To protect the oilfields that they had captured on Borneo, the Japanese Imperial Army decided to build a military airfield at the port of Sandakan using forced prisoner of war labour. Fifteen hundred prisoners, mostly Australians who had surrendered to the Japanese at Singapore, arrived at Sandakan on 18 July 1942. The accommodation for the prisoners was appalling. Their water was drawn from a filthy creek, and their food was mostly a very small quantity of vegetables and a couple of handfuls of dirty rice each day.

Initially, security at the Sandakan camp was lax and several prisoners escaped into the jungle in September 1942. All of the prisoners who had remained in the camp were punished for the escapes by denial of food for a week. Camp security and punishments were then toughened. The Japanese Army guards routinely shot any prisoner who attempted to escape or was recaptured. Minor infringements, such as collecting a coconut to supplement the starvation diet while on a working party, or failing to bow deeply enough to a camp guard, were punished by severe beatings or locking the offending prisoners in cramped, open cages in the hot sun. The number of days spent in the cages was related to the gravity of the "offence". Exercise for the caged "offenders" comprised being taken out of the cage and beaten up by the guards, and then being returned to the cage.

A prisoner suspected of building or operating a makeshift radio or smuggling medicine into the camp could find himself in the hands of the greatly feared Kempei Tai, a Japanese military secret police unit that employed beatings and torture to extract confessions. Torture methods included burning flesh with lighted cigarettes, driving metal tacks under the nails of a prisoner, and forcing water down a prisoners throat until his stomach was distended. The Kempei Tai torturers would then stamp on the unfortunate prisoner's distended stomach. See Lord Russell's "Knights of Bushido" at pages 195-198.*

The arduous labour on the airstrip and seriously inadequate diet soon undermined the health of the prisoners. Most of the Australian prisoners became horribly emaciated from starvation, and many exhibited the bloated stomach associated with beriberi (a vitamin deficiency). During selection parades for working parties, the Japanese guards refused to accept the opinions of prisoner medical officers but would test for the presence of tropical ulcers by kicking at the bandaged leg of a prisoner. A plea to the Japanese for increased and better quality food rations by prisoner medical officers was dismissed by the Japanese commander who made clear his deep contempt for combatants who surrendered.

In early 1943, more prisoners of war arrived at Sandakan to work on the airstrip. These were mainly British.

As progress on the construction of the airfield slowed because of the increasing sickness and debility of the prisoner/labourers, the Japanese responded by increasing their brutality but not the meagre rations. To force the prisoners to work harder, the Japanese brought in a gang of tough older army guards who soon became known to the prisoners as "The Bashers". These guards always carried wooden pick handles or bamboo canes and appeared to take great pleasure in beating the prisoners whenever the whim took them. "The Bashers" often left their victims unconscious, or with broken arms or legs. Jim Milner led a work party of Australian prisoners working on the airstrip, and he was bashed by the guards on many occasions. He recalls:

"We had to bow to all the Japanese officers, which was very degrading. And any Japanese, no matter what his rank, could bash you if he felt like it, and they used to take great delight in it."

From "Horror in the East" by Laurence Rees, published by the BBC (2001) at p. 84.

In August 1943, with the apparent intention of facilitating control of the enlisted men by depriving them of their leaders, most of the officer prisoners were moved from Sandakan to Kuching on the western side of Borneo. After the officers were taken away, conditions for the 2,500 enlisted prisoners at Sandakan deteriorated sharply. Starvation level rations were further reduced, and even the sick prisoners were forced to work on the airstrip. By the middle of 1944, Allied advances were posing a threat to Japanese control of Borneo, and additional Japanese troops began arriving in northern Borneo to defend the vital oilfields. With additional Japanese mouths to feed, rations for the prisoners were cut again. The Japanese area commanders were aware that they were starving the prisoners of war but took the view that weak and sick prisoners would be no threat to them if Allied forces landed to liberate northern Borneo. The deliberate starving of prisoners, together with the heavy labour and beatings, caused the death rate to soar.

