Borneo History: The Sandakan Death Marches

The Sandakan Death Marches are a dark part of Borneo history from WWII whilst the island was under Japanese occupation. We visited the Kundasang War Memorial and Gardens where we learnt more about these barbaric and futile marches.

It started with the Battle of Singapore in 1942 where the Japanese captured English and Australia soldiers. 2,428 captured soldiers were then shipped to POW camps in Sandakan, Borneo. Here POWs were forced to construct a military airstrip for the Japanese. As you can guess, the conditions the POWs were kept in was horrendous, with little food, sanitation or medicine.

In 1945, when the Allied forces were rumoured to soon be making landings onto Borneo, the Japanese started to move the prisoners through a series of forced marches between Sandakan and Ranau – a distance of 265km.

The first march, between January and March, consisted of 470 prisoners who carried supplies for relocating Japanese soldiers. The already unfit and malnourished prisoners had to endure a 9 day forced march on half rations. The physical severity of the march took it’s toll with many of the POWs collapsing and being left for dead on route.

Two more forced marches took place as the Japanese moved the POWs from Sandakan to Ranau. The last march consisted of just 75 men who were so weak that none of them survived more than 50km of the 265km march.

In the end, the marches were futile as the 39 POWs left alive at the time (from 2,428 imprisoned at Sandakan; from 1,066 who made the march) at Ranau were all shot and killed, possibly even after the Japanese surrendered. This is regarded as the worst atrocity during WWII for the Australian military.

However, a total of 6 Australian POWs managed to escape with the help of locals who fed and hid them at great risks to themselves and their family. These were the only survivors.

The local population also suffered during this time too. During the three years of Japanese occupation 16% of the population of the Sabah region of Borneo were killed. I spoke to some locals who said the older population still have a strong hatred for the Japanese because of the brutality they enflicted during the war. The locals also say that the spirits of those killed live in the mist that sweeps through the mountains which is a nice way to remember them.

The Kundasang War Memorial and Gardens commemorate the lives of these soldiers. There are three gardens, an Australian, an English and a Bornean. There is also an area where the names of each soldier are recorded, a room where you can watch an informative DVD and a shop selling cuddly toys and silly hats – which does seem a little out of place.

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