Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Surviving the WWII Borneo Death Marches


Trekkers are uncovering more sections of a gruesome WWII Death March that claimed thousands of Australian lives.

AS WHISTLING SCREAMS ERUPTED overhead, allied bombs thumped the Japanese airbase in Sandakan, northern Borneo, in January 1945. Emaciated Australian and British POWs scattered with their Japanese guards in a hunt for cover. The tide of war was changing; the allies were advancing. The bombing had destroyed the POW-built airstrip, and now, there was no longer use for these already debilitated men.

Nearly 2000 Australian prisoners were tortured, executed and starved to death by their Japanese captors in Sandakan POW camp and Death Marches. Of 2671 prisoners, 1812 Australians, and 641 Britons never made it out alive. This little-known event is one of the most devastating losses of life in Australian history.

Forced into slave labour by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in 1942, thousands of Australian and British men were taken to Sandakan, northern Borneo where they were forced to build a Japanese military airstrip. In an effort to quash any resistance among POWs, 170 captive officers were removed from Sandakan and transferred to the Kuching south west of Sandakan.

Following the officers' removal, conditions deteriorated rapidly. Beaten, malnourished, and suffering severe tropical diseases, the men became slaves - forced at gunpoint to build a Japanese airfield. "The sick were gradually given less and less rations than the ones that could work," says 94-year-old Lt Russ Ewin, a former Australian officer who spent 15 months in Sandakan before moved to Kuching.

Death Marches begin

When advancing Allies successfully destroyed the military airstrip in January 1945, the Japanese began a retreat to the western coast of Borneo. In an attempt to prevent POW liberation, Lt Gen Masao Baba, commanding officer of the 37th Japanese Army, ordered Australian POWs westward to Ranau - 265km through dense, treacherous jungle, in the shadows of Mt Kinabalu.

These POW treks became known as the Death Marches for the enormous number of lives lost along the way.

The first Death March of 350 men, most of whom were extremely weak, left on 29 January 1945 - shortly after the bombings. "Men who had stopped, too weak to press on, were often bayonetted or shot where they lay," says Dr Kevin Smith, historian and author of Escapes and Incursions and several other books about the events. "The men [who] were selected were sick, starved, malnourished and carrying wounds from previous battles."

They also suffered the mental trauma of repeated beatings. For many, including men as young as 16-year-old - often bare foot and ill with malaria and malnutrition conditions such as beri-beri - were doomed before they began.

"You can really imagine the spirit and determination of these guys when walking the track," says Wayne Wetherall, an expert trekker who operates historical tours along the trail and has help redisover sections of it. "The stories that I've heard are the most horrific and terrible stories you could ever imagine."

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Surviving the WWII Borneo Death Marches
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