Remembering the Sandakan death marches

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The Japanese landed on the South West Pacific island of Borneo in late December 1941, eager to tap the oil buried along the island’s north coast. And, following Japan’s entry into the Second World War they built a strategic airstrip in the small city of Sandakan on the north-eastern tip of the island.

The events that occurred at Sandakan are considered to be some of the most abhorrent atrocities committed against Australians during the Second World War. Of the more than 2,400 Allied POWs interned at Sandakan between 1942 and 1945, only six survived.

The prisoners initially spent their days building and then maintaining the airstrip, but as the war turned against Japan, conditions worsened in the camp. Food rations were cut and disease spread quickly. The Australian and British prisoners were starved, beaten, tortured and killed without mercy.

Towards the end of the war, fearing an Allied invasion, the Japanese fled Sandakan and moved the prisoners inland. The Australian and British prisoners were marched along a muddy, mountainous trail in three waves – the first on 31 January 1945, the second on 29 May 1945 and the third, mostly comprised of the sick and starving, on the 9 June 1945. The marches came to be known as the ‘Sandakan Death Marches’

In the first march, 470 prisoners set out carrying baggage and supplies, but by the time they reached their destination in Ranau, only 190 had survived.

Survivor Keith Botterill (pictured right) was with the first march to leave Sandakan. For the group’s first three days in the swamp country they had a small amount of rice and six cucumbers among forty POWs. This was, in Botterill’s words, just enough to keep them alive. Many prisoners died along the march from exhaustion or disease, while others who were unable to go on, were shot or sometimes beaten to death.

"Although I did not see the bodies of any men who had been shot in the parties that had gone before, often I could smell them.

"I have never seen anyone of our chaps after they had been left with the Japs. Once you stopped – you stopped for good."

Before the second march began the camp was evacuated and set alight. POW Dick Braithwaite (pictured left) recalled the moment he watched his home of three years go up in flames:

"It was a strange, sad sort of feeling to see those huts going up. Knowing also, of course, that any records of our friends that had died, things that we’d made and cherished, the little pieces of wood that had become more or less family jewels, they were going up in smoke. It was a great loss. It must have been in the back of our minds all the time that this was it for us."

The second march, saw some 530 prisoners set out along the 160 kilometre track, but only 183 prisoners arrived at their destination. And sadly, when they arrived they found only six prisoners from the first march still alive.

Of the 250 incapacitated prisoners left behind in the smouldering ruins of Sandakan a group of only 75 prisoners were able to set off on the third and final march in June. From this group, none survived beyond the 50 kilometre mark.

A survivor from the second wave was Owen Campbell (pictured below right). In an interview with the New York Times, Mr Campbell spoke about the absolute horror he and the other prisoners experienced:

"I never actually told my family what happened. They ask, but I say no. They wouldn't want to know."

Campbell began his escape late one afternoon during the march when American reconnaissance planes flew low overhead. The Japanese guards, fearful that the planes would strafe their path, ran for cover.

Campbell and his four mates took off in the opposite direction from the guards, sliding down a long, steep slope and waiting in the brush for dark. They survived by watching what birds and monkeys fed on and eating the same things.

Plentiful fish and wild fruit were not enough to save all of the escaped prisoners. Campbell was the only one of his small group of escapees to survive in the jungle. The other four men – Private Edward Skinner, Private Keith Costin, Corporal Ted Emmett and Private Sidney Webber – died before they could receive help.

Eventually Campbell, now delirious, found his way to a river. Seeing a canoe, he called out ‘Abang’ – Malay for older brother – and the canoeists, Lap and Galunting, took Campbell in and cared for him until they could hand him over to a group of Australian commandos. Campbell was taken to a U.S. Navy ship to be nursed back to health.

Dick Braithwaite, who escaped from the second march, was so ill with malaria that his mates had to hold him up in a roll call - his only choice was to escape or die. He slipped behind a fallen tree and waited until the march had passed him. He recalls a point after his escape when he almost gave up:

"I just sat down on a log there and watched those reptiles, insects, crawling past, thinking, well, this is where it happens, mate, you’re finished. After about half an hour just sitting, all of a sudden I thought, no, you’re not finished. You’re not going to die in a place like this. And I became really angry. I just put my head down like a bull and charged that jungle, and, I don’t know, it just seemed to part. Maybe someone was looking after me."

