I became aware it was a one-way trip when we started to hear shots, and you felt that there was no hope for anyone that fell out.
[Dick Braithwaite in Hank Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon, Sydney, ABC, 1985, 109.]
Borneo was the site of the greatest tragedy to afflict Australian prisoners of the Japanese. Only 6 of some 2500 Australian and British prisoners interned at Sandakan in north-eastern Borneo survived the war.
The first Australians to arrive in Borneo were B Force, a group of nearly 1500 who sailed from Singapore on 8 July 1942 in one of the so-called 'hell ships', the Ubi Maru.
After establishing their camp at Sandakan the prisoners were employed on building an airstrip. At first conditions and food supplies were reasonable. However, from September 1942 the Japanese control began to tighten as it did elsewhere in Asia including at Changi. Prisoners were made to sign a promise not to escape and senior officers were moved to Kuching in western Borneo.
Shortly after arriving at Sandakan the prisoners took the risk of creating a secret intelligence organisation. They made contact with an Australian doctor in charge of a local government hospital, members of the local constabulary, and local Chinese and civilian internees on the nearby Berhala Island. Through these networks they gained medicines, maps of the local area, and the materials to create a radio transmitter. They also developed plans for an uprising in the event of an Allied landing.
Thanks to the proximity of the Philippines the POWs also communicated with American and local guerrilla organisations. Four escape attempts were made, one of which was actually successful. Eight men managed to join the guerilla forces on nearby Tawitawi; and, although two of these men would die fighting later in the war, six ultimately made it back to Australia.
In late March 1943 a second group of Australian and British prisoners, E Force, arrived in Kuching. Five hundred Australians continued to Berhala Island and then, in June, to Sandakan.
From mid-1943 conditions at Sandakan deteriorated, thanks partly to the arrival of brutal Formosan guards. A small cage was built within the camp to punish prisoners for trivial offences. Some men were confined, without being able to stand up and with little food, for as long as a month.
In July 1943 the underground movement was betrayed. In subsequent months twenty-two Australians, five Europeans and around fifty local people were interrogated and tortured by the Japanese police, the Kempeitai. Some were then imprisoned at Singapore, while six Asians and one Australian, Captain Lionel Matthews, were executed in March 1944.
The treatment of the remaining prisoners deteriorated further in 1944, with brutal beatings, torture and shrinking food supplies. By September 1944, 120 Australian and 90 British had died. Thirty-three prisoners were also killed by Allied bombing in September 1944 and April 1945.
In January 1945 the Japanese began to fear an Allied invasion of Borneo—which did in fact occur in May. They started therefore to move the prisoners away from the coast to Ranau, a small village some 255 kilometres inland in the mountains. The first group of 470 prisoners (including 350 Australians) left in batches of fifty. All of them were already weak with beri beri and malnutrition and most lacked boots. As one of the few survivors recalled.
We'd be marching all night till about three o'clock in the morning or something, then when [the Japanese] wanted a rest, they rested. When the time came to go on again, after three or four hours' rest, the men couldn't get to their feet. … The ones that couldn't get up, they were all put together. We went on for a distance, and all we heard from the rattle of a tommy gun … It was a killing off party.
[Nelson Short in in Hank Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon, Sydney, ABC, 1985, 108.]
A second forced march was ordered in May when the Allies landed at Tarakan Island. The camp at Sandakan was then destroyed and the weakest of the prisoners (some 290) were left behind without accommodation or medical care. According to the accounts of Japanese guards, they slowly died or were shot in the weeks that followed.
The prisoners on the forced march had to negotiate steep mountain tracks, crawling and sliding through knee-deep mud. Those who collapsed in exhaustion were shot. Only 142 Australians and 61 British prisoners finally reached Ranau in late June—to find there only five Australians and one Briton of the original 470 prisoners who had left Sandakan in January.
Without accommodation, medicines or more than a handful of rice each day, the men were forced to work on heavy carrying parties. Many died and the few who remained alive were shot by the Japanese, it seems on 1 August.
The only prisoners to survive captivity at Sandakan were those who escaped in the last desperate days of 1945. Some six Australians managed to. They survived appalling conditions in the jungle and finally, with the help of local people, made contact with Allied forces.
The POW camp site at Sandakan is now a memorial park where services are held on Anzac Day and 15 August. A memorial to Sandakan in Burwood Park, Sydney, was unveiled in 1993 by Prime Minister Paul Keating, whose uncle died in Borneo in 1945.
Sandakan has also been the subject of a 2004 opera written in collaboration with Singaporeans by Jonathan Mills whose POW father was sent as a medical officer to Sandakan at the end of World War II.