that there were no witnesses to their various war crimes, they would have machine-gunned the lot.
The men left in the open defied the odds. They built humpies from groundsheets and branches, and set up an ‘aid post’ in a clump of banana palms, using Red Cross parcels and dysentery drugs which the few remaining guards had seen fit to release. The Japanese NCO in command also distributed bags of tapioca and vegetables from time to time, which the prisoners eked out with kang kong, a type of wild spinach growing along the edge of the stream which served as their water supply. The local people, undeterred by the tortures and decapitations, the punishment for those aiding prisoners of war, further risked their lives to push whatever food they could spare beneath the wire.
Consequently, instead of being dead from starvation and exposure within a week, the fitter prisoners clung tenaciously to life. It appears that in mid-July their guards, on receiving orders to also pull back the west, became impatient. They had already sent the third march of 75 prisoners on their way to the interior, but the rest were not fit enough to march with them to Ranau. They would have to wait until all were dead. In order to speed up the death rate, twenty-three POWs who looked as if they had no intention of expiring in the immediately foreseeable future, were marched out to the airstrip on 13 July and shot dead.

Over the next three weeks, the remainder co-operated by dying of ‘natural’ causes until, on the morning of 15 August, only one prisoner, Private John Skinner, a lanky bushman from Tenterfield, NSW, was left alive. At 7.15 am a contingent of guards marched across the road from their barracks. Dragging the Australian from his crude ground-sheet shelter, they forced him to a nearby hillside, where the bodies of 199 of his comrades lay buried head to tail, like sardines in a tin, in a series of slit-trenches. Without further ado, the guard commander unsheathed his sword and, with one tremendous swipe, beheaded Sandakan’s sole surviving prisoner. Five hours later, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender.

Sandakan is Australia’s worst tragedy of World War Two, made even more so by the complete and utter failure of a rescue mission, code-named Operation Kingfisher, scheduled for April 1945, when there were still at least 1000 prisoners alive at the Sandakan camp. Dogged by poor planning, and even poorer intelligence gathering, this mission, which involved 600 well-trained paratroops acting on intelligence received from a Special Operations team working behind the lines, was cancelled in mid-April, in the mistaken belief that all of Sandakan’s prisoners had been moved to the west coast and that the camp was empty. It was the receipt of this ‘information’ which was responsible for the increased attacks on Sandakan in May 1945, precipitating the second death march and provoking the deaths of so many civilians. It was not until the Americans were able to debrief one of the escapees from the second march that the appalling truth was realised. By then, it was all far too late.

Of the 2434 prisoners incarcerated at Sandakan, 1787 were Australian. The remaining 641 were British. The six Australians who escaped were the sole survivors. The rest were annihilated.

Copyright: Lynette Silver 2005. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form whatsoever, without the prior written authority of the copyright holder.

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