After the fall of Singapore in February 1942, numbers of Australian and British POWs were brought progressively to Sandakan.
The first large group of Australians about 1500 men to arrive from Singapore was ‘B’ Force. They steamed along the east coast of Borneo on the Ubi Maru and arrived at Sandakan on 17 July 1942.
Lieutenant Rod wells thought the scenery beautiful.
From the sea it’s lovely. With red chalk hills on the side of Berhala Island it really was very impressive. I suppose for a split moment we thought, with a sigh of relief, that here’s some beautiful, peaceful land where there may not be any Japanese.
Once ashore, the Japanese marched them to Sandakan POW Camp, which was under the command of Captain Hoshijima Sussumi.
In April 1943, ‘B’ Force was joined by 776 British POWs and between April and June, by another group of 500 Australian prisoners ‘E’ Force.
The POWs were brought to Sandakan to build two military airstrips and their service roads and dispersal pens. Each day at 7.30am, work details left the camp for the airfield where they cleared and burnt off scrub, filled in swamps, dug gravel and pushed trucks along a light railway to where the gravel was dumped for levelling. At 5.30pm they marched back to camp.
In the early days this life was almost bearable, Private Keith Botterill, 2/19th Battalion remembers.
We had it easy the first twelve months. I reckon only half a dozen died at the top… 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 ten cents per day…I think a coconut was about 1 cent, and a turtle egg one cent…And a fair size banana went for a cent… It was a good camp.
The rest of 1943 and 1944 were characterised by an increased number of beatings…almost daily occurrences. Prolonged work, diminished rations and sickness.
In September 1944 Allied planes began raiding Sandakan and the airfield. December saw a reduction in the daily rice ration…By the end of the month further air raids had rendered the airfield inoperable. Any real usefulness that the POWS had for their captors was at an end.
The health of the POWs deteriorated rapidly and the death rate crept up, in January 1945 the Japanese issue of rice ceased.
January 1945 saw the Japanese on the defensive…it seemed only a matter of time before the Allies struck at Borneo. Fearing that this invasion may occur in the Sandakan they made provisions to move the POWs more than 260 kilometres westward to Ranau.
A track was cut by the local villages through the low lying swamps and jungle and up into the dense rainforest of the ranges.
First Death March to Ranau, January- March 1945
“Once you stopped, you stopped for good”
Approximately 455 POWS left Sandakan on the first march to Ranau.
They were issued with enough rations for just four days forcing them to scrounge for food or trade their few possessions with the local people. The men were also burdened with extra sacks of rice, ammunition and other pieces of Japanese equipment.
Most of the POWs were forced to march in bare feet and the track west soon became barely passable pathway of mud, tree roots and stone, the men were forced to wade through the swamp itself.
Keith Botterill was with the third group to leave Sandakan on 31 January.
“We had just enough food to keep us alive…It took us 17 days to make the trip.
Of the 50 who had started out only 37 reached Ranau.”
Some had simply died of exhaustion and disease; others, unable to go on were shot or sometimes beaten to death.
I’ve seen men shot and bayoneted to death because they could not keep up with the party. We climbed this mountain about 30miles 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.
Second Death March to Ranau, May-June 1945.
“It was a one way trip”
The Australian and British POWs on the second march to Ranau left Sandakan camp on 29 May 1945. Of about 530 marchers, only 100 were in any condition to embark on such an ordeal. Many knew themselves that they would not get far.
As with the first march, a Japanese detachment had been assigned to deal with those that fell out.
Nelson Short was on the second march and he recalled the bravery with which many POWs faced their end;
And if Blokes just couldn’t go on, we shook hands with them, and said you know, hope everything 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.
Dick Braithwaite became quickly aware of the purpose of this forced march;
It was a one way trip when we started to hear shots, and you felt there was no hope for anyone that fell out.