By Kurt Stewart & Rob Kay
On any given day, a walk through the Sandakan Memorial Park will stir up the wandering souls of the Second World War. These were the grounds that once held some 2500 Australian and British soldiers prisoner.
The locals near 8 Mile Camp, the name given to this place, will tell you they are still here: ghosts of the dead – shadows from a time when the world was in turmoil and respect for human life, dangling by a thread, fell into an abyss in the camp at Sandakan.
Though the original POW camp site has been redeveloped since the end of WWII, at every turn, visitors are reminded of the suffering these men endured at the hands of their Japanese captors. Today the boundaries of the Memorial Park comprise about one-third of the camp’s original area.
The Sabah government, with generous backing from the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs, has preserved the memory of the men who died in this camp during captivity or on the trail of the Death Marches 70 years ago.
Near the entrance to the park, an excavator (trenching machine) the Japanese used during the construction of the airfield stands as a monument to their enforced labor. The story behind the excavator, though, is an inspiring one.
One day, while the machine was parked near the camp’s power plant waiting to undergo repairs, an Australian prisoner sabotaged it and it never worked again.
Small but important victories like this helped keep prisoner morale up.
Further along the path we come to the boiler and, a remaining piece of an alternator that were part of the camp’s electricity generation plant. This equipment (built by the British prior to Japanese takeover of North Borneo) provided electricity for both internal and perimeter lighting of the camp.
There is a story here as well.
In 1942 -1943, the POWs ran an underground network, fueled by a clandestine radio made by the prisoners. To obtain enough voltage to operate the radio, the Australians got the local operator of the plant, Chan Ping, to increase the power supply after dark. This served them until the summer of 1943 when the Japanese discovered the radio and destroyed the network.
At the center of the Park stands the Commemorative Pavilion, a museum that houses haunting photos of the POW camp and the story of the horrors inflicted on the prisoners. Most notable are those of the only six servicemen, all Australian, who survived the camp and the ensuing Death Marches: Private Nelson Short, Warrant Officer William Hector Sticpewich, Private Keith Botterill, Lance Bombadier William Moxham (all of whom escaped in July 1945 from the camp in Ranau), Gunner Owen Campbell , and Bombadier Richard Braithwaite (both escaped into the jungle on the second Death March in June, 1945).
Had these men not escaped, much of the story of the Sandakan Death Marches would have been lost to history.
Along with these stories, the Commemorative Pavilion has maps showing the route the Death Marches took through low, swampy terrain, thick jungle and gradually, over rising terrain into the mountains. Contemporary photos of the route show what little odds these men had of survival.
Another aspect of the commemorative pavilion is its effort to recognize the role of the local population in trying to aid and abet the POWs. A sign reminds visitors that the memorial also “Commemorates the suffering and sacrifice of the local people.”
Locals were part of the resistance movement and helped to smuggle supplies into the camp via the underground network the prisoners had built.
A few more relics can be found around the grounds – remnants of the concrete water tanks, once used as part of the water supply system of the camp. Further along near the eastern edge of the park boundary, there is a concrete tank and slab, thought to be the site of the Japanese Quartermaster’s store and kitchen. Much of the camp’s food was kept here where starving POWs were often caught trying to steal food. As a consequence, they were put into “punishment cages” and left to die.
The Sandakan Memorial Park offers a somber look back at the past with numerous archival photos, testimonials from survivors and historical documents that give visitors a deeper understanding of one of the Second World War’s darkest episodes.
Sandakan Death Marches—Backgrounder
In early 1942, while Hawaii and the rest of the country was still reeling from the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces in the Pacific theatre took control of the island of North Borneo in South East Asia.
Their objective: to exploit the oil reserves along the island’s northeastern coast in what is today, the Malaysian state of Sabah.
What followed is one of the Pacific war’s grimmest episodes–atrocities inflicted on allied prisoners that ended in the infamous “Sandakan Death March”.
While Americans are familiar with the horrors Japanese forces perpetrated against US servicemen in the Philippines during the “Bataan Death March”, they may not know as much about the devastating history of their close allies in the Pacific during WWII.
After the Japanese seized North Borneo, they planned for the construction of military airstrips near the town of Sandakan. To build them, they would use the forced labor of their prisoners. By the end of 1943, they had transferred nearly 2700 POWs to a prison camp 8 miles outside the town (the prisoners would later refer to this concentration camp as “8 Mile Camp”).
About 1500 of these men were Australian soldiers captured in February 1942 during the fall of Singapore. The remainder were mostly British officers and enlisted men that were shipped to the camp in early 1943.
Later that same year, with the intention of demoralizing the prisoners and depriving them of their leaders, the Japanese sent all of the officers to a prison camp in Kuching, in southwest Borneo.
For the remaining prisoners (around 2400 men) life in the camp quickly deteriorated. In the months that followed, the Japanese reduced food rations to starvation levels even as tropical diseases such as beriberi, malaria and dysentery began to decimate the prison population.
Meanwhile, Allied advances into North Borneo increased and the Japanese, realizing that they were losing control of the island, deliberately worked and starved their captives to death. By 1945, only 1900 of the original prisoners sent to 8 Mile Camp remained alive.
The Death March Begins
The Japanese kept the camp running, but by the end of January, 1945, it was clear that their hold on the island and the war was slipping away. Allied bombing raids had by then thoroughly destroyed the airstrips built by the prisoners.
Weak and dying by the day, the POWs had become a liability for the Japanese who had no intention of liberating their captives.
