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What happened to the 300 prisoners of Labuan POW camp during WW2?

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

When it comes to prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in Malaysian Borneo, most people immediately think of Batu Lintang in Kuching and Sandakan POW camps.

What is less known is that Labuan had a POW camp for some time during World War II (WWII).

The purpose of Labuan POW Camp

By 1944, the Japanese military decided to build an airstrip on Labuan to give additional air cover for Brunei Bay.

Captain Nagai Hirawa was appointed to command the Labuan POW Camp. He arrived in Labuan with 300 British POWs from Sandakan on June 16, 1944.

Another 200 POWs arrived from Kuching on Aug 15, 1944.

According to post-war investigation report, the camp was originally sited on the grounds of the Victoria Golf Club.

However due to the constant air raids by Allied forces over the waterfront area, the campsite was moved to a new compound 3 miles north of the harbour.

It was here that the POWs were kept until they departed for Brunei on Mar 7, 1945.

Tracing the steps of the prisoners

Agnes McEwan and Campbell Thompson summarised briefly the footsteps of POWS in Labuan.

“In August 1944, Tom Tadman, Charles Shun, John Parker and Frederick Wain were among a group of 300 sent to Labuan to construct an airfield intended for the defence of a fleet anchorage planned for Brunei Bay,” they stated.

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Reportedly, life was not too bad for the POWs. Things changed in October that year when the Allies began bombing airfields in the region, including Labuan.

The Japanese started to reduce rations for the prisoners and then the death tolls began to increase significantly.

On Jan 23, 1945 Captain Nagai left for Ranau and his place was taken by Sergeant Major Sugino.

McEwan and Thompson wrote, “By March 1945, 188 of the prisoners taken to Labuan had died. Due to the proximity of Allied shipping, the remainder began the move back to Kuching.”

On their way to meet deaths

Captain Nagai claimed that POWs were given quinine for their malaria. Even so, with the lack of food combined with heavy labour that they were forced to do, it came as no surprise why many of them did not survive.

The group arrived in Brunei on Mar 8, 1945 and remained there until the beginning of May.

By this time, only 82 men arrived from the initial 300.

From there, the remaining 82 men were taken to Kuala Belait and on to Miri on May 28.

Then on June 8, the POWs had now been reduced to 46. The Japanese ordered them to make their way into the jungle along a rough track where they rested for two days.

McEwan and Thompson stated, “There the Japanese officer in charge, Sergeant Major Sugino, received news that the Australian 9th Division had landed at Brunei Bay, only 125 miles away. As a precaution against the prisoners being rescued, Sugino decided to put into operation the Final Disposition – the murder of all POWs.”

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They were shot to death and their bodies buried by the guards.

In search of one of the soldiers continues

In 2017, the Telegraph reported on how a retiree living in London had spent much of the past 75 years looking for his brother’s grave.

Len Tadman talked about how he and his two sisters had visited Singapore and Borneo five times trying to retrace his brother’s steps.

So what happened to Len’s brother, Tom Tadman?

McEwan and Thompson in their book revealed some of the fates of these prisoners of Labuan POWs camp, including Tom’s.

Tom, or Lance Bombardier Thomas Tadman, died in Brunei on Apr 3, 1945. His cause of death is unknown.

Meanwhile, others who were part of the Labuan group like Gunner Charles Shun, Staff Sergeant John Parker and Gunner Frederick Wain who died in Labuan at different times throughout 1944 to 1945 were also never recovered.

What happened to Labuan POW camp?

Military police guard four Japanese officers of the Borneo Prisoners of War and Internees Guard Unit, outside the Australian 9th Division Headquarters where they were to appear at a war crimes trial, Labuan Island, December 1945. AWM 123170

Soldiers of the Australian 24th Brigade landed in Labuan on June 10, 1945. They quickly captured the harbour and main airfield.

Meanwhile, the Japanese offered little resistance as they were greatly outnumbered.

When the Australian forces arrived at the abandoned Labuan POW camp in June, they only found unmarked graves.

After the Allied forces liberated POW camps in Batu Lintang and Sandakan, they started to round up the Japanese soldiers and their Formosan guards responsible for abuses and killings.

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They housed them in the former Labuan POW camp site and turned the site into a military court.

Labuan became one of the 16 locations of the war crime trials held between December 1945 and January 1946.

During one of the trials, Sugino was charged with having ‘caused to be killed 46 POWs at Miri on June 10, 1945’. He was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Of the 300 POWs who had left for Labuan in 1944, not even one was left alive. Hence, none was left to tell their stories of what really happened at Labuan POW camp.

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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