Category Archives: Past Events

Cycling the Sandakan death march – Dr Clare Makepeace

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.

Sandakan march track
Part of the Sandakan death march track as seen today. © Dr Clare Makepeace.

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.

Cycle
Navigating the Sandakan death march track. © Dr Clare Makepeace.

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.

Roll of honour - Jundasang
The roll of honour at Kundasang War Memorial. © Dr Clare Makepeace.

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’.

Kundasang brothers
‘These three were brothers’. Kundasang War Memorial. © Dr Clare Makepeace.

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)

HRH Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh and Far East POWs

First contact between HRH Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh and Far East POWs
August 1945 – Tokyo

To mark the VJ Day 70 events we are reproducing the following extract taken from Prince Philip’s speech at the May 1974 National Federation of FEPOW Clubs and Associations 23rd national conference held in Blackpool. This was later published in the June/July 1974 issue of ‘FEPOW Forum’, the official magazine of the London FEPOW Club.
Reasons for Survival
Luck plays a very big part in ordinary life, but in war the element of luck is literally VITAL. Since I was invited to attend this reunion, I have been looking into the appalling story of POWs in the Far East and I can only say that I blessed my luck that I was not one of them.
I was fortunate enough, during a visit to Thailand some years ago, to see the famous bridge and I took the opportunity to lay a wreath at the camp cemetery, now beautifully looked after by the Imperial War Graves Commission.
I believe that many people assume that the POWs in the Far East were kept either in Singapore or in Siam. In fact, at the end of the war, prisoners were found in Rangoon, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Sumatra, Java, Siam, Saigon, Borneo, Macassar, Hong Kong, Formosa, Korea, Manchuria and Japan. So far as the British were concerned the major concentrations were 7,000 in Singapore, 13,000 in Siam, 9,000 in Japan and 2,300 in Saigon.
It seems to be one of the peculiarities of human existence that there is always a good side and a bad side to everything we do. In war this contrast becomes even more marked as it brings out both the best and worst in people. This is so brilliantly illustrated by the comradeship and self-sacrifice of the Prisoners of War and the inhuman brutality of those who held them captive in the Far East.
My only personal contact with Prisoners of War in the Far East was when I was serving on the destroyer ‘HMS Whelp’ in the British Pacific Fleet. In August 1945 we found ourselves part of the escort for the flagships of the American and British Pacific Fleets on our way to Japan immediately after her capitulation. The two battleships, ‘Duke of York’ and ‘Missouri’ escorted by four US and two British destroyers, approached the Japanese coast and with considerable caution anchored for the night in Sagami Bay at the entrance of Tokyo Harbour. Suddenly, just before dusk, there was a lot of activity amongst the guard boats and later on we learned that two swimmers had been picked up. It then turned out that two Royal Marine POWs, who had escaped from their camp near Tokyo the day before, were walking along the coast when they saw, to their considerable astonishment, a fleet of Allied Ships and promptly decided swim off and join them. We felt this was a splendid welcome and we sailed to Tokyo, determined to get all of the other prisoners out as soon as possible.
Owing to one thing and another, the evacuation of prisoners could not get started quite as quickly as we would have liked but within a few days the two British destroyers were ferrying released POWs from the shore to some escort carriers which had been made ready to receive them. In spite of the surrender ceremonies, it was this job of providing the first step to freedom of these prisoners that made me realise that the war was over at last. It was a moving experience. Many of the ex-prisoners happened to be sailors and as we gave them the usual cups of tea in the wardroom and the messes, we just sat in silence as we thought what this moment must have meant to them and many guests and hosts were quite unashamed to shed a tear.
Next year it will be 30 years since your captivity came to an end. All of you suffered in one way or another and many of you are now getting on in years. I believe the nation has a very special responsibility for your welfare in old age. I am quite sure that the Far East Prisoners of War Association will see to it that no-one in sickness, old age or distress will ever be forgotten or neglected.

AN AFTERNOON AT THE THEATRE

Surviving Far Eastern Captivity – how did they do it?

in association with the Liverpool Medical History Society

Featuring
Professor Sears Eldredge
& supporting acts!
at the
Liverpool Medical Institution
Wednesday 19 September 2012
3pm – 6.15pm
(Optional supper £18 per head, 6.15 – 8.30pm
Update: This supper now FULL – Waiting list started)

Original poster

First performance after the Japanese
surrender, August 1945, at Nakon
Pathom camp, Thailand

Poster created by AKKI, aka
Basil Akhurst, 137th Field Regiment,
RA (courtesy of R. Brown)

To mark the 70th anniversary of the start of Far Eastern captivity, the 175-year-old lecture theatre of the historic Liverpool Medical Institution will be the venue for a special ‘matinee performance’. Featuring guest speaker, Emeritus Professor Sears Eldredge (Macalester College, Minneapolis, USA), with supporting acts, Professor Geoff Gill and researcher Meg Parkes (both based at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine).

This one-off Far Eastern POW (FEPOW) history meeting takes place on Wednesday 19 September. The talks will turn the spotlight on different aspects of survival in captivity – the theatricals, smuggling and inventiveness – illustrating some of the key ways in which men survived captivity, both in the jungle camps of Thailand and beyond. Topics range from orchestras and concert parties, clandestine supply lines to medical and musical ingenuity.

If ever proof were needed that ‘laughter is the best medicine’ then Professor Eldredge’s lecture surely provides it. Sears wowed delegates and speakers when he spoke at the 2008 Researching FEPOW History Conference. His exhaustive, vivid and entertaining lecture on concert parties in Thailand will be remembered by all who were there. This time he will share some interesting new discoveries and hidden treasures from his research for his e-book, “Captive Audience/Captive Performers “. He will give the audience an insight into the morale-raising, spirit-lifting performances, as well as the artistry and ingenuity of actors, set designers, technicians and programme makers.

Professor Geoff Gill will present a talk entitled ”Stealing, smuggling, supplies and survival”, shining a spotlight on clandestine supply lines, such as the V-scheme that saved thousands of lives in Thailand, as well as other secret life-saving work. Professor Gill will reveal research undertaken for his PhD thesis, “Coping with Crisis, Medicine and Disease on the Burma Railway 1942- 1945”.

Meg Parkes, a Far Eastern POW history researcher, will share more of her interviews with the FEPOW who, so late in their lives, shared details about the medical ingenuity and inventiveness they took part in or witnessed.  Adapted from her talk “Tins, Tubes and Tenacity” Meg will include brief biographies of a couple of Merseyside medical men as well as new information concerning the hospital workshops at Chungkai and Changi.

This is a show not to be missed!

An Afternoon at the Theatre…    
Wednesday 19 September, 2012
Liverpool Medical Institution, 114 Mount Pleasant, Liverpool L3 5SR
Refreshments at 3pm
Lectures from 3.30 – 6.15pm
From 6.15 – 8.30pm reception and supper in the gallery

There is no charge for the meeting so you are advised to book early. To reserve places, complete the registration form below.

NB After the lectures there is an informal reception followed by supper at the LMI. For directions and parking go to the LMI website – www.lmi.org.uk. Cost for the reception and supper – £18 each. Cheques (sent at the time of booking) should be made payable to: “Researching FEPOW History” and posted to Mike Parkes, “Kranji”, 34 Queens Road, Hoylake, Wirral CH47 2AJ. Email: mike.parkes@talktalk.net Tel: 0151 632 2017. To avoid postage costs supper tickets will not be issued until the day (together with receipts, if requested).