Dr Clare Makepeace writes for RFHG about her moving eleven-day SpiceRoads/TKY Adventure Tours cycling trip in the north of Borneo, on which she mountain biked part of the Sandakan death march and visited memorials to the prisoners of war (POWs) who died there in the final year of the Second World War.
The fate of the hundreds of Australian and British prisoners held at Sandakan, on the east coast of the Malaysian part of Borneo island, is one of less well-known episodes of captivity in Southeast Asia, despite being the most fateful. Their death rate was 99.99%, the highest suffered by any group of prisoners held by the Japanese.
In 1942 and 1943, 2,700 POWs were transferred to Sandakan to construct a military airport. Initially, conditions were similar to other camps: work was tough, discipline tight, but food was relatively plentiful. Gradually, however, rations were reduced and physical abuse increased.
From early 1945, fearing Allied invasion, the Japanese forced over one thousand of the prisoners on three marches westwards to the town of Ranau, 260km away. The conditions endured were atrocious. Already skeletal and suffering from diseases such as beri-beri and tropical ulcers, the prisoners were given no medical assistance, little food and often wore just a loin cloth. The Japanese were also under orders to execute anyone who could not keep up.
Approximately 500 POWs died on these marches, the rest perished in camps at Sandakan and Ranau, succumbing to starvation, illness or exposure, or were murdered in cold blood. Of 2,434 POWs imprisoned at Sandakan in January 1945, just six of them – all Australians who had escaped into the jungle – survived.
I always find it incredible to visit sites of such significant history; to feel, in some tiny way, the conditions these men endured. It is immensely humbling. I found it challenging enough to bike down a single-track dirt lane, push my heavy mountain bike through numerous river crossings, cycle in saturating humidity and under the intense heat of a tropical sun. This, of course, was nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to what those POWs faced. I would like to say that having been there, I can better imagine what they went through, but I can’t. Perhaps that is testament to the extremities of human endurance they experienced; so far from our lives today that it is impossible to envisage in the slightest, even when one is stood on the same physical spot.
Until recently, little had been known about the Sandakan death march. That all changed in 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, when the route of the march was first mapped out.
I was inspired by how extensively it is now being memorialised in Borneo. Our trip included an overnight stay at Sabah Tea Plantation. The march passed through this area and the Plantation strongly identifies with this history. It carries two memorials to the prisoners and the accommodation also commemorates them. I stayed the night in ‘Lofty Hodges cottage’, named after the Sergeant who helped rescue four of the Australian escapees. We also visited two other memorials. One at Ranau, occupying the site of the camp of the survivors of the first march; another in the town of Kundasang. Kundasang war memorial contains two gardens dedicated to the British and Australians, as well as a roll of honour.
The location for the list of the dead seemed highly fitting. Placed high above Kundasang valley and taking in a breathtaking panoramic view, there was a serenity and majesty to this space. It was absolutely the memorial these men deserved.
Yet, once I came to read through the roll of honour, that tranquillity was shattered, as I became aware of one final horrendous feature of this atrocity. As I glanced through the alphabetical list, I noticed that beside the names of S. O. Bexton and T. Bexton were the words ‘These two were brothers’. Then I saw an F. A. and an F. R. Burchnall, with an additional note: ‘These two were father and son’. As I read on, I counted seven more pairs of brothers, one pair of twins and then, alongside the initials that shared the ‘Dorizzi’ surname, the horrifying sentence ‘These three were brothers’.
The younger two Dorizzi brothers died on the same day – 11 February 1945. It appears they were shot at Sandakan when they applauded the allied bombing of the airstrip. Their elder brother was killed on the march. Could war get any crueller than that?
Dr Clare Makepeace’s debut book is Captives of War. British Prisoners of War in Europe in the Second World War (Cambridge University Press, 2017)