During WW2, 2,500 Australian and British prisoners were sent to Sandakan, in British North Borneo, reputed to be the worst Japanese POW camp in the Pacific. In 1945 a thousand were forced marched into the heart of the island of whom 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 death, 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, relying on the phenomenal bravery of some soldiers, the native people and a few white civilians. Together, they built a radio: they smuggled in the parts, as well as medicines and rice, and got out messages to the US and Australian Special Forces. And then they were discovered and hideously tortured. A thousand survivors were force-marched to death. In this astonishing reconstruction of their ordeal, Paul Ham interviewed the families of survivors and the deceased, and consulted thousands of court documents, piecing together exactly what happened to the soldiers and their civilian supporters in British North Borneo in 1945 - and who was responsible.
At 3 am on 8 July 1942, the 1494 men assemble on Changi parade ground together with their few belongings – a blanket, razor, mess tin, groundsheet, perhaps a second shirt or kitbag. After a breakfast of rice porridge with milk, sugar and half a slice of bread, they move off to the waiting trucks. The convoy rumbles through town, past the rotting heads of murdered Chinese civilians impaled on pikes on the sides of the road – often, at dusk in the city’s parks, Japanese troops may be seen playing soccer with Chinese skulls – and down to Keppel Harbour.
During roll call – tenko – the prisoners learn the use to which they will be put. Above them, on a small platform by the Big Tree, overlooking the parade ground, stands the camp commandant, Captain Hoshijima Susumu – a tall, thinly built engineer, who addresses them in faltering English: 'You have been brought here to Sandakan to have the honour to build for the Imperial Japanese Forces an aerodrome; you will work, you will build this aerodrome if it takes three years. I tell you, I have powers of life and death over you, and you will build this aerodrome if you stay here until your bones rot under the tropical sun.'
Sandakan POW camp, 1942:
The sun rises on smudges of life, restrained by wire and jungle, and casts
scrawny shadows of a dog, a monkey, a man. The light glances over a dirt clearing, a huge tree, some bent figures, a rigid guard and into a row of little stilted huts. In the distance, a stray dog whines, somehow conscious of its place in the food chain; soon, the dogs will compete with men for food. No cock crows: the birds have all been eaten. Few people – rubber sappers and residual coolie labour – live near this place, segregated by forest and plantations, as if its inhabitants are a community of untouchables, set apart from the human race.
The Second Death March:
The equation ‘walking = life’ goads the stronger ones up the track towards Telupid. 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. For many, the prospect of death offers a sense of relief. The little ritual repeats itself every morning: the doomed man shakes hands with his friends, shares out the last of his rations (to prevent the guards taking it) and passes on messages to his loved ones...
The last jungle camp, May 1945:
Gazing now over this wretched dent in the earth, and knowing what happened here, the mind’s eye conjures a perfect hell: a damp melange of jungle exudes the stench of rotting vegetation; rows of abandoned palms, like skeletal forms, seem to move up the valley sides; huge droplets of monsoonal rain harden with repeated bursts on bare skin; squat, vermin-ridden huts and lean-tos materialise as the last pathetic homes of the damned; and crazed Formosan guards shriek intermittently at a dwindling group of silent, uncomprehending white men. Such are the salient features of the prisoners’ final days and nights.
The death of Captain Hoshijima, who ordered the death marches:
From his prison cell, Hoshijima continues fitfully issuing statements declaring
his innocence, appealing for clemency, to no avail. His request to send a lock of hair
and toenail parings to his family is refused, but he is allowed to write farewell letters.
He sends ten home – many more than the prisoners were allowed to send home in
three years. Hoshijima is hanged on 6 April 1946. Defiant to the last, he shouts, ‘Long
live the Emperor’ as he mounts the gallows, and reportedly bites the hand of the
provost who tries to silence him. The provost states calmly, ‘This is for the Aussies
you killed at Sandakan,’ and releases the trap.
"Ham has written about these awful events with great power and assiduous research. This book is surely the definitive account of the Sandakan death marches and, among other achievements, chronicles the dignified and generous behaviour that desperate Australians accorded each other as they faced certain death." ― Tim Bowden, The Sydney Morning Herald
"Paul Ham's Sandakan is a well-written and superbly researched book almost transcending in its potency the specific war crimes it describes. It is hard-headed, unsentimental history, and all the more potent for that... The 'this is what it was really like quotient' of this narrative is very high." ― Thomas Keneally, The Words that have Inspired
"This particular story – the fate of British and Australian prisoners of war in a camp in North Borneo – is outstandingly grim... Ham gives us vivid portraits of the men and indeed their extraordinary spirit... You find yourself wondering how it was possible for anyone to make it and emerge with spirit and soul intact... the post-war trial pleas of Capt Hoshijima, under whom the serious cruelty began, make for fascinating reading. As some form of mitigation, he told the court of his life before the war: his wife, his baby, his academic successes. This appeal to a sense of common humanity is haunting, and demonstrates why it’s a big mistake to think that such cruelty was in some way unique to Japanese culture." ― Sinclair McKay, The Daily Telegraph (UK)