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

Reader Comments (32)

I am sure your old man would be proud of the way you turned out Malkie. I think more likely he would be sickened by your thoughtless words that dishonor men and women that sacrafice their lives so that others may live. Your cowardice alone is enough to make a father sick, but your hate speach and contempt for the people that fight would earn you a disownment I'm sure. Way to make him proud Malkie. Tell me, now that you are an old codger, what do you talk about with your friends having lived no kind of real life?
January 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJay
We talk about pantywaists like you. Then we roll up our sleeves and go for it "There were sixty towel-heads coming for me...I was out of wingman was all shot up...I hadda do something I took out my Mickey Mouse penknife and I whittled me a cross...them mooslems kept coming...cowards that they are...they were almost on me ... "Allah Akbar!" they shouted and were just about to stab me to death with one of them curved daggers the cowardly bastards use when they caught a glimpse of my skirt and the nice panties I always wear when on a mission...and they fell about laughing. That's how I got the scar...I cut myself with the damn Mickey Mouse penknife."

Remember folks, the Jaybird says: "Do not make any personal attacks. If you criticize, please criticize with compassion, or if you agree with Malcolm, be uplifting and supportive. But please, don’t be crass."
January 24, 2006 | Registered CommenterMalcolm Lambe
LOVE these stories Mal - this one and the 2 below! Will refrain from commenting on moronic opinions!
January 24, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterOzzie
Thanks for the article Lambe, as you know my grandfather didn't make it back home.
Good Stuff :)
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterRob Byrnes
Good one, thanks for this. I've read Weary Dunlop's book and many others, and still know a few old Changi POWs. It's well known that Aussies did better because of mateship. The Poms were too rigidly hierarchical and their officers largely did *not* share their men's deprivations (any Aussie officer who tried that lurk usually ended up dead). The Yanks went in for trading food to the point that if one 'owed' too much, the others would let him die. Our fellas got through because they shared everything.
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLou
Jay, you just proved you're no soldier and haven't ever seen sustained active duty under combat conditions. I never met a single member of defence personnel who, having been actively involved, wasn't totally anti-war afterwards. I have seen Vietnam vets friends weep in front of tv news of other wars. I know you don't read (or spell) but do try, once in your life, to read at least one book of letters or war stories by soldiers.
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLou
Once again lou, you speak with no authority or knowledge of a subject. I have seen the elephant and I have seen horrors. If you read my blog you would know that. Tell me...You make it seam like every single soldier that has seen combat is anti war, yet I know men that have been in three wars on three continents and yet re enlist. Maybe you just hang out in the loser bars and talk to the wrong kinds of me. No soldier ever, ever wants to see another man die, or touch another mans blood. A man who does is not a soldier. But the soldier knows that with out fighting the alternative is worse. Just look at how the Algerians took the French occupation for years, and then when they finally stood up to the Frence, the French dropped their rifles and ran. The Algerians were not blood thirsty, they just wanted their country back, and it was their soldiers willing to stand up and fight. Maybe it was their women with rolling pins, but same thing. Think before speaking Lou.
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterJay
"they just wanted their country back, and it was their soldiers willing to stand up and fight." you mean like in Iraq, Jaybird? Do you know your stuff on Algeria, you frog-basher you? Seems to me you don't really know much about anything. Except maybe the back catalogue of Action Man figures. It's a wonder you're still standing the way you keep shooting yourself in the foot. BTW what was your rank in the regular army Queenie Boy?
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlambe, paris
Jay, next time you see the elephant, ask it to take over the writing of your blog, coz you are a complete cunt, mate...
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterfingers
No authority, Jay? My father and uncles were in WW2, and one was decorated twice. My cousin was in the SAS in Vietnam, and an enormous numbers of friends and friends' brothers were also there - as well as those many friends who had the sense and a different kind of courage to stay out. Nurses in the family served in war zones. My older son was in the Reserves and saw one (peaceful) operation through, put his hand up for East Timor, and took place in many a live-fire exercise in the dark...and I don't have to remind you how hairy those are.

One of my very dearest friends is a US Colonel who was operating in tents for months outside Bhagdad. Incidentally, he was badly wounded in Vietnam on active duty. I know that he and many other US military had serious reservations about Kosovo, and about Iraq. I also know through my son that the Aussie military - with a spectacular record already in Gulf War 1 - were definitely not keen about Iraq. Since they're the sons, mostly, and daughters, of the 90% - 94% of Aussies, depending on which poll you read, who were against war in Iraq, that's not surprising.

