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Sandakan Death March
Dianne Davie

On 23 August 2007 I arrived at Sandakan Airport (Sabah – Malaysia) to join a group of 32 others consisting of 8 civilians, 19 naval personnel stationed in Darwin and 4 Duke of Edinburgh Award students and their leader to retrace the steps of the 2343 POW’s (1787 Australian and 641 English) who perished on the infamous Sandakan Death Marches.  The sole survivors were 6 Australians who managed to escape. The story of Sandakan and the death marches is one of the most tragic of World War II.  It also is one of the most heroic –to think that these men survived under such appalling conditions and yet never gave up is testament to their determination and spirit.



 For those who are not familiar with the Death Marches this is a brief summary. 

The POW’s consisted of a 2700 Allied contingent transferred to Sandakan by the Japanese in 1942-43 following Singapore’s fall.  Their task was to build a military airfield,using not much more than their bare hands.  (There is still a section visible at the Sandakan airport today). 

For the first 12 months conditions were tolerable, however after the Japanese discovered that the POW’s not only had a radio, but were in league with the local resistance organization, the kempei-tai (secret police) swooped, arrests were made, security tightened and life became much more difficult for the prisoners. 

Conditions deteriorated and in late January 1945 the Japanese decided to move 455 of the fittest prisoners to Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu) to act as coolie labourers.  At the end of May there was a second march from Sandakan and in mid-June a third – comprising of only 75 men.  The remaining 200 prisoners at Sandakan who were unable to march were left to die.


Owing to Allied air activity on the west coast the marches were halted at Ranau.  Ranau is a small village on the flanks of Mt Kinabalu, south East Asia’s highest peak, situated 250 kms away to the west in the rugged Borneo jungle interior.  The track they were taken along was cut through the mountains linking existing bridle trails.  Thinking the track was to be used by the Japanese the local headmen who were given the task of creating the track deliberately routed it away from any habitation, across the most rugged and difficult terrain possible. 

How the men managed to walk the distance is incredible.  The group I walked with were fit, the majority of them were young and we were quite pampered on the walk – going back to our accommodation for a shower, good meal and the real luxury of a beer!  Every time I thought it was hot, the hill was too steep and wondered why on earth I had decided to do this walk I thought of the POW’s and stopped whinging.  The POW’s were clad in ragged loin-cloths, resembling skeletons rather than the strapping, fit soldiers they’d been three years previous.  They had been on starvation rations and had little or no medical attention.  They were covered in sores and scabies, their filthy hair and beards were matted and lice-infested. Many suffered from tropical ulcers, some so large that shin bones were clearly visible.  Others were bloated from beriberi, 

To this day when I think about how these men were able to walk this track – some carrying bags of rice for the Japanese – I wonder at how much a human can take and their determination to keep going– it brings a tear to the eye – I just wish these men knew how proud I am of them and truly admire them. 

On the marches there was no medical assistance and little food.  Anyone who could not keep up was “disposed of”.  Despite this, about half the prisoners completed the march, only to die at Ranau from illness, malnutrition and ill-treatment by their captors.  Two Australians managed to escape in the early stages of the second march with the help of villagers and four more successfully escaped from Ranau into the jungle where they were cared for by the local people. 

The track cut for the death marches had been completely overgrown and unable to be located for sixty years.  It wasn’t until August 2005 that Lynette Silver (historian and writer of the book, Sandakan – A Conspiracy of Silence) joined forces with Tham Yau Kong (atourism operator and award winner in Malaysia).  They combined their incredible knowledge and were able to identify the track. Their dedication to opening the track and preserving the memory of these men is to be greatly admired.   

Lynette accompanied us on sections of the track and she is so informative and passionate about the POW’s – it’s as if she knows everyone of them individually.   

Before starting our walk each of us was given the profile of a POW that Lynette had compiled.  This made the walk especially moving, as along the track we stopped at the place our particular POW had perished and read out his story – I can tell you this was incredibly emotional and everyone shed a tear. 

I was proud to dedicate my walk to Private James Stewart Smith Number NX50421,

POW Number 1285 from Forbes NSW.  His unit was 2/26 and 2/30 Infantry Battalions.  (More about him later).   

   After meeting everyone at Kota Kinabalu airport we flew to Sandakan with a fantastic bird’s eye view of Mt Kinabalu. At Sandakan airport there is still a section of runway built by the POW’s that you can see as you walk into the terminal from the plane. 

A visit to the Sandakan Memorial Garden was our first port of call – it is at 8 Mile where the prison camp was situated. There are still reminders of the POW camp with the remains of the old digger that was used in the construction of the runway, but was sabotaged by the POW’s.  There’s a grassed area where the remaining prisoners were left to die and local residents say they can still hear the POW’s singing as they marched back from working on the airstrip.

