Saturday, September 03, 2011

Sandakan Death Marches - A place to remember fallen heroes

World War II left a deep scar on Sabah with more than 16 per cent of its population killed during the conflict.

In particular, the infamous Sandakan death marches are deeply engraved on the collective memory of the local populace. The various memorials to the tragedy along the route of the marches provide thought-provoking destinations for the reflective tourist.

When Singapore fell to the Japanese, in February 1942, about 2400 PoWs, some 2000 of them Australians, were sent to Sandakan in what was then British North Borneo. Their job was to construct, under horrendous conditions, a military airfield.

As the war turned against the Japanese, and Allied bombing rendered the airfield useless, it was decided in January 1945 to move 455 of the fittest PoWs to the west coast to form a pool of coolie labourers.


The journey, of about 300km, was to be on foot through some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. In addition, the pro-British natives who had cut the track made sure it was the most difficult route possible as they thought it was to be used to move Japanese troops. The prisoners were skeletal, diseased, covered in scabies, wearing mere remnants of their clothing or loincloths. So began the Sandakan death marches.

Due to Allied bombing on the west coast the trek stopped at the village of Ranau. Starvation took its toll, as did dysentery and brutality by the guards. In March, Capt. Susumi Hoshijima declared that all prisoners were to be eliminated.

Two more marches were ordered, in May and June. Those too ill to move were murdered near the camp. By August, there was one prisoner left alive, Pte John Skinner of Tenterfield, NSW. He was beheaded on the morning of August 15. Five hours later the war was over. Those few prisoners surviving at Ranau were executed - nearly two weeks after Japan had surrendered. Of the 2400 PoWs at the Sandakan camp, only six survived. They escaped.

An eyewitness to the terrors is still with us. Domina Akui was a young girl when the Japanese arrived with the emaciated PoWs in her village of Paginatan in mid-1945. The villagers were shocked at their condition. Over two days, at the direction of her father, terrified and in mortal danger, she smuggled food to some of them.

One morning she found them gone. On a stump nearby there was a small tin which contained six gold wedding rings, some of them engraved. They had been left by the Australians as payment for her courage and kindness. Her father distributed the rings in the family. Domina, now in her mid-80s, has kept hers to this day.


What makes the tragedy of the Sandakan death marches even more excruciating is that a plan for the rescue of the PoWs had been devised - Operation Kingfisher. A battalion of paratroopers had been trained. Landing barges and a hospital ship had been prepared. But due to faulty intelligence, HQ believed the camp was deserted. The paratroopers were sent on leave. The marches continued.

Today, there is a Memorial Park adjacent to the site of the Sandakan PoW camp.

All that remains of the hellish spot are parts of the excavator used in constructing the airstrip, sections of the boiler and alternator that supplied the camp's electricity, and three concrete water tanks.

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Sandakan Death Marches - A place to remember fallen heroes

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