The horrific ordeal of the Sandakan death marches

The ruins of huts in the prisoner of war camp, Sandakan, North Borneo, October 1945. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: 120457
The ruins of huts in the prisoner of war camp, Sandakan, North Borneo, October 1945. Those who were too ill for the march were eventually murdered here. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: 120457

It must have seemed that nothing could get worse for the PoWs who were prisoners of the Japanese on Borneo. In 1942 about 3,500 men, British and Australian, had been brought to Sandakan camp to build an airfield for the Japanese. At the beginning of 1945 2,434 men survived, the death rate having increased dramatically at the end of 1944 when the meagre food allowance was cut again.

As the area started to suffer from Allied bombing raids, the Japanese decided to march the PoWs 164 miles into the jungle interior to Ranau. It was a decision at first welcomed by the PoWs who had suffered fatalities from the bombing themselves. They could not have been more wrong.

None of the approximately 800 British PoWs would survive the ordeal of the march and accompanying massacres and atrocities. And only six Australians were alive at the end of the war. Two of those survivors:

If 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.

Nelson Short

It was a oneway trip when we started to hear shots, and you felt there was no hope for anyone who fell out.

Dick Braithwaite

The following account summarises what is known of the circumstances of the marches:

On 28 January 1945, the first of 455 PoWs, in nine groups, set off from Sandakan to march to Ranau on the 164-mile trek through the jungle and swamps. The emaciated prisoners, in ragged clothes, many with bare feet and the remainder in disintegrating boots, suffering from malnutrition, disease and tropical sores, started out on the first of three marches that became known as the Death Marches.

The PoWs carried all the food including that for the guards. The route of the Death March, climbing up to 1,000 metres in some places, was along jungle tracks some of which the prisoners had to hack through thick jungle. The route crossed and re-crossed rivers which, as it was the monsoon season, were full in full flow.

Humidity was extreme. There were no medical kits for the PoWs and drinking water was direct from the streams, rivers, swamps or puddles. It was a case of march or die, which developed into march to die. Any prisoner that stopped was shot, bayoneted or clubbed to death; there were also occasional strangulations.

It was reported that there were instances of crucifixion and cases of cannibalism of PoWs – the prisoners being shot, butchered and then eaten by the Japanese.

There were also stories of strips of flesh being cut from living PoWs, the prisoners being regarded as “walking larders”, so that “fresh meat” could flavour the rice for the Formosan and Korean guards. There were local reports of two PoWs who, having been killed by the Kempeitai, had their limbs removed and the torsos taken down stream to a large Japanese camp. The news of this atrocity travelled far and wide without alteration to the account.

The local Sabahans also explained that the Japanese were short of food and were culling PoWs to boost their meagre rations. There were further instances of cannibalism of Kadazan, Dusan and Murut tribesmen by the Japanese.

The first, and subsequent marches, were horrific beyond description, undertaken by undernourished and sick men suffering from dehydration, salt deprivation, and dysentery, bloated by beriberi, meningitis, malaria and other jungle-related illnesses and sores. In many cases, bones could be seen through the suppurating fly-blown open wounds. Their bodies were quite simply rotting.

Leaches, tics, mosquitoes, fire ants, hornets and the cuts, stings and abrasions from the clinging undergrowth only added to their parlous condition. Those too sick to undertake the march were either later massacred at Sandakan or were sent by ship to other PoW camps where most met a similar fate.

Against all the odds, by mid-February 1945, some PoWs (all Australians) were still arriving at Ranau. Many had died en route, whilst others succumbed after they arrived. A mix of both Australian and British prisoners arrived at Paginantan, twenty-six miles short of Ranau, again many dying on the way. Rice carrying details started out from Ranau to Paginantan, a forced march of three days, carrying rice. Unencumbered, the return took two days.

Parties of men each carried 44lb sacks of rice; anyone who failed to keep up was either shot or executed by other means, their loads being redistributed amongst the survivors to carry. The Formosan and Korean guards were allegedly the worst and took great delight in their tasks. The first PoW to die on the rice march had travelled barely half a mile along the route. One PoW committed suicide as he could not face returning to Ranau.

