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10 things you might not know about the Sandakan Death Marches

Some of you might have heard of the Sandakan Death Marches. It is a series of forced marches from Sandakan to Ranau cutting through the dense rainforest of Borneo.

Overall, there were 2,434 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) died during their internment at Sandakan camp and the marches to Ranau.

It is widely considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during the World War II (WWII).

After the Battle of Singapore in February 1942, Australian and British POWs were captured and sent to Borneo between 1942 and 1943.

They were interned at Sandakan POWs camp and forced to build a military airstrip.

Just like how the POWs were forced to build the Burma Railway, these prisoners were forced to work at gunpoint with little food to eat.

To worsen the situation, they were given little to no medical attention.

By August 1943, the officer prisoners were moved from Sandakan to Batu Lintang camp in Kuching in order to take more control of the prisoners. This turned out to be a blessing-in-disguise for the officers.

As for those who were left behind in Sandakan, the condition deteriorated significantly following the officers’ removal.

Their food were further reduced and even sick prisoners were forced to work on the airstrip.

Once the airstrip was completed, the prisoners initially still remained at the Sandakan camp.

About The Sandakan Death Marches

In January 1945, the Allied forces successfully dropped a bomb, destroying the airfield. At that time, there were only 1,900 POWs alive at the came.

After the bombing, Captain Hoshijima Susumi ordered the remaining prisoners to march to Ranau, about 260 kilometers away.

The first march took place between January and March 1945. The Japanese picked 470 prisoners whom they thought to be fit enough to carry baggage and supplies. Although the journey supposed to take nine days, the first group was given enough rations for four days.

Meanwhile, the second series of the marches started on May 29, 1945. About 536 prisoners were ordered to march toward Ranau in groups of fifty with accompanying Japanese guards.

The second march lasted for 26 days. With prisoners less fit than the first march, they were even given fewer rations. In the end, only 183 prisoners reached Ranau on June 24, 1945. That was when they found out, there were only six prisoners still alive from the first march.

After the second march prisoners departed, the Sandakan camp was left with about 250 POWs.

At first, since they were so sick, the Japanese initially planned to let them die of starvation. However, on June 9, 1945, the Japanese ordered the final group of 75 men to head to Ranau.

They were so weak, none of them survived beyond 50 kilometres. When a man collapsed from exhaustion, the Japanese guard shot him. In the meantime, the remaining prisoners left at the camp eventually died from sickness or starvation or both.

Here are 10 more facts about the Sandakan Death Marches:

The Australian Imperial Forces section of a cemetery at Sandakan camp. Credits: Australian War Memorial

1.Not all 2,428 died during the Sandakan Death Marches

The biggest misconception about the Sandakan Death Marches that there was a total of 2,428 Australian and British POWs died during the marches.

According to historian and author Lynette Ramsay Silver, 1,047 died during the marches which took place between January and June 1945.

Meanwhile, the remaining 1,381 never left the Sandakan camp. They perished due to sickness, starvation or execution by the Japanese Imperial soldiers.

The Kundasang War Memorial  is a memorial located in Kundasang, near Ranau which is dedicated to the British and Australian soldiers who died in the Sandakan POW camp during their death marches to Ranau.

2.The last known Sandakan Death Marches track cutter died in 2018.

Tuaty Akau was the last known Sandakan Death March track cutter. He died on his birthday on Oct 29, 2018, aged 105.

During WWII, he joined his father-in-law who was recruited by the Japanese to cut the trail to prepare for the marches.

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He told his story to Daily Express in 2016, “One time my fellow track cutter stopped for a cigarette and was hit on the head with a rod.”

Tuaty also shared how he saw weak prisoners passing by and tried to offered rice to them but was scolded by the guards.

Thanks to Tuaty, a long time dispute between two historians – Silver and Dr Kevin Silver – was finally solved.

Dr Smith argued that the track head to Miruru via the Liwagu Valley while Silver claimed that it never went to Miruru. Tuaty then confirmed Silver’s evidence that the trail never head to Miruru.

Another witness of the march, Zudin (who died in 2017) also confirmed that the trail never passed Miruru.

An inscription found at Kundasang War Memorial.

3.Operation Kingfisher is the rescue plan that never took place

The saddest part of the marches was the fact there was a planned rescue operation.

Unfortunately, the mission (called Operation Kingfisher) never took off the planning desk.

There are several alleged reasons why the Allied forces did not execute Operation Kingfisher.

It was reported that Agas reconnaissance missions incorrectly reported that there were no prisoners left in the Sandakan camp.

Another factor said that there was no adequate air support.

Nonetheless, if only Operation Kingfishers was not abandoned, perhaps many men could have returned to their families.

The Australian Garden At Kundasang War Memorial.