 We then went to view the Windows of Remembrance at St Michaels Church – one of the few remaining buildings when Sandakan was destroyed.  These are beautiful stained glass windows that have been made in remembrance of the POW’s.  Another section is due to be put in early this year. 

Then next morning we were up bright and early to start our trek.  A 100 km approx bus trip to Bauto, stopping off at a roadside market to get some of the beautiful, local tropical fruits.  The Death March starts at Bauto rather than Sandakan because the first 100kms is now all palm oil plantations.   

Off we go – up a hot steep bitumen road (this is where the actual track originally was) above Labuk River.  Then some respite from the heat and into the jungle down a steep track through thick jungle for several hours, walking through abandoned timber mills.  Lunch was at one of the many little restaurants that seem to be everywhere in Malaysia serving fresh and delicious meals (though by the end of 5 weeks I was really craving a toasted cheese sandwich!).  Then up an extremely, never ending steep gravel track for approximately two hours – it was hot, humid and hard walking because the gravel was large and uneven making it hard to get your footing and once at the top we had to walk down for an hour – which is harder than going uphill because you had to try and keep your balance on the gravel and the poor old thighs were tensed all the way down.  But the heat – it was so hot I thought my head would explode – and I love the heat!! 

We finally finished our first day and stayed at the Telupid Forestry Resthouse – pure bliss – showers and beer!!  Because of the nature of the track we stayed at Telupid for three nights and bussed to our starting/finishing points.


 Day two – early start and a walk of 27+kms.  We were bussed to Gambaron to walk via Maliau to Kopuron.  The walk started off through jungles and was quite flat.  Several river crossings requiring us to take our shoes off and wade through thigh deep water – nice and refreshing!  A road has now been built over the original track and we walked along it for 8kms – it was dark red muddy soil and hot, hot, hot!  At the banks of the Tapaang River we held a service for one of the groups (Mary) friend’s relative – this is the spot where it was recorded that he’d died.  She told us about him then placed an Australian flag on the bank of the river, we each then placed a river pebble around it forming a small cairn. 

Another early start – starting from Kopuron Lomou to walk approximately 6-7 hours.  We started off on the road through pine plantations – very hot again then through jungle vegetation, crossing several creeks and over one river on the beginning of many swing bridges (I don’t like them at all!)  We were met by some of the porters with our lunch at a small village.  Music was blarring out of one of the huts so Kerry wandered off and had a dance with one of the men from the village which was a bit of a laugh.  We then had some swampy sections before walking nearly 2 hours upstream in the Taviu river – a great change from walking in jungles and up hills.  The vegetations was lush and tropical.  The POW’s didn’t have the luxury of walking through the refreshing river – they had to walk the ridge of the hill, but it was too hard to find the original track through the thick vegetation.  The Taviu hill was a notoriously difficult section of the trail.    Reconnaissance teams in 1946 felt this section was too difficult for their recovery efforts and never searched it, leaving behind the remains of an unknown number of dead.  It had remained untouched until Tham and his guides scouted a route through it.  When a POW died (or was disposed of) the Japanese soldiers kicked the corpses down the slope and into the river where they were swept away.  We passed through very steep forested terrain to the summit – and fortunately it was nowhere near as difficult as I thought it would be (and made all the training I had done worthwhile!). 

The next morning we were driven to Toupos to start walking as the road is built over the original track.  We walked through thick jungle type vegetation – it was much cooler and overcast – yippee!  Passing through a lot of rubber plantations it was interesting to see how the rubber is actually collected.  All throughout the plantations are small huts with sheets of latex that had been processed and rolled through the many old mangles (or that’s what they appeared to be).  The smell was terrible! 

We then came to the first of many river crossings for which we weren’t prepared.  The rivers were up higher than the tour guides had ever seen and of course we didn’t have our water shoes or towels with us.  It was off and on with our shoes – and no towels for drying our feet – which is a must in the tropics when trekking  – fortunately our porters and some of the navy “boys” were very chivalrous and carried us across, much to the amusement of everyone.   We crisscrossed rivers all day.  

At a small hut in one of the plantations we came across birds in the smallest bamboo cage and then further along there was a pet monkey tethered to a rope so that it could run from the house to the tree – we all wanted to cut them free. 

When we arrived at Tampia we met an elderly men who at the age of 12 had been hired by the Japanese to row the POW’s across the river – later on the POW’s had to get themselves across which would have been no mean feat in their condition.  He now had a shop there.  We had several dedications to POW’s along the way, remembering each POW and the person walking for them reading out their details.  It was very emotional but very personal too, knowing each individuals details and the fact that Lynette and Tham have been able to pinpoint the exact spot where they died.  (The Japanese kept meticulous – if somewhat not entirely true – details and the surviving escapees also remembered their mates and where they fell).   