See Command Post Media, an account of a commemoration march conducted by the Royal Artillery in 2011.

A more detailed report on the whole history of the men who were sent to Sandakan was written by Lt. Col. H. W. S. Jackson after the war:

23. The first P.O.Ws. began to fall out from the march after four days which was near the Tankual Crossing, on the Maunad River, a rest post about 40 miles from Sandakan and in a portion of the track that was knee deep, in mud. The ones who fell out were kept under guard until the main party had disappeared from view and then they were shot and their bodies thrown into the jungle, at the side of the track. The P.O.Ws. could hear the shots and so knew what would happen if they fell out. P.O.W. “Fall Outs” would give away their personal belongings to their mates when they realized they could no longer continue. Those lucky enough to still possess leather boots would enquire of foot sizes before giving them away and would pass on messages of farewell for their mothers, wives and families.

24. N0.1 Party reached Ranau on the 12th. of February 1945 having lost thirteen of their men en route, a further two died on the day they reached Ranau. No. 2 Party reached Ranau on the the 15th. of February, No. 3 on the 16th., No. 4 on the 18th. and No. 5 on the 19th. Nos 6, 7, 8 and 9 parties reached Paginatan (26 miles west of Ranau) around the 20th. of February, where they rested, the original 195 had been reduced to 160. The 260 P.O.Ws. of parties Nos 1-5 had arrived at Ranau with only 150 survivors. Yamamoto realized that they would never survive the trip to Tuaran, over even more mountainous country that they had already traversed.

25. After a month the 160 men who had reached Paginatan had been reduced to 60 only 30 of whom were fit to continue to Ranau. The death rate at Ranau was equally as high, the strain of the march seemed to cause a rapid deterioration to their health.

Lt. Col. H. W. S. Jackson : A Report On The Borneo Death Marches

8 thoughts on “The horrific ordeal of the Sandakan death marches”

  1. Enlistment 7 October 1941 • Royal Park, Victoria,
    Service Number VX63691 8th Division Base Postal Unit Mayla Acting Corporal
    Taken to Changi prison Selarang Barracks and was a part of B Force 1494 prisoners 1037 privates were to be afflicted with 145 Officers, and 312, N. C. O’s
    7th July 1942 on the UBI MURU transported to Sandakan via Kanching arriving on the 18 July 1942 at Sandakan Harbor worked in many camps around Sandakan with 2400 other POW
    Died of illness Ether Starvation Dysentery or Berri Berri on 20 may 1945 just 3 months before the JAPANESE surrender And was buried in POW cemetery 1 or 2 Plot 27 Row B Grave 11
    he was exhumed by War Graves Commission in 1949 and he remains taken to Labuan War Cemetery and buried on 13th June 1949 Section 25, Row B, Plot 11. A
    he is buried with 3986 other souls

  2. My grandfather and his brother were both killed on the Sandakan death march. No one knows the truth but we have been told he was beheaded for stopping, and his brother was killed a month later. The stories I have read are horrendous. My nan could never talk about it. I have copies of cards that were sent to her that were standard templates that said he was well. Yeah right.

  3. Read the book the” Sandakan Conspiracy” which tells the story of the Sandakan Death Marches. My uncle Lin Williamson 2/18th Battalion NX 40836 was murdered by the Japanese either in Sandakan or on the march. The Australian government covered up a lot of information about the prisoners of war after the war and most of the boys who fell were buried and reburies without proper Identification. There is a museum where the camp was.
    One aspect of the deaths of the Australians was that they died in the arms of their mates who held them and comforted them to their last breath. I think to survive in that place and under those conditions would make one super human. I am proud of my uncle Lin and he isn’t forgotten by our family and his photo is still displayed. The commandant was hanged but most went back to japan and Korea to live out their lives in safety and comfort.

  4. And people feel sorry for the japanese for being subject to nuclear warfare….they were savages and they got their due justice.

  5. And people feel sorry for the japanese for being subject to nuclear warfare….they were savages and got their due.

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