I admire and am deeply grateful to military who do what has to be done, *like defend our own country*. I'm there to applaud on Anzac Day. I admire the Canadian and Australian record in peace-keeping, and I wish the hell we wouldn't keep going off and fighting other people's wars. In fact until quite recently our ADF had no charter to do anything but *defend our borders*, and certainly none to go around shooting its own citizens, which has happened in many countries including the US.

If a *whole country*, and by that I mean not just its present corrupt leader who doesn't want his magic money to run out, *invites* or *begs* another country to come in to save people's lives, that's one thing. But in Iraq, there are 2,200 Americans and 40,000 Iraqis dead who would still be alive if Dubya hadn't gone completely insane. Whoever survives American occupation there stands at least as good a chance of dying from the effects of depleted uranium left lying around all over as in the Balkans and Afghanistan and Vietnam. You are not immune either, Jay. Gonna have your hand up for compensation when you get home and you're not feeling too well? What about the poor buggers in WW1 and WW2 for whom there was *no* counselling, no means of treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or nerve/mustard gassing? I've seen them, guys who dived in terror under the nearest hiding place when they heard thunder after brilliant careers in the army or air force in New Guinea. (Have you ever heard of New Guinea, Jay? Or the Kododa Trail?)

If nothing else, PLEASE try to be an ambassador for your country instead of parading all this macho shit.
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLou
Lou, you're dead right about the Officer thing. In Sandakan the (Aussie) officers voted to work on the aerodrome with the enlisted men and NCOs. The Japs didn't require them too. The Poms objected but the Aussies did it anyway and copped the bashings for their trouble.
My Dad was terribly upset by some of the things that misinformed writers have said about the Officers avoiding work, mistreating their men, getting more food etc. Especially what the self-appointed expert on Sandakan - Lynette Ramsay Silver is saying. Yes there were a few arseholes among the Australian Officers - particularly amongst the senior officers. But the junior officers, like Max Lambe, worked with and suffered with their men. They survived because they were shipped out of Sandakan after the Japs Tempei Tai(Gestapo) discovered a radio. Captain Mathews, the man caught with it and the man in touch with the local native resistance was dreadfully tortured and killed by the Japanese. Incredibly brave man. Even the Jap. commander said "There goes the bravest man I've ever met" when they led him off to execution. And yet this story and the story of Sandakan was hushed up for years and years while these few survivors suffered. Burdened with feelings of guilt that they should have died with their men. (Actually I think they did die with their men - they were never the same).
My old man died last year Jay. From lung cancer (hadn't smoked in Fifty Four years). Died in agony with half his brain eaten away. Short term memory shot but long term perfect. He was back in the camps again looking after his men. In the end he didn't know me. I had to tell him who I was. The last time I saw him I saluted him and he managed to salute back perfectly, saying "I must return a fellow officers salute...I can see you know how to do it...most people don't...they usually do the American version".
But I didn't really know him until the funeral. One of his camp-mates got up and told us the kind of guy he was. My brother and I were amazed. We knew none of this. The old Digger said "I've often wondered what the Japanese would have done if they'd known that there was only a handful of men amongst the thousands in Sandakan that were reponsible for keeping morale high (under the circumstances) - Max Lambe was one of these men". I don't think I've ever felt prouder. Of course he hadn't told us anything much about the camps - it was too painful for him.
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlambe, paris
What a beautiful story about your Dad Lambe. He sounds like he was a great man.

Lou, thanks for saying whats in my head. You usually do.
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWCS
Mal, your dad was one of the true heroes under the worst circumstances. That's quite a legacy, pal. I'm as proud of you being anti-war as I am of our Dutch builder who ran Resistance messages under his cap when he was a 9 year old kid, and has said he will NEVER let anyone put his sons in uniform.
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLou
A few more facts and figures for Jay: US Army Reservists are paid less in real terms than Aussie Reserves. For Iraq and post 9/11 when US Reservists were called on to guard bridges and big buildings (duh - what they gunna do?) it was supposed to be no more than 6 months. None of them got out under 18- 24 - 36 months. So if this was a guy earning US$50,00 pa, he was down to US$12,000 for those 6 months, $15,000 if he had the 'luck' to be deployed overseas. Usually he lost his business or his professional practice, his house because he couldn't pay it off, and ultimately his wife and family.

US rank and file military in the US were queuing for food stamps because the pay is so lousy, and as far as I know, still are.

At the end of the first year in Iraq, US Reservists were 90 days in arrears of the small pay they did get. They also had to personally pay their own air fares home if they wanted to go on leave (most of 'em went to Canada and stayed there) which regulars don't. All US forces pay for their own meals in hospitals, but regulars get that reimbursed, Reservists don't.

No one in the US military is supposed to be redeployed in the same o/seas area after 1 year preferably, 2 years max. Some are doing their 3rd/4th terms in Iraq - the ploy was to send them home for a coupla weeks not long before their deployment was officially up, then give them no choice about going back. These are the sons and grandsons of US friends of mine, whose families are for some strange reason quite anxious for them.