By the beginning of 1945, only 1,900 prisoners were left alive at Sandakan. Allied bombing had rendered the airstrip unusable, and the prisoners were of no further use to the Japanese as forced labour. With Allied landings on Borneo anticipated at any moment, the Japanese decided to prevent the prisoners being liberated by working them to death, starving them, or murdering them in cold blood. Knowledge that they were losing the war caused the Japanese prison guards to intensify their brutality towards the prisoners.

In late January 1945, the Japanese paraded the Australian prisoners to select porters for two of their battalions being relocated from Sandakan to the western coast of northern Borneo. Only 470 prisoners could be found who were thought to be fit enough to carry baggage and supplies. This was to be the first of the Sandakan Death Marches, and would require a 120 mile (192 kilometre) trek by the Japanese troops and their forced prisoner of war labour through marshland, dense jungle, and then up the eastern slope of Mount Kimabula. The journey would have tried severely the endurance of fit soldiers let alone weak, sick, and starving prisoners burdened with heavy loads. The Japanese guards were under instructions to kill any prisoners who collapsed or were too weak to continue the march, and they did so.

The trek was so arduous that even the Japanese found it exhausting, and they called a halt at the town of Ranau which is 100 miles (160 Kilometres) from Sandakan. Only 190 of the Australian prisoners had survived the first death march. The bodies of the rest lay scattered along the track where they had collapsed and been murdered by their Japanese guards. Although the surviving prisoners were all sick, weak, and exhausted from the trek, the Japanese immediately set them to work building huts for the Japanese and a temporary camp for themselves on the outskirts of Ranau. Some of the exhausted prisoners were forced to carry heavy loads from the centre of Ranau to the camp. Some were forced to carry heavy barrels of water up a hill to the makeshift camp from a nearby stream. The prisoners' food ration was cut to only four ounces (100 grams) of rice a day.

The Japanese undertook a second death march on 29 May 1945 with 536 prisoners who could still stand on their feet. The Sandakan camp commander, Captain Takakura, assembled these prisoners outside the gate and then they set off towards Ranau in groups of about fifty with Japanese guards at the front, rear and sides of each group. The Japanese guards had been ordered to kill instantly any prisoner who collapsed from exhaustion or tried to escape. The main camp was set on fire behind them to destroy any evidence of its existence.

The second Sandakan Death March lasted for twenty-six days. Only 183 prisoners reached Ranau. The remaining 353 prisoners had either died on the march from a combination of starvation, sickness and exhaustion, or were killed by the Japanese guards because they were too weak to continue the trek. On their arrival at Ranau on 24 June 1945, the participants in the second death march found that only six prisoners from the 470 who had left Sandakan in January were still alive. Although weak and exhausted, the survivors of the second death march were then put to hard labour and the death toll soared.

About two hundred and fifty prisoners were left behind at Sandakan after the departure of the participants in the second death march. These prisoners were so ill that the Japanese initially intended to leave them at Sandakan to die of starvation. However, they decided to send another group of seventy-five on a third death march on 9 June 1945. This group was so weak and sick that none survived beyond 30 miles (50 kilometres). When each man collapsed, he was instantly killed by a Japanese guard. Of those seriously ill prisoners who were left at Sandakan, all were either murdered by the Japanese guards or died from starvation and sickness before the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945.

As a result of brutal treatment and a starvation diet, there were only thirty-eight prisoners left alive at Ranau on 1 August. They were too sick and feeble to work, and the senior Japanese officer at Ranau ordered that these survivors of the death marches be shot. This order was carried out.

At the time of the Japanese surrender on 15 August 1945, only six prisoners had survived the horrors of the Sandakan prisoner of war camp and the Sandakan Death Marches. They had escaped into the jungle either during the death marches or at Ranau. 2,390 prisoners from the Sandakan camp had been murdered by the Japanese in cold blood or by starvation, sickness, and overwork.


When it became certain that Japan would have to surrender, extraordinary efforts were made to protect those responsible for Japan's atrocities, including Emperor Hirohito, by destroying incriminating evidence.

On 20 August 1945, the senior Japanese officer in charge of prisoner of war and civilian internment camps ordered camp guards to destroy all incriminating evidence of atrocities or brutal treatment of prisoners of war and civilians, and advised guilty camp guards to transfer or flee.