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The trial of Japanese general Masao Baba for the Sandakan Death Marches

The Borneo Campaign of 1945 was the last major Allied campaign in the South West Pacific Area during World War II (WWII) to liberate Japanese-held British Borneo and Dutch Borneo.

The Allied forces called it Operation Oboe and it was a series of amphibious assaults between May 1 and July 21.

On the Allied forces’ side, the Australian I Corps under Lieutenant-General Leslie Morshead conducted the assault. Meanwhile, the Imperial Japanese forces had Vice-Admiral Michiaki Kamada leading the naval garrison and the 37th Army under Lieutenant-General Masao Baba guarding the island.

Initially, the campaign was planned to involve six stages of landing. Eventually, the landings took place in four; Tarakan, Labuan, Balikpapan and North Borneo (Sabah).

During the campaign, Baba organised anti-guerrilla operations in the interior of Borneo island as an act retaliation against the Allied forces. After a series of attacks, the campaign and the war were finally put to an end after the Japanese surrendered.

On Aug 15, 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Imperial Japan. He formally signed it on Sept 2 bringing WWII to an end.

Later on, all Japanese forces were instructed to surrender, including Baba.

He turned over his sword to Major General George Wooten of the Australian 9th Division as a sign of surrender on Sept 10, 1945 in Labuan.

The place where Baba surrendered in Labuan near Layang-layang beach is now fittingly known as Surrender Point.

Australian troops land from USS LST-560, at Labuan Island in Brunei Bay, 10 June 1945. Credits: Public Domain

The aftermath of Borneo Campaign 1945

After North Borneo was liberated from Japanese forces, the war crimes that took place during the war began to be unveiled.

The most heinous war crime which happened in Sabah during WWII was none other than the Sandakan Death Marches. These were a series of forced marches in Borneo from Sandakan to Ranau.

It resulted in the deaths of 2,434 Allied Prisoners of War (POWs). By the end of the war, of all prisoners who had been incarcerated at Sandakan and Ranau, only six Australians survived.

It is widely considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during WWII.

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After the war, Baba was officially discharged from the Imperial Japanese Army in April 1946.

As the head of Japanese forces in Borneo toward the end of the war, Baba was suspected of being involved in Sandakan Death Marches.

Lieutenant-General Masao Baba (centre), at Labuan airstrip on his way to sign the official surrender document on Sept 10, 1945. Credit: Public Domain.

The trial against Masao Baba

Afterward, Baba was arrested in January 1947 and brought to Rabaul, Territory of New Guinea for trial under the charge with command responsibility for the Sandakan Death Marches.

During the war trial which began on May 28, 1947, the official charges against Baba were “while commander of armed forces of Japan… unlawfully disregarded and failed to discharge his duty as a commander to control the conduct of the members of his command whereby they committed brutal atrocities and other high crimes.”

Even though the first order for the march (which took place in January 1945) had been given before Baba took over the command of the 37th Army, he admitted that he was fully aware of the condition of the POWS.

He even ordered a reconnaissance of the jungle route which the prisoners were to travel.

However, Baba failed to alter the orders for the march after this reconnaissance.

The court report stated, “The accused received a report of this march early in 1945, in spite of which report he ordered the evacuation of the remaining 540 prisoners over the same route in May, 1945.

“This second march proved even more disastrous than the first. Only 183 prisoners reached Ranau and of these another 150 died there shortly after their arrival.”

Unfortunately by the end of July, only 33 of the POWs survived. Then, the worst thing happened. The officers-in-charge executed the remaining 33 prisoners on Aug 1, 1945.

Basically, he was accused of not preventing the Sandakan Death Marches from happening and failed to control his subordinates from killing the remaining 33 POWs.

