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In 1942 and 1943, during the Second World War, Japanese troops brought allied Prisoners of War (POWs) to Sandakan in Malaysia, as labour force to build a military airstrip. In total, approximately 2,700 Australian and British POWs came to Sandakan. In the early days, the conditions for the POWs were not too bad. They had food and water, and shelter to accommodate them, albeit very crowded. These conditions however deteriorated significantly during the time in the POW camp; rice rations became increasingly meagre, medical supplies and treatment were withheld, malnutrition and an array of tropical diseases would to take hold and the prisoners were treated with horrendous brutality.
In late 1944, the Allies were advancing towards Brunei and with their bombing destroying the airstrip, the Japanese, fearing for the imminent invasion and capture, forced the POWs to move. These death marches, as they became known, moved the men in three main groups, to trek some 260 kilometres along dense and muddy jungle tracks to the settlement of Ranau. The majority of the POWs were sick or injured, and those that were too weak to march were left behind at the Sandakan POW camp where they subsequently died or were killed.
The POWs were forced to scavenge for food on the jungle floor and were continually and viciously beaten by their Japanese captors. As Private Keith Botterrill of the 2/19th Battalion would later describe "After January 1945 things got very bad. Our rations were severely reduced and at the finish some men ate frogs, slugs and even rats. Our death rate shot up and I think in February 212 died. In six months we lost 600 men from starvation and disease – beri beri, malaria and tropical ulcers."
Those POWs unable to walk were shot, bayoneted or in some cases, beheaded. As more prisoners died during the marches, the surviving prisoners were becoming so weak they soon did not have the strength to bury their fallen comrades.
Approximately 1,200 prisoners were ordered to March from Sandakan, the first march setting out in January 1945, with the second march in May 1945 and the third in June 1945.
Private Nelson Short of the 2/18th Battalion was on the second death march and recollected the bravery and stark reality of the frequency of POWs dying "And if blokes just couldn't go on, we shook hands with them, and said, you know, hope everything's 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."
During the second march, two Australian soldiers escaped into the dense jungle.
The conditions in Ranau, for those that made it, were also horrific. Dysentery, beri beri and malaria were rife and in July 1945, just under 40 prisoners were alive. In late July 1945, four Australian POWs escaped into the jungle, and these, along with the two that managed to escape during the second march, were the only remaining survivors of this Second World War atrocity. The prisoners remaining in the Ranau POW camp were massacred.
The quotes in this article, from Privates Keith Botterrill and Nelson Short, are taken from diaries and interview transcripts, after the end of the Second World War. They are two of the six survivors of the Sandakan Death Marches. Privates Botterrill and Short endured unimaginable atrocities. The impact of their words being captured, ensures that those soldiers who suffered and died alongside them will not be forgotten.
Beside this site stands an Australian memorial dedicated to all those who suffered and died here, in the camp, and on the death marches in Sandakan and Ranau, Malaysia.
The 'Sandakan Memorial', unveiled in 2011, stands in the Sandakan Memorial Park, to remember and commemorate the death of approximately 2,400 Australian and British POWs held here by the Japanese. Surrounding this black stele is a meticulously landscaped and tranquil park setting that includes a contemplation platform and seats overlooking a pond which allows one to spend time in quiet reflection, on the land that once bore witness to so many deaths and wartime atrocities.
On this day, 15 August 2021, we observe Victory in the Pacific Day and commemorate the 76th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. We also observe the 76th anniversary of Sandakan Day and the liberation of Sandakan at the end of the War.