4.Japanese soldiers reportedly turned to cannibalism

The Japanese soldiers themselves had their own suffering in Sabah during the war.

Dick Braithwaite and Yun Lok Lee wrote in their paper Dark Tourism, Hate and Reconciliation: The Sandakan Experience, “Many Japanese soldiers also perished of starvation and disease in the jungle. In the latter half of the Pacific War, Japanese Troops were chronically under-supplied. In order to preserve their fighting effectiveness under such conditions, individual soldiers who were no longer effective were given a day’s rations and cast out of their military unit and told to fend for themselves. Many turned to cannibalism.”

Some of the newspaper clippings at the memorial.

5.Those who were killed even after the Japanese had surrendered

By the end of July 1945, there were about 38 prisoners (some report stated 33) left alive at Ranau.

Weak and sick, they were unable to do any work. They were then killed by the guards, sadly perhaps up to 12 days after the Japanese officially surrendered on Aug 15. By killing the remaining prisoners, the Japanese wanted to get rid all possible witnesses of the marches.

As for the remaining POWs at Sandakan camp, the last man alive – John Skinner was beheaded on Aug 15 at 7.15am.

Five hours later, Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan had unconditionally surrendered.

These POWs clearly did not have the same fate with the prisoners at Batu Lintang Camp in Kuching.

After the war, there were two ‘death orders’ found among the official Japanese papers at the camp.

The first order was scheduled on Aug 17 or 18 but for unknown reason was not executed. The second order was scheduled to take place on Sept 15. Thankfully, the camp was liberated on Sept 11 by the Australian 9th Division.

The timely liberation of the camp may have saved the lives of over 2,000 men, women and children at Batu Lintang Camp.

6.The White-Japanese, the ‘betrayer’ among the Australians?

Among the six survivors of the Sandakan Death Marches, there was one Australian soldiers regarded as ‘White Jap’ by his fellow survivors. He was Warrant Officer William Hector Sticpewich.

Silver wrote in her website that he was very much hated by his fellow survivors, “So much so that, post-war, they refused to have anything to do with him.

“There have always been question marks over Sticpewich’s behaviour. Described as ‘a Jack of all trades’, as soon as he reached Sandakan he made himself indispensable to the Japanese and, therefore, avoided labour on the airstrip.

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“By his own admission, he went to the airstrip on one occasion only – in late 1942 when all POWs, including the sick and officers, were put to work to ensure the first stage of construction was finished in time for a grand opening.”

Unlike other survivors who looked emaciated after their rescue, Sticpewich was reportedly in fantastic condition.

Additionally, Sticpewich was suspected to have killed another soldier Private Herman ‘Alby’ Reither when they both escaped from Ranau on July 28, 1945.

In response to Silver’s investigation, Avtar Singh wrote in the Daily Express that finding fault for war veterans and then going after them in public had to stop.

He opined, “They had suffered enough both during and after the war. And let’s remember, nobody profits from these allegations and these stories.”

7.Tracking the bodies of POWs

A couple walking through the Contemplation Garden of the Kundasang War Memorial where the panels name all the victims.

After the war ended, the difficult part of searching the remains of more than 1,000 soldiers scattered along the 250 kilometres of jungle trekking began.

One of the soldiers tasked for the job was Stan Roberts. He was a member of 8 Australian War Graves unit. Roberts was deployed to North Borneo in June 1946 to locate the remains and transferring them.

Once the remains were exhumed, they were wrapped in lengths of hessian and carried back to Ranau. There, Roberts searched for any clues to identify the remain.

Since all the army identity discs had rotted, being made from compressed cardboard, there was little to help identify the remains.

A number of those died on the Sandakan Death Marches were given their final resting place at Labuan War Cemetery. Those who could not be identified were reburied as ‘Known unto God’.

The remains of men who died or were killed in the ruins of the Sandakan camp were identified by members of war graves units sifting through hundreds of named personal items. Credits: Australian War Memorial.

8.Why the Japanese did what they did

Yuki Tanaka in Hidden Horrors: Japanese Crimes in World War II gave his insight on why the Japanese soldiers committed such horrendous crimes against the POWs.

“The ill-treatment and massacres of POWs at Sandakan and the Sandakan Death Marches were made possible in large part by the traditional Japanese military ideology and the training procedures that arose from it. Men were trained to follow orders habitually and unquestioningly, and the training evidently worked. Captain Yamamoto Shoichi and Captain Takakuwa Takuo apparently never questioned the orders they were given by their superiors. Their primary concern was how they could carry out their orders, and this thinking led them to commit war crimes. It is insufficient to attribute responsibility to these individuals, however, without placing their behaviour within the context of Japanese military ideology,” he wrote.

