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The Harrowing True Story of the Borneo Death Marches 1944-45

Penguin Random House 2020

Near the end of WW2 the Japanese Imperial Army force-marched 1200 Australian and British prisoners-of-war into the heart of North Borneo. Six survived. This is their harrowing story.

Few episodes in the annals of human suffering match the torments inflicted on these men by their Japanese captors - broken, beaten, worked to exhaustion, thrown into bamboo cages on the slightest pretext, starved and then force-marched to death.

And yet, even under such inhuman treatment, the prisoners of Sandakan managed to organise an underground resistance movement. Together, a secret network of soldiers, the native people and foreign civilians built a radio and got messages to the US and Australian Special Forces. And when they were discovered they were hideously tortured and the ringleaders, executed.

In 1945, the Japanese, fearing Allied air attacks, drove the surviving prisoners into the heart of the island. In reconstructing what happened, I walked across North Borneo in their footsteps, interviewed many victims’ families and consulted hundreds of court documents.

In telling their story, I aimed to establish who was responsible for the Pacific War’s worst POW camp .


Every morning, fewer men set off and those unable to lift themselves at dawn await with silent resignation the blow to the head, or the bullet.


‘Paul Ham’s Sandakan is … almost transcending in its potency the specific war crimes it describes… The “this is what it was really like” quotient of
this narrative is very high.’

Thomas Keneally, The Words that have Inspired

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