At Paginatan we meet the son of Paulina.  She is one of the last living connections to this dreadful past. At Paginatan the POW’s were couped up in small huts and when they were marched through the village they would look pleadingly to Paulina who was only about 6-8 years old at the time.  Each night she would risk Japanese retribution by secretly leaving out a can filled with food.  Each morning it would be empty – one morning she came out the POW’s were gone, but there were eight wedding rings in the can!


The horrors of Sandakan and the Death March still defy description.  Prisoners were beaten and tortured, even castrated and crucified, but in Paginatan something more unimaginable occurred.  Local people described how hungry Japanese soldiers culled prisoners from the group, cut off their arms and legs and brought the torsos to their camp for consumption.

No-one has ever built on the site of the Japanese camp. 

We spent the next two nights at the Sabah Tea Plantation – the scenery is breathtaking and the plantation is just beautiful.  Mind you I was a bit “tea-ed” out by the end of it  (being a devoted coffee drinker!) That afternoon we all piled into the back of the plantation tip truck and headed off down to a fast flowing river for a much deserved and refreshing swim until a snake decides to fall out of a tree and swim downstream with us!

We’re driven to Nabutan to walk to Nalapak. This section takes about 5 hours and we’re led by one of the guides who shows us all the local bush food and small traps used for catching food.  It’s an easy walk and we arrive back at the plantation for lunch.  There’s a beautiful plaque that’s been erected by the Sabah Tea Plantation and it’s now known as Quailey’s Hill (after the death of POW Quailey).  We hold yet another service here and go to lunch feeling sad. 

We set off from the plantation walking through the rows and rows of tea bushes. It’s overcast, which is great for a change – but this soon turns into torrential rain that soaks us to the skin, fills our boots with water that squelch with every step and is almost impossible to see through it’s so heavy – this we do for one and a half hours – arrivingback at the Tea plantation decidedly drowned and wrinkled! 

It’s our last day - up and down hills and across Marakau Hill on the actual track through the jungle.  It’s on this section that I really feel close the POW’s (it was the exact track, no diversion, no road built on it) and quite emotional.  We emerge from the jungle onto a plateau that looks down the Ranau Plain.  It’s a long, long, hot, hot walk along the road into Ranau and just seems to go on forever.  Once there we meet at the cairn that was built with river pebbles – one for each POW.  It is here I read my dedication to Private James Stewart Smith and there are quite a few more read – everyone with tears in their eyes but also extremely proud. 

From here we are bussed to the Perkasa Hotel perched high in the mountains to shower and then go to the beautifully restored Kundasang War Memorial Gardens.  There are gardens representing Borneo, England and Australia.  We view a video and then hold a very moving and emotional service, lowering of the flags and burning of incense and eucalyptus leaves.  Each one of us then places a red rose in the pool of reflection saying the name of our POW.  Not a dry eye (even now as I’m writing this). 

We left the memorial gardens to go and drink a toast to the lost POW’s.
I proudly walked for Private James Stewart Smith.  These were the details I was given about him. 

Number: NX50421 POW 1285

 UNIT: 2/26 and 2/30 Infantry Battalions 

BORN:  Forbes, NSW  2 August 1899 

ENLISTED:  26 June 1940 at Paddington while living in the Sydney suburb of Mascot.  Fought in Malaya and Singapore. 

ARRIVED SANDAKAN: 18 July 1942 with E Force 

Private James Smith, one of 2434 prisoners held at the Sandakan Camp, was not only one of the “old blokes” he was also a well-known renegade who, while on active service, had spent more time in detention than out of it.  Nothing, not even hefty fines or long periods of confinement had made the slightest bit of difference.  Being arrested for forging leave passes and taking himself off on extended periods of unauthorised leave were, for Jim Smith, simply part and parcel of everyday life. He had even tried to do a bunk before the surrender by hitching a ride in a “borrowed” Bren gun carrier, which had managed to travel all the way from Mandai Road to Singapore Harbour without any awkward questions being asked.  There, however, the escape attempt had faltered.  Smith, on learning that the Japanese navy was lying in wait to blast all vessels fleeing Singapore out of the water, realised that the chances of getting to Sumatra by motor launch were practically nil and had given himself up. 

James left Sandakan Camp with the first death march early in February 1945.   He managed to reach Ranau after a trek which took about 15 days.  James Smith died of dysentery on 13 March and was buried in the POW Cemetery beside the POW hut.  He was 45 years old. 

Post war the bodies of those who had died at Ranau were recovered and reburied in Labuan War Cemetery.  Jim’s remains were not identifiable.  They lie in a grave marked “Known Unto God”.  His name is commemorated on Panel 15. 

I have since tried to contact any descendant or family member of Jim Smith – but, unfortunately, I have drawn a blank.  But I will remember him for the rest of my life.

 Lest We Forget

Dianne Davie