Yuki further explained, “Dehumanisation involves a psychological distancing process whereby it becomes possible to act aggressively toward a weaker person without feeling the remorse that would occur in more normal circumstances. When dehumanisation of the enemy reaches its extremes, normally unthinkable acts such as the massacre of POWs become possible. In the situation at Sandakan, the Japanese believed they were under such threat from an Allied Invasion that there was no hope for them; they were destined to dehumanise prisoners and act brutally toward them,

“At Sandakan the enemy bodies that could be counted were those of dead prisoners rather than enemy combatants, but the officers at Sandakan shared the same malignant obsession with counting the dead. The Japanese, partly out of the overwhelming anxiety that they were about to meet their own deaths, felt driven to kill prisoners and then, perversely, were able to use the numbers of dead to reduce their anxiety.”

9.War trials against the Japanese soldiers

Regardless of the reasons, what the Japanese soldiers committed during Sandakan Death Marches undeniably were war crimes.

Sticpewich might be considered a betrayer to some but he was one of the witnesses along with Botterill, Short and Campbell during the war crimes trials in Tokyo and Rabaul.

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During the occupation, the Sandakan camp was led by Lieutenant Susumi Hoshijima.

Since he was a military engineer, he was in-charge of building the military airstrip. Hoshijima was promoted to Captain toward the end of the war.

He reportedly told the POWs, “You will work until your bones rot under the tropical sun of Borneo. You will work for the Emperor. If any of you escape, I will pick out three or four and shoot them. The war will last for 100 years.”

Captain Susumi Hoshijima (centre) during the war crimes trial in Labuan. Credit: Australian War Memorial.

In May 1945, Captain Takakuwa Takuo was put in-charge of the POWs.

Too bad for Captain Hoshijima, the war did not last for 100 years. He was found guilty for war crimes and hanged on Apr 6, 1946.

Meanwhile, Captain Takakuwa and his second-in-charge Watanabe Genzo were found guilty of causing the murders of POWs and were hanged and shot on Apr 6, 1946 and Mar 16, 1946 respectively.

As for Lieutenant-general Masao Baba, he was charged with command responsibility for the Sandakan Death Marches. The commander forces in northern Borneo was found guilty and hanged on Aug 7, 1947.

News headline reporting on the trial of Lieutenant-General Masao Baba.

10.The Suicide of Colonel Suga

The person who was responsible of all POWs and civilian internment camps in Borneo during WWII actually was Lieutenant-Colonel Tatsuji Suga.

He was an English lecturer before the war and volunteered as prison camp commander after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

In Borneo, there were mainly three interment camps; Batu Lintang (Kuching), Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan. Besides these, there was a brief internment camp on Labuan island.

Suga was based at Batu Lintang and practically absent at other camps.

Flying over the prisoner of war camp (POW) in Batu Lintang at a low height, RAAF Beaufighter pilots reported sighting white POWs, clad in khaki shorts, who excitedly waved as the RAAF aircraft flew over to drop leaflets announcing Japan’s surrender. Credits: Public Domain (Copyright expired). https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C242106

Unlike other Japanese soldiers such as Hoshijima, Suga was remembered by some internees to be kind.

One Australian civilian internee Rosemary Beatty recalled that Suga would take the children to his residence and served them coffee and fruits. Sometimes he even gave the children sweets.

Whenever Suga was away from Batu Lintang camp, the brutality by the guards increased. It is unknown if it is due to Suga’s instruction or his men took advantage to abuse the prisoners during his absence.

Believed to be a Catholic, he attended masses at the camp during the war. Once, he even rewarded the elderly priests with some papayas. Little did he know, the papayas were obtained by his men from the priests’ own garden.

On Aug 24, Suga himself officially announced to the prisoners at Batu Lintang that Japan had surrendered.

He was heartbroken as he believed that his entire family had been killed in the bombing of Hiroshima.

When the Japanese officially surrendered in Kuching on board HMAS Kapunda on Sept 11, 1945, he was there to attend. Later that day, Suga officially surrendered himself at Batu Lintang Camp.

Together with several of his officers, he was flown to Labuan to await for their trials as war criminals.

According to the website Digger History, Suga was found dead in the morning of Sept 16, 1945. He reportedly committed suicide by stabbing his throat with a table knife. He was also found with a water bottle half-filled with sand. While some reports suggested he struck his own head using the bottle before stabbing himself, other stated that he had help in his suicide.

Did Suga disobey the first death order to execute all Batu Lintang’s prisoners? We might never know.

And did he die with the knowledge of atrocities committed at the Sandakan Death Marches and camp? We also might never know.

One thing for sure, Suga died without knowing that his wife and three of his children had in fact survived the Hiroshima bombing.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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