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Sunday
Apr022006

The Sandakan Tragedy

"A Conspiracy of Silence" - "It is August 1945 and World War 2 is over. Japan has surrendered. As the Western world rejoices, deep in the jungle of British North Borneo the small number of remaining Australian and British prisoners of war are massacred. Of the 2434 prisoners incarcerated by the Japanese in the Sandakan POW camp, only six, all escapees, have survived.

The POWs, sent from Singapore in 1942-43 to work on airfield construction, endured frequent beatings and were subjected to other, more diabolical punishment. Sustained only by an inadequate and ever-diminishing rice-ration and with little medical attention, many died of malnutrition, maltreatment and disease. In 1945, in response to an order from the Japanese High Command that no prisoners were to survive the war, those still able to walk were sent on a series of death marches into the interior. Anyone unable to keep up was ruthlessly murdered. Those left behind were systematically starved to death, or massacred.

In late 1944 the Allies, aware that POWs were being 'eliminated', had evolved a plan for their rescue - a rescue which,after months of bungling, was finally cancelled in April 1945, in the erroneous belief that the camp had been evecuated. Gross incompetence and faulty intelligence were to blame for the failed rescue attempt. When it was realised that mistakes and stupidity were responsible for the deaths of hundred of men, those at the highest level shifted the blame to others, before embarking upon a policy of wilful and deliberate suppression.

Desperate to obtain information, grieving relatives wrote to newspapers, begging for information and asking the reason for the secrecy. 'The story of the greatest tragedy in Australian military history remains to be written', wrote one, in 1946.' Who will undertake the task?'

Lynette Ramsay Silver, through painstaking research and interviews with survivors, as well as a study of Japanese records, has pieced together a detailed and highly readable account of the lives and ultimate fate of Sandakan's POWs. She tells a totally gripping and horrifying tale, not only of the prisoners, but the reasons why they, and their story, become World War 2's most deadly secret."

James Gallagher writes on "Abandoned":"I picked this book up while on vacation in Borneo after visiting the Kandasang War Memorial, which remembers the Australian and British soldiers who died on the forced marches through the jungle by Japanese captors -- the infamous "Sandakan Death Marches". Overcome by this moving experience, I wanted to know more about the suffering that the men experienced and why the Japanese made the decision to march the men. As I found out later, Don Wall has written another book dealing directly with the marches: "Sandakan-- the last March". "Abandoned," on the other hand, examines the efforts that the Allied Command made to extricate the POWs from Sandakan, such as the PYTHON mission.

.......the book is brief and contains a lot of stories that bring to life the perils that the soldiers faced in trying to extract the POWs. There are photo-galleries of some of the POWs mentioned in the stories. I found myself looking hard at the photos, and -- as an Australian -- felt an immediate affinity with them. This magnified the sense of tragedy of the death of these men."

In "Sanadakan Brothel" "Yamazaki records the life story of Osaki, a karayuki-san, the term for rural Japanese women sold into overseas prostitution between the 1860s and 1930s. Sent to Sandakan, North Borneo at age ten, she shared a fate with thousands of other young women in the name of Japanese colonial expansion. Like many of them, Osaki sent all her earnings home. But upon her return, her older brother, whom she assumed was benefitting from her sacrifice, rejected her, as did the remainder of her family, including, later, her own son. At the time the stigma of prostitution was overwhelming. Translator Colligan-Taylor (Japanese studies/women's studies, Univ. of Alaska, Fairbanks) introduces Yamazaki's work in its sociohistoric context, relating the sexual exploitation of Asian women to the growing flesh trade in Southeast Asia and Japan today. Yamazaki's oral history was critically acclaimed when published in Japan in the early 1970s and is still in print there. A well-written study suitable for history and women's studies curricula."

I've spoken about this before. My father was in Sandakan. Read more under Sandakan P.O.W. Camp on the Navigation Column.

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Reader Comments (3)

Mal thanks for the book suggestions. I must admit to not knowing a whole lot about Sandakan or the Australian war effort - of course I have learned as I have been here - so I shall have to pick those books up.
April 2, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWCS
Mal, Mrb has done lots of reading on this, so will be v interested in these books. Some of the stuff the military high command got away with...
April 3, 2006 | Unregistered Commenteractonb
Read this one - "BORNEO - Australia's Proud but Tragic Heritage" - Kevin Smith. Read it and weep or ask yourself why our Government didn't do more to get these poor blokes out. And why they subsequently covered it up for fifty years.

Available through the author K.R. SMITH, P.O. Box 440, Armidale, NSW, 2350 AUSTRALIA
Telephone (02) 6772 2602
April 4, 2006 | Registered CommenterMalcolm Lambe

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