B & E Forces
‘B’ and ‘E’ Forces were Australians troops of the 8th Australian Division and British troops who fought in the defence of Malaya and Singapore, and became prisoners of the Japanese and were transported to Sandakan in British North Borneo, now called Sabah to construct airfields.
Between August and October 1943, a local intelligence network linked with local citizens and using a wireless, was exposed by the Kempei Tai (Japanese Secret Police). This led to the execution of Captain Lionel Matthews of 8 Division Signals, and 8 local citizens. Following this, all officers except 8 Australian and 9 British were transferred to Kuching, which is hundreds of miles away on the west coast of Borneo. 1,800 Australians, including 3 doctors, 2 chaplins and 3 administration officers, and 650 British remained. Of these, only 6 Australians survived to return to Australia – there were no British survivors.
From the beginning, conditions were harsh, and the arrival of unpleasant Formosan guards contributed little to the situation. Men were confined to a cage for periods from a few days to many weeks for minor infringements, and subjected to repeated brutal bashings and starvation. Rations rapidly dwindled in 1944, and general health deteriorated. There were 14 deaths in 1942, 18 in 1943, and 103 in 1944. Allied planes bombed Sandakan town and the airfield in September 1944, and believing that an invasion in the Sandakan area was imminent, the Japanese planned to move all POW’s inland to Ranau, 160 miles to the west, where the POW’s would not be in a position to fight alongside an invasion force. POW’s were to be used as carriers for moving stores and ammunition for use by the Japanese troops.
IT BECAME CLEAR AT THIS TIME THAT OFFICIAL JAPANESE POLICY WAS NOT TO ALLOW ANY POW’S TO SURVIVE ONCE THEY BECAME A THREAT TO THE JAPANESE.
As at 1st January 1945, there were still 2,300 POW’s at Sandakan
(1,704 Australian and 596 British).At this time there were no roads
from east to west across the north of Borneo, only a rough track
that had been constructed by local villagers. On 28th January 1945,
455 POW’s escorted by 500 members of a Japanese machine gun
Battalion headed west along this track. The first 30 miles were
through mud sucking swamps, with rivers crossed only by fallen tree
trunks or submerged logs. All men were malnourished and ill with
beri-beri; dysentery; malaria and tropical ulcers – 60% were
barefoot, yet they had probably been the fittest of those at
Sandakan. After these 30 miles of swamp, the ground rose sharply to
razor back mountainous ridges that rose to the 2,500 feet plateau
where Ranau lay at the foot of Mt. Kinabalu, towering to a craggy
peak of 13,455 feet.
Urged on by their guards, many collapsed and died within the first four or five days out of Sandakan. If they sagged behind they were bayoneted or shot. Only one half of this first death march reached Ranau, where they were put to work carrying rice to a Japanese food dump.
At Sandakan, the death rate had accelerated – 900 having died between the start of February and the end of May 1945. On 27th May, heavy allied naval and aerial bombardment of Sandakan occurred, and anticipating and invasion, the Japanese burnt the camp administration buildings, destroying many, but not all records. A further 530 POW’s were despatched west to Ranau, leaving the smouldering remains of the Sandakan Camp on 29th May. Some 283 very sick and dying were left to fend for themselves. The high death rate continued at Sandakan, accelerated by the shooting of 23 at the aerodrome in July. By 15th August, there were no survivors at Sandakan.
These men on the second march to Ranau fared even worse than those on the first march. Apart from the shooting of stragglers, and early death due to poor physical state, they were decimated by a particularly virulent strain of dysentery, which affected both POW’s and Japanese alike. Only 183 reached Ranau on 26th June, at which time only 8 of the first march were still alive.
On 15th June, there was a third march towards Ranau, comprised of the very sick at Sandakan who were still able to stand and hobble. This is poorly documented, but none reached beyond 35 km from Sandakan. There were no survivors.
The kill them all policy of the Japanese was taken to the extreme when 15 POW’s were shot an Ranau on 27th August 1945, 12 days after the official surrender date of 15th August 1945. Shot during this final massacre were Dr. Dominic Picone from Brisbane, Dr. John Oakshott from Lismore and Dr. Fred Daniels an Englishman. To the best of their ability, the Japanese had left no POW’s to give evidence against them. They made no allowance for the six Australians who had miraculously escaped.
In summary, of 2,450 Australian and British troops left at Sandakan in September 1943, 2,300 were still alive at Sandakan on 1st January 1945. All were to die or be killed before the end of August 1945, except for the six Australians who escaped from the death marches. Whilst approximately 1,000 died or were killed on the death marches, over 1,300 died or were killed at Sandakan.
Footnote:;In early March 1842, Albert Cleary, only
22 years old, died following brutal treatment for escaping after
reaching Ranau. He had been secured with arms tied together high
behind his back, and with a log tied behind his bent knees. The
guards regularly jumped on the log and beat him. After a fellow
escapee was shot, Albert Cleary was tied with a rope around his neck
to a tree, and beaten at every guard change. Although suffering
acute dysentery, he was beaten to death over a period of 11 days.
During his final days, the guards repeatedly told his mates; “If you
try to escape, you will get the same treatment!”
Just before his death, his mates were allowed to take him to their hut and bathe his battered body. After his death, his body was thrown by the Japanese into a nearby sewer trench.
Dr. Rod Jeffrey, a Sydney G.P. who died of beri-beri on 6th May 1945, stated “If anyone survives this madness, the world should be told”.
The Ranau Memorial built of local river rocks – and said to contain one rock for every soldier who died in the area - was erected by the Victoria R.S.L. and situated close to the tree under which Cleary was tied.