The Death Marches
Sandakan to Ranau 1945
In January 1945, the Japanese were fearful of an invasion of Borneo by Allied forces, so they began to move Australian POWs from Sandakan to Ranau, a village 160 miles to the west. The initial group of 470, none of whom were in a fit condition to march, left Sandakan daily, about 50 at a time, commencing on January 29. All suffered beriberi and malnutrition. Sixty percent were without boots or foot protection.
By March the denial of medical stores, of which the Japanese had adequate supplies plus the starvation rations issued by the Red Cross, resulted in 317 deaths. Most POWs weighed between 5 and 6 stones (31-38 kg). At this time the IJA were well-fed on rice, soya beans, meat and fish. The IJA showed total disregard for the welfare and even the survival of their prisoners. They systematically starved them to death.
In May 1945 British POWs from No. 2 Compound at Sandakan joined some Australian prisoners in No. 1 Compound. They found they we all sharing exactly the same conditions of emaciation and sickness.
The 26th Australian Brigade Group which landed on Tarakan Island on May 1st had by May 28th overcome Japanese resistance. Accordingly, the Japanese knew that help was available for their dying POWs if they were released.
Instead, the Japanese War Ministry sent to all IJA Commands the following signal :-'Prisoners of war must be prevented by all means available from falling into enemy hands. They should either be relocated away from the front or collected at suitable points and times with an eye to enemy air raids, shore bombardments etc. They should be kept alive to the last wherever labour is needed. In desperate circumstances when there is no time to move them, they may, as a last resort be set free, then emergency measures should be carried out against those with an antagonistic attitude and utmost precaution should be taken so that no harm is done to the public.'
What the 'emergency measures' to be used against those with 'antagonistic attitude' were not detailed. However, Allied experience of Japanese dealings with POWs left little doubt. Of some 700 POWs remaining in Sandakan at this point, about 400 were in hospital.Captain C.R.Cook, the senior officer, was told that all POWs able to walk would be required, ready in one hour, to make a 'very short journey'.
Ten parties of 50 POWs and one of 66, made up of Australians and British, were escorted by a company of the IJA. Each party was issued with 2 x 100 lb bags of rice and told that each man's ration per meal was therefore reckoned at 100 grammes of rice but was reduced after the guards plundered it en route.
Before the first rest halt, POWs were falling out. Those who lagged behind were encouraged with rifle butts and sticks. Stragglers were not seen again - shots were heard at the rear of the column. After overnight halts, those unable to resume marching were also shot.
On June 26th 142 Australian POWs arrived at Ranau, survivors from the 470 who had left Sandakan in January 1945. These men could best be described as 'human wrecks' suffering from exhaustion, malnutrition, disease and the effects of sustained brutality by their guards. Every human right, which was rightfully theirs, was denied them.
At Ranau, no provision of any sort had been made for their arrival. It rained continuously, but apart from getting beneath shrubs, there was no shelter. There were no medical supplies or facilities. There was no food in any appreciable quantity. There was no drinking water, except that which could be carried by hand from a creek half a mile distant. The only food these POW received was about 70 to 75 grammes of rice daily. They were confined to an area about 50 yards square without buildings, tents or any cooking facilities.
The IJA ordered the sick and exhausted prisoners to cut bamboo to construct huts. To provide wood and vegetable carrying parties bringing these items by the 40 to 50 pound load, some 20 miles, for the use of their Japanese guards. The only vegetables the POWs got were what they managed to steal. They knew that if caught, the penalties would be horrific, probably fatal. They carried 50 lb loads of rice for their captors over 12 or 13 miles daily.Between June 30th and July 13th about 40 POW died while suffering the most barbaric treatment. They were constantly beaten by the Japanese but these wretched survivors struggled to dig shallow graves - taking 3 to 4 hours to complete - in which to bury their dead comrades.
On July 18th 1945 a hut 30 feet long by 18 feet wide with a raised floor was completed for their own occupation by the survivors, of which there was 72 left. 38 occupied the raised portion. The remainder, now seriously ill with dysentery, had to be segregated by crawling under the floor to shelter.
Sadistically, the IJA employed the strongest of their starving POW in Japanese kitchens or cutting up and distributing cattle to various Japanese units. They were also made to carry 130 buckets of water daily to the IJA officers kitchen, up a slope so steep that they could barely stand. Eighteen sick and exhausted Australian POW died carrying water in this fashion. Some of them were beaten by their guards until they were unconscious.
Later records show just six men survived out of 1,496 Australians (forming B Force) and 1,004 British POW who left Changi on 8th July 1942. The remainder were starved, shot, beaten to death or otherwise murdered by the Japanese while they were POWs in what was formerly British North Borneo between July18th 1942 and August 1st 1945.