The stage was set for one of the Pacific theatre of war’s most horrific events, an event preserved in history thanks largely to a miraculous story of survival.
The “Sandakan Death March”, as it is known today, was in fact, a series of three separate forced marches.
With Allied forces closing in, the Japanese decided to move two of their battalions across land to the west coast of North Borneo. In late January, 1945, they marched the POWs around the camp and selected 500 prisoners still able to stand to carry supplies overland.
Men suffering from malnutrition, weakened by disease and many without boots at all, were burdened down with sacks of rice, heavy artillery and other equipment with orders to march or die.
A sickly collection of skeletons moved out of 8 Mile Camp into the harsh tropical sun on the first of three death marches. Ahead of them lay a trail of swamps, mosquito infested jungle and the mountain forests on the eastern slope of Mt. Kinabalu. Their guards had strict orders to kill anyone that faltered or could not continue. Prisoners who collapsed were immediately bayoneted, shot or beheaded on the spot and their bodies were left behind in the jungle.
After nine days, the Japanese themselves found the march to be so trying that they decided to stop halfway across the island and set up camp near the town of Ranau, about 160 miles (250 kms) from Sandakan. Only 190 men made it that far. The rest were killed or died along the way. Those men that did survive, emaciated and near death, were ordered to build huts and carry water up a hill from a stream nearby. Their food allowance was cut down to 100 grams of rice per day.
Near the end of May, 1945, the second death march began with another group of just over 500 prisoners. They were organized into groups of around 50 prisoners, men who were even weaker than those in the first march. As the situation for the Japanese grew more desperate, food rations for these prisoners were cut down. Over the 26 days of this march, the men were forced to forage for whatever food they could find, eating leaves and snails to stay alive. When the survivors of this group, 183 men in all, finally reached the camp in Ranau, to their horror, they found only six of their comrades from the first march still alive.
The final march began on June 9th, 1945. Most of the remaining 250 prisoners at 8 Mile Camp were dying of starvation, but the Japanese gathered together 75 men for the march. Most did not survive beyond 31 miles (50 kms) and the rest died along the way to Ranau. Those too weak to leave the camp were killed or left behind to die.
By the end of July, a few short weeks before the end of the war, only 38 prisoners remained alive at the camp in Ranau. Starving and unable to continue working, they were all summarily shot.
The tragic history of 8 Mile Camp and the Death Marches has been documented thanks to the testimony of the six Australian servicemen who miraculously managed to escape. Two of them, Owen Campbell and Richard Braithwaite, were able to slip away from their guards on the second march where they hid in the jungle and were eventually found by Allied troops.
In July, 1945, even as the Japanese were erasing evidence of their atrocities by killing the last remaining prisoners at Ranau, four men were able to escape. Nelson Short, William Sticpewich, Keith Botterill and William Moxham managed to get free and hid amongst the local population until the end of the war a month later.
Much of their stories of incredible survival against all odds has been movingly captured in author Paul Ham’s book, Sandakan: The Untold Story of the Sandakan Death Marches.
Today in this sleepy seaboard town, the Sandakan Memorial Park stands as a solemn reminder of the atrocities these men suffered at the hands of Japanese captors.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the final Death Marches from 8 mile camp. A number of commemorative events will take place in Sandakan, including popular trekking tours which cover much of the route through jungle terrain taken by the prisoners in May of 1945. TYK Adventure tours, operated by Lynette Silver, historian and author of the book Sandakan – A Conspiracy of Silence, and business partner Tham Yau Kong,an expert jungle trekker with many years of experience in the North Borneo region where the Death Marches took place. Much of the original terrain of the marches had been lost until 2005, when Kong and Silver retraced the land using wartime documents and gathering information from local villagers in the surrounding area. They have since made the experience of reliving the Death Marches open to trekking parties.
For more information go to: https://sandakandeathmarch.com/
Our visit to Malaysia and the Sandakan Memorial Park began in Honolulu on a Hawaiian Airlines flight to Seoul. From Korea we flew to Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia. (Note that AirAsia also connects to Hawaiian from Tokyo and Osaka). Flight time between Honolulu and Seoul was about 9 hours. The link between Seoul and Kuala Lumpur was about 6 1/2 hours.
AirAsia, based in Kuala Lumpur, may not be familiar to many Americans. However, the travelling public in Asia has come to rely on this low-cost carrier which offers rock bottom prices, good quality service and modern aircraft. Much like Southwest Airlines, customers get bargain fares but any extras such as food or even water must be paid for separately.
The company, known as AirAsia Group, operates scheduled domestic and international flights to 100 destinations in 22 countries. From “KL” we flew AirAsia’s domestic system to Sandakan, which brought us to the east of Sabah state, one of Malaysia’s eco-tourism hotspots. Flight time from KL to Sandakan was a little over two hours.
The Airbus A-320 to Sandakan had two rows of closely packed seats, three seats across. It was an all-coach flight with two kinds of service, “Premium” and “Standard” (coach) class. If you’re over 6’ tall we’d suggest getting the Premium seats. It’s inexpensive to upgrade (only 30 or 40 ringgit–about $10 or $13) so it’s well worth it for the added leg room. Service was excellent on this flight as well as the long haul route between Seoul and KL.
Photos by Rob Kay
Kurt Stewart is a freelance writer based in Malaysia. Rob Kay is a Honolulu based writer and public relations consultant based in Honolulu.
Contact Kurt at email@example.com or Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org.