Sandakan Japanese P.O.W. Camp Borneo WWII


Sandakan P.O.W. Camp

Sandakan POW camp
As we come up to Australia Day - 26th January, I'd like to talk about the things that define us as a nation - the coming of age, if you will. Now I know that sounds cornball and you've heard it before and I know for a lot of people Australia Day just means a day off work and a day on the booze at the barbie.

In fact, I won't bore you with "the things that define us as a nation" and just give you a slice of something I think we should all be proud of. It's an incident in our Second World War history. You thought we were defined as a nation on the battlefields of WWI? Think again.

The 8th Division of the A.I.F. was shipped to Malaya and Singapore in 1940 to defend those states against the Japanese. They were transported in the Queen Mary - one of the fastest liners of its day and able to outrun U-boats and submarines.

The 8th Divvie was made up of volunteers, aged between fifteen and fifty at enlistment. And they put up a hell of a fight when the chips were down. No thanks to the poor leadership shown by the Poms, I might add. The Japanese were numerically superior, better commanded and put up a fearsome artillery barrage and held air superiority. The British-led defence of Singapore was inept - too little, too late.

Singapore is viewed as a defeat, which it was. "The Fall of Singapore" is usually what it's called. But that fall cost the Japanese plenty. Thanks in large part to the fierce Australian resistance of the Fighting Eighth. Churchill had no right to say the Australians had let him down. As we now know, it was the Brits who'd let us down. Badly.

The Diggers fought hand-to-hand combat with the Japanese in the retreat down the Malaya peninsula. Bayonet charges, reminiscent of First World War trench fighting, were common. The 8th Division lost more men killed and wounded in action here than any other Australian Division during World War II and spent more actual days involved in fierce combat.

It took the Japanese ten weeks to over-run Malaya and Singapore. It was no cake-walk for them as is commonly reported. In comparison, it took the Germans just six weeks to occupy France. The Japanese Army was at 125,000 troops. The Allies had about 10,000 British, 14,000 Malay & Chinese, 37,000 Indian and nearly 18,000 Australian troops - all up around 79,000 men.

During the A.I.F.'s five weeks of fighting in Malaya and Singapore 10% of its strength was killed in action: 1789 soldiers. After the Surrender the remaining Australian soldiers were kept in Changi Prison and dispersed to other P.O.W. work camps in Thailand and Borneo.

Of the 2,030 Australian POWs sent to Borneo after the 1942 Surrender at Singapore only 218 survived to return home. The rest were dead from starvation, beatings, torture, disease, malnutrition and out-and-out murder by the Japanese. The last of the POWs were force-marched from Sandakan and bayoneted, shot or beheaded.

"Rations were always totally inadequate and proper medical attention non-existent. They ate whatever they could find in the jungle. Nelson Short recalled eating snails and tree ferns. To urge them on, they were beaten with rifle butts. Men died daily of their illnesses-- some with their mates close by, others after wandering away alone into the jungle. Men who could not walk any further were shot, bayoneted or, in some instances, beheaded. One or two were killed so that a guard could take from them some treasured personal possession. About 113 died within the first eight days and a group of about 35 were massacred near Tangkul."

This is the Sandakan story and I urge all of you to aquaint yourself with what happened. You will never be so proud to be an Australian, I can assure you.

"The Sandakan Death Marches are the most infamous incident in series of events which resulted in the deaths of more than 6,000 Javanese civilian slave labourers and Allied prisoners of war, held by the Empire of Japan during the Pacific campaign of World War II, at prison camps in North Borneo. Of all the prisoners held at the camps, only about 10 survived the war." From

Sandakan goes down in history as one of the worst atrocities of the Second World War. But the way our Diggers endured it...the way they stuck together in the most awful predicament should serve to show us what it means to be an Aussie. What mateship means. Read the books on Sandakan. See the videos. Raise your glass to these brave Diggers on Australia Day. I defy you not to be touched.

My old man was there. He survived Sandakan by being lucky enough to be one of the officers shipped off to another Japanese P.O.W. camp at Kuching which was eventually liberated in September 1945. He never got over it. Three and a half years of starvation and torture and being abandoned by his own Government (Yes, they knew exactly where the camps were). Vale Lieutenant Max Lambe 2/18 Battalion, 8th Division, A.I.F..

Perhaps now you'll understand why I want no part of your stupid wars. Why I don't want to sit on the porch as an old codger showing you my scars and swapping war-stories and reminiscing about the good old days of combat and what it's like to be a man (the things the deluded Seppo below pulls himself over).

Here's a link - sandakan lest we forget

"We had it easy the first 12 months. I reckon only half a dozen died at the top. Sure we had to work on the drome, we used to get flogged, but we had plenty of food and cigarettes."

"We actually had a canteen in the prison camp. We were getting 10 cents a day... I think a coconut was about one cent, and a turtle egg one cent... And a fair sized banana went for a cent... It was a good camp."

In April 1943, that changed with the arrival of Formosan (now Taiwan) guards. The Formosans, like the Koreans in other camps, were brutal.

Warrant Officer William Hector "Bill" Sticpewich, of Australian Army Service Corps: "My gang would be working all right and then would be suddenly told to stop. The men would then be stood with their arms outstretched horizontally, shoulder high, facing the sun without hats. The guards would be formed into two sections, one standing back with rifles and the others doing the actual beating.

"They would walk along the back of us and smack us underneath the arms, across the ribs and on the back. They would give each man a couple of bashes – if they whimpered or flinched they would get a bit more."

The last prisoner of war died at Sandakan on the day the Emperor of Japan told his people the war was over and they would be surrendering. A Chinese witness left this account: "His (the last POW's) legs were covered with ulcers. He was a tall, thin, dark man with a long face and was naked apart from a loin cloth. One morning at 7am I saw him taken to a place where there was a trench like a drain.

"I climbed up a rubber tree and saw what happened. Fifteen Japs with spades were already at the spot. Morjumi (Sergeant Major Hisao Murojumi) made the man kneel down and tied a black cloth over his eyes. He did not say anything or make any protest. He was so weak that his hands were not tied. Morjumi cut his head off with one sword stroke."

"Morojumi pushed the body into the drain with his feet. The head had dropped into the drain. The other Japs threw in some dirt, covered the remains and returned to the camp."

A new book on Sandakan is "Borneo - Australia's Proud but Tragic Heritage" by Kevin Smith. Available through the author at P.O. Box 440, Armidale NSW 2350 Australia Phone; (02) 6772 2602
A very good read with some new material.

Some of Dad's mates after the liberation of Kuching P.O.W. camp. Notice how thin they are? These are the lucky ones.
Inside a Kuching camp hut
Leaving Kuching camp for the hospital ship
Photos from The Australian War Museum

"Defying the Odds" - this is a really good book on Sandakan & Kuching P.O.W. Camps written by the Australian author Michele Cunningham.

More here from Australian War Museum report on Sandakan and Kuching P.O.W. camps

And more here at