If your own country doesn't honour your military service and terms of service, or pay you properly to do its bidding, and your own President has not been to one single military funeral after a career of turning up 4 times to the Texas Air Reserves during Vietnam, nor allows any filming or photography of coffins returning home,who are you doing this for, Jay? The Iraqis didn't invite you there, and your own country won't honour you.
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLou
You're forgetting something, Lou. Jaybird is a mercenary - a gun and pumped-up muscle (between his ears) for hire. He's there for the dough. Forget this bullshit about "self-sacrifice". Like I've said - "he's a fool on a fool's mission".
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlambe, paris
And coming back to Sandakan. Our military and government of the time knew EXACTLY where our POWs were. There was regular (American) aerial reconnaisance of the camp. There was regular bombing of the airstrip the POWs hacked out of the jungle (with hand-tools). It "is said" that Macarthur (whose Headquarters at one stage was Brisbane was it not?) put the kybosh on rescuing them - couldn't afford to divert resources to rescue these poor blokes. They were written off and left to their grisly fate. All hushed up and swept under the carpet. Some of this stuff is still classified. And of course as far as the Japs are concerned, it didn't happen. This shameful history has been deleted from the Japanese history books. None of the young Japanese know anything about it.
I was reading yesterday about the American fire-bombing of Japanese cities. Forget the two A-bombs - it was the firebombing that did the real damage. It wasn't needed either. The war had been lost. The Japs knew that. It was out and out REPRISAL against the Japanese civilian population. And the A-bombing just served to show the Russians (who the Yanks were really worried about) that the US had the bomb (so don't fuck with us). Pretty much like DRESDEN in Germany and the other carpet-bombing of historic German cities. Again REPRISALS against the civilian population. They've a proud history these Christian Americans.
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlambe, paris
But I don't believe that's Christianity.

Jay - in the words of a popular US bumper sticker -

January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLou
And PS - ROFL, Jay! I'm too old and too married to hang out in any bars, loose or otherwise!
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterLou
Never forget who put them into Iraq too.

A group of men and women who overwhelmingly have never served in the military and obtained in some cases multiple deferrals from service in Vietnam or long service abscences from the US National Guard. A goup of people who almost to a person have no family members serving.

I'm very thankful for those who have served to keep my country and my planet safe. Iraq is not one of those wars. I'm very proud my country did not send troops to Iraq - we are serving in Afghanistan and have died there in the service of peace. Since the taliban and Al Qaeda are based out of Afghanistan, and they are responsible for 9/11 where Canadians died as well I feel proud that we are working there.

January 25, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWCS
Wendy,I was in Dieppe a couple of years back. Checking out the Canadian "Dieppe Raid" - another totally tragic loss of brave men. Horrifying.
I can't do Anzac Day anymore. I've been going to the Dawn Service and I've been to the Sandakan Memorial in New Farm Park in Brisbane. And I went to Dawn Service here in Paris last time. It's too painful now that Dad has gone. I just wish we'd have known what he went through. But he was "the good soldier" until the end. He stayed "schtum" about it all. He didn't need to sit on the porch showing his scars or telling everyone what a hero he was. We were going to have a private service but so many Diggers and others wanted to pay their respects so in the end we went against his wishes and we let anyone come. All these old Diggers with their medals. Only knew a few of them. Broke my heart. We had a photo of Dad propped up on the coffin and his campaign medals laid out. I spoke at the end and it was the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. I wrote a song for him (in the plane enroute to Australia) with the refrain (for my Mother) "You held him when the dreams denied, the sleep of the soldier who held him when the dreams denied, the sleep of the soldier who survived". Finishing with The Ode "they shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the end...we will remember them. Lest we forget". I don't think there was a dry eye in the place. Then we played the Bette Midler song "Did you ever know that you're my're everything I wanna be...and I can fly higher than an are the wind beneath my wings". And of course that just totally destroyed everyone. You Dad was sometimes violent, always angry and very hard on me. We had a stand-up fistfight when I left home at sixteen. But I forgave him. Flew back 3 times in ten weeks to be with him as he died. And we talked. He'd been badly shell-shocked - the Japs pounded the shit out of them day and night. I think that's what did it for him, really. He'd been shot as well. And had to leave his Sergeant with a belly-wound to the Japs. That bit haunted him badly. He managed to get the rest of his men away but had to leave this bloke.
He never did get to meet Charlie. Cécile was pregnant at the time. I sometimes look at Charlie and say "Is that you Max?" 'Cause he's still with me. .
January 25, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterlambe, paris

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