Masao Baba’s defense

October 24, 1945. Sandakan prisoner of war camp, Sandakan, North Borneo. A few months after it was vacated and demolished by retreating Japanese troops, little remains of the burnt-out camp. In an area of No. 1 compound (pictured) the bodies of 300 prisoners of war were discovered. They were believed to have been those men left in the camp after the Sandakan death marches to Ranau. Each grave contained several bodies, in some cases as many as 10. Australian and British personnel were murdered and buried here. Australian War Memorial ID Number: 120461 Photographer: Burke, Frank Albert Charles.Credits: Public Domain.

Baba pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. With regard to the marches, Baba pleaded that the evacuation of the POWs camp at Sandakan to Ranau was of operational necessity.

As the camp was near the seashore, hence an allied landing was to be anticipated. In fact, the Allied troops did land there a few months too late. They landed in July 1945 after the camp had been evacuated.

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Additionally, Baba during the trial defended that the Japanese army were themselves short of food and medical supplies. Furthermore, many of the guards also died during the marches.

The trial record also stated, “The accused gave evidence of the measure he had taken to secure provisions and medical supplies for the second march and said that he had done his best to provide for the prisoners.

“With regard to the killing of the 33 survivors at Ranau on 1st Aug, he claimed that by that time Ranau was cut off from his headquarters as a result of the allied landings and that he, therefore, could no longer exercise any effective control over the officers there who had previously been under his command.”

On top of that, Baba gave evidence that he did not hear of the murders until after the cessation of hostilities. This fact was proven to be true and the order to kill the remaining 33 POWs did not come from Baba.

The verdict on Masao Baba

Meanwhile, prosecutor Major Dick pointed out that under international law that a commander of armed forces at war has a duty to control the conduct of the members of his command.

He continued, “And that if he deliberately, of through culpable negligence, fails to discharge that duty, and as a result of such failure members of his command commit war crimes, he is guilty of a violation of the laws and usages of war.”

Summing up the trial, the judge said, “It can be argued that the killings were the result of the marches. Indeed, they could not have occurred without the movement of the prisoners but they were not, I feel, a natural result of these marches. It is, therefore, the court to consider whether they were due to failure of the accused in his duties as a commander.”

Eventually, according to the Sydney Morning Herald on June 6, 1947, the court reached its verdict of guilty after deliberation of 12 minutes. The sentence on Baba was announced after a recess of only two minutes.

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Baba was sentenced to death and eventually executed by hanging on Aug 7, 1947 in Rabaul.

The Argus reporting on the trial of Lieutenant-General Masao Baba.

Masao Baba failing to protect his own soldiers

Looking back at Baba’s military career with the Japanese Army during WWII, he first commanded 53rd Division in Sumatra, Indonesia. He held the post until Sept 25, 1943 when he was appointed commander of the 4th Division also in Sumatra.

He was then transferred to Dec 26, 1944 to Borneo, only less than a year before the war came to an end.

Being unfamiliar to his new working environment, did Baba underestimate the treacherous jungle path of Borneo that he continued with the order of his predecessor? Maybe he thought the 265 kilometres from Sandakan to Ranau was through a flat, thin jungle? Furthermore, is it because he was transferred to a new unit that he failed to control his subordinates?

Regardless, his decision not to cancel the first march and to order the second march resulted in the deaths of not only POWs.

Dick Braithwaite and Lee Yun Lok pointed in a paper called Dark Tourism, Hate and Reconciliation: The Sandakan Experience that many Japanese soldiers died during the marches.

They wrote, “The relocation of military units from one side of Borneo to the other, such as on the death march route, was something that generated much resentment among the Japanese soldiers. This resentment was no doubt taken out on others, including POWs and local people. The remains of Japanese suicides were found hanging in the jungle for many years after the war.”

The casualties number of 2,434 during the Sandakan Death Marches only covered the POWs. Today, we may never know the exact number of Japanese soldiers who died during the marches.

In the end of WWII, of the 25,000 Japanese soldiers based in Sabah, very few returned to Japan.

While the Australian Military Court sentenced Baba to death for failing to protect POWs, he as the commanding officer undeniably failed to protect his own men.

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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