Braithwaite was eventually rescued by a local elderly man called Abing who hid him and cared for him until he could be handed to Allied forces operating in the area. He recalls an Australian colonel came to see him in his hospital bed to tell him they were also going to rescue his mates:

"I can remember this so vividly. I just rolled on my side in the bunk, faced the wall, and cried like a baby. And said: ‘You’ll be too late’."

Nelson Short (pictured left) was part of the second death march in June 1945, however he did not escape until after he arrived at Ranau.

"To think that a man was going to survive…The dead were lying there, naked skeletons. They were all ready to be buried. You thought to yourself, well, how could I possibly get out of a place like this? We’re in the middle of Borneo, we’re in the jungle. How possibly could we ever survive? Sydney was a long way from there."

Keith Botterill recalled the moment that he, Nelson Short, William Moxham and Andy Anderson decided to make a run for it:

"We picked the moment when we knew that death was a sure thing. There was no option left: die in the camp or die in the jungle."

The four escaped on 7 July and for some days hid in a cave on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, but they had not gone far from the camp and so the ever present danger of recapture loomed. They ran into a local man named Bariga. The prisoners knew that the Japanese offered rewards for bringing in escapees, but they had little option but to trust Bariga. For the next month, Bariga cared for the men but despite his care, all four escapees remained very sick and unfortunately Anderson died of chronic dysentery. Bariga learned of an Australian unit operating behind the lines in the area and after the Japanese surrender on 15 August, the three survivors began their last trek through the jungle and into the hands of the Australians.

The final escape from Ranau was that of Warrant Officer ‘Bill’ Sticpewich (pictured right) and Driver Herman Reither on the 28 July 1945. A friendly Japanese guard had warned the two that all remaining POWs at Ranau would be killed.

The two escapees were eventually taken in by a local Christian, Dihil bin Ambilid. Dihil refused to betray them, and cared for the two POWs despite the presence of Japanese in the area. Despite returning with food and medicines from the Allies, Reither died of dysentery and malnutrition.

These six Australians – Braithwaite, Campbell, Short, Moxham (pictured left), Botterill and Sticpewich – were the only survivors from the more than 2,400 Allied POWs at Sandakan. This small band was enough to bear witness to the atrocities and share the stories of their Australian and British comrades and friends.

The Japanese officers and guards from the Sandakan camp were eventually tried for their war crimes and the six survivors were able to testify in court against their tormentors. Eight Japanese soldiers were tried and hanged or shot for their crimes, while over fifty more were sentenced to varying periods of imprisonment.

Three men standing in uniform one is holding a cup

Three of the six survivors left to right: Private Nelson Short, Warrant Officer William Sticpewich and Private Keith Botterill (AWM OG3553).

While the six survivors shared stories of Sandakan it is impossible to truly comprehend the depths of pain and despair that the Sandakan POWs were forced to endure by their tormentors. There is also the grief of the families of those who did not survive, who until recent years, knew little of what happened to their loved ones beyond the fact that they had disappeared in the jungles of Borneo.

One man walking toward a tree stump between the burnt ruins of the Sandakan camp

Pictured in October 1945, the burnt-out remains of a compound at Sandakan where the bodies of 300 murdered prisoners of war were discovered (AWM 120463).

When Dick Braithwaite returned home to Australia, he wrote hundreds of letters to the families of the mates he had made at Sandakan and on the march and visited many more.

At the 2016 Anzac Day Dawn Service in Sandakan the son of Dick Braithwaite, John Braithwaite, spoke of his father’s legacy:

"In no other theatre of war have Australians been subjected to the brutality that the prisoners of war and local people suffered here. But their courage, their strength of character in the face of that treatment, the compassion they demonstrated towards each other, and the sacrifices great and small they were willing to make for their mates, are deeds and legacies my father was proud to carry from this place.

"Reconciliation, commemoration and forgiveness were important to my family…they are acts which compel us to ensure that people never again endure what Wal and my father, and those who laboured alongside them, did."

A number of memorials have been erected around Australia and in Malaysia to remember and commemorate the victims of the Sandakan atrocity. To find out more about the history of Sandakan and these memorials visit the Anzac Portal website. To find out more about Sandakan Memorial Park in Malaysia visit the DVA website.

A plaque reading the 'Sandakan Memorial, In remembrance of all those who suffered and died here, on the death marches and at Ranau' surrounded by a jungle and with wreaths at the foot of the plaque

The Sandakan Memorial Park