National Archives of Australia

Issue 1 January 2011

2500 dead: a preventable tragedy?

The deaths of 2500 Australian and British prisoners of war in Sandakan, British Borneo during World War II is perhaps the worst tragedy in Australian military history. It was made even worse when it was discovered that a proposal to rescue the prisoners had not gone ahead. Dr Michele Cunningham, recipient of the 2009 Margaret George Award, re-appraises events surrounding the deaths of the prisoners and the cancelled plan to rescue them.

 In July 1942, 1500 Australian prisoners of war were transported to Sandakan, North Borneo, to construct an airfield for the Japanese. They were later joined by about 800 British and a further 500 Australian prisoners, and they laboured on the airstrip until the end of 1944. In October 1943, a group of Australian and British officers was transferred to Kuching, Sarawak, and in 1944 about 100 British prisoners were moved to Labuan. Although figures vary, approximately 2500 men remained in Sandakan. By August 1945, all but six of these were dead as a result of malnutrition, sickness or being murdered.

The ruins of huts in the prisoner of war camp, Sandakan, North Borneo, October 1945. (Australian War Memorial: 120457)

The ruins of huts in the prisoner of war camp, Sandakan, North Borneo, October 1945. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: 120457

In December 1946, in the wake of war crimes trials in Japan, the West Australian published an article asking if the government had done all in its power to bring some relief to the prisoners in Sandakan. Kim Beazley, Member for Fremantle, consequently wrote to the Minister for the Army asking if there had been any opportunity to help the prisoners.

On 17 January 1947, the Minister replied that ‘the fate of the Australian prisoners of war in Borneo was of … concern [but] with resources limited … it was inevitable that some tasks … must be subordinated to others adjudged to be of more vital concern to the Allied cause’.

In November 1947, the issue again assumed prominence when Sir Thomas Blamey, who had served as Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces during World War II, referred publicly to a planned rescue and claimed that if General Douglas MacArthur had provided the necessary transport planes, the rescue could have been effected.

A plan for Sandakan

Obtaining accurate information at the time about the location of prisoners of the Japanese was difficult. When information did come from Japan it was usually out of date, and much information obtained from local informants was notoriously unreliable. Sandakan was, however, one camp about which there was some information. In June 1943, Captain Ray Steele and several other prisoners of war had managed to escape from Berhala Island near Sandakan Harbour. While on the island, Steele had learnt details of the Sandakan camp and its prisoners through contact with the camp’s intelligence network. Escaping with him was Sergeant Walter Wallace, who had been in the Sandakan camp for several months. When Steele arrived in Australia in March 1944, he wrote a report based on his and Wallace’s knowledge of the camp. Little was known about prisoners elsewhere in Borneo, nor how conditions at Sandakan had changed since 1943.

In mid-1944 an Australian intelligence organisation – the Services Reconnaissance Department – developed a plan, codenamed AGAS, to establish intelligence networks and train local guerrillas on the west coast of North Borneo, between Jesselton and Kudat. The Sandakan area, on the north-east coast, was mentioned as a possible future target, but obtaining information about prisoners was a low priority at that time.

The Allied Intelligence Bureau (a joint US, Australian, Dutch and British intelligence and special operations agency) advised the Services Reconnaissance Department that MacArthur’s General Headquarters would not approve the mission unless its priorities included gathering intelligence about Japanese air and shipping movements, particularly in the Balabac Strait, and ‘ascertaining location and conditions of POW in the area with a view to assistance in escape or rescue later’. The Services Reconnaissance Department consequently developed a plan specifically related to prisoners at Sandakan, aided by Steele’s report.

This plan, known as Project Kingfisher, was an adjunct to the original project and aimed to:

  • confirm that the proposed dropping zones were suitable for a rescue party
  • gather information about Japanese strengths and defence capabilities, particularly anti-aircraft facilities
  • determine times prisoners would be concentrated in the Sandakan camp.

This information was required before any detailed planning for a rescue could be carried out.

Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces in the South-West Pacific area, General Douglas MacArthur, and Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, 1944.

Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces in the South-West Pacific area, General Douglas MacArthur, and Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, 1944. NAA: A1200, L36449

The project encounters problems

From the start the project was dogged with delays, poor communication and intelligence, and problems in coordinating transport. When the first AGAS party approached Borneo, its landing, already delayed until January 1945, was aborted because the leader mistakenly identified certain landmarks as increased Japanese activity in the proposed landing area. This resulted in the party returning to Australia and the project being considerably amended.

