The greater number of deaths that occurred on Borneo were during 1945, the last year of the war.
At Kuching, Sandakan and Ranau, very sick Australian, British, Dutch and American servicemen were forced onto several marches carried out by the Japanese. The reason behind moving the men from one camp to another was attributed to the Japanese knowing that the Allies were moving in and were expected to land at Kuching and moving the prisoners prevented them from being liberated.
The first march is believed to have commenced sometime after February 1945 with further marches taking place sometime in May between Sandakan and Ranau. It is known that many men were suffering tremendously from diseases, hunger and sheer exhaustion. The work was immensely hard with only the use of limited hand tools to complete the work heaped upon them, mostly clearing jungle or laying air strips and road.
Conditions were particularly bad at Sandakan, but in early 1945, about 300 or so men were moved to Kuching andLabuan (for some, this move was to save their lives), but those left at Sandakan, approximately 2,500 were then forced to march to Ranau a distance of 150 miles further north and away from the advancing allies. Many had no boots or shoes.
This "Death March" as it has become known was one of the worse in the history of the war in South East Asia. Battered, crippled, sometimes blind men, stumbled rather than marched this, their last journey. If they fell, in their attempts to combat the jungle, the mud, the swamps and the constantly attacking insects and flies, then they were murdered - shot or beaten to death and left to rot where they fell.Only six Australians are known to have survived.
It has since been established that an order was issued by the Japanese High Command that all prisoners were to be exterminated, by any means possible, if and when the Allies landed.
Taken from "Nippon Very Sorry - Many Men Must Die"
Very little is known about the sick who were left at Sandakan prior to the march. Some information was gained from the Imperial Japanese guards who were captured by Allied Forces.
It appears that there were 292 POWs in the area. By June 10th, 30 had died from what the Japanese described as "natural causes".
On the same day, 75 sick POWs were taken from Sandakan under armed escort to a place called the "8 -mile Post". They were not seen alive again. There remained 185 POWs, but by July 13, just 53 remained. The fate of the others has never become known.On that day also, the fittest 23 were taken out to the airfield at Sandakan and shot.The IJA stated that in their opinion the remaining seriously sick POWs could not survive,,, so they were left to die. By August 15th 1945, they all had.
A major land mark of this camp in Northern Borneo was the "Big Tree" it towered over the huts of the Sandakan POW camp and could be seen for many miles away.
The tree over shadowed every day life. It represented different things to different individuals - to some it was a symbol of strength and hope, a beacon gazing from lofty heights to the furthest horizons to which they longed to return. Others detested it - it was visible from where they were forced to toil on airfield constructions, dominating the sky line, a relentless symbol of the harshness and cruelty. It had large buttressed roots where sleepless hospital patients would sit and talk through the night.
And today, visitors to the Sandakan Memorial Park on Northern Borneo, will find the Big Tree is mentioned and a plaque shows where it once stood.