Project Kingfisher was cancelled and its responsibilities were assigned to members of AGAS I (the group designated to establish wireless communication and intelligence networks in the north-west area). By the time they embarked on their mission in February 1945, many aspects of strategy in the Pacific had changed. The unexpected ease with which the Japanese defence had collapsed in the Philippines meant that the timetable for advancing on Japan could be brought forward considerably. A note dated 6 March 1945 in an AGAS file stated that ‘the likelihood of inserting Phases III and IV [the withdrawal of prisoners] is uncertain and depends upon the strategical time-table proposed by GHQ [General Headquarters]‘.

It was obvious from AGAS reports in March that gathering intelligence and training local recruits in guerrilla warfare were priorities. No mention of prisoners of war was made until late April when ‘reliable’ sources, mostly local natives or Malays, had informed AGAS that prisoners were being moved to Ranau and few remained in Sandakan. In fact more than 800 were still in Sandakan at that time. No Services Reconnaissance Department personnel went near the camp to get first-hand information, and there is no indication they intended to. In June, the Department learnt that about 300 prisoners still remained at Sandakan, but by then a rescue was considered no longer feasible.

Was a rescue possible?

Despite the problems with the preparation and carrying out of Services Reconnaissance Department operations, the probability of mounting a successful rescue was limited. Apart from poor intelligence, the physical condition of the majority of the prisoners would have made it almost impossible to evacuate them without considerable personnel, land transport and shipping with adequate hospital facilities, as there were no forward hospitals in the vicinity. In February, the desperate situation regarding shipping in the Pacific was outlined, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff (the highest military command for the western Allies) informed MacArthur transport was unavailable for any project not directly related to the main strategic objectives.

 Can anyone be blamed for this tragedy, or has the emotional reaction to the death toll clouded perspective? In truth, nobody could have anticipated that 2500 prisoners in one camp would die, despite an awareness of their physical condition.

Members of the RAAF pay homage to the 580 prisoners of war who died at the camp at Kuching, Sarawak, September 1945. (Australian War Memorial: OG3519)

Members of the RAAF pay homage to the 580 prisoners of war who died at the camp at Kuching, Sarawak, September 1945. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: OG3519

While the horror of the Sandakan tragedy cannot be denied, it has meant that deaths and suffering elsewhere in British Borneo have gone largely unremarked. In Kuching, Sarawak, about 580 mainly British soldiers died from malnutrition, illness and overwork. When the 9th Division arrived in Kuching in September 1945, there were 410 stretcher cases among the 2300 British, Australian, Dutch and Indonesian prisoners and internees, and many of these could not be saved. Several hundred more prisoners died in other locations around British Borneo, including Labuan, Jesselton, Miri and Brunei, to say nothing of unknown numbers of civilians killed by the Japanese.

It is important we remember them all.

Dr Cunningham is a visiting research fellow at the School of History and Politics, University of Adelaide.

8 comments on "2500 dead: a preventable tragedy?"

  1. tony campion says:

    I cannot understand why events like this are not told to our younger citizens. Most probably because it is not “P.C.” And those who cannot face the past events reckon, like Nev Chamberlin, it won’t happen again…bet BHP BILLITON’S income for 1 year that this happens all the time and will continue.

  2. Bob Fuller says:

    The sad part is that the Australian population knows more about the Americans and their war efforts than those of Australia. It is a bitter indictment that Australians know so little about their past. To add insult to injury, is that Japan still fails to acknowledge their atrocities. Too much PC to remind them??

  3. Janet Anderson says:

    My Uncle Joseph McMillan of Sale Victoria was a POW at Kuching. He was a beautiful man. A true gentleman. He survived (just). I understand he was to go on the death march the day after was rescued. Sadly he only lived another 23 years after the war.

  4. Nancy de Keijzer says:

    One of my children will be at Sandakan to commemorate Remembrance Day with her school group. I have only just realised this tragic significance of Sandakan to Australian history from my research tonight. I am so glad her school group is permitted to participate on this signifcant day.

  5. Amber Willoughby says:

    My grandfather, Walter Cripps, died as a POW in Borneo. I had always been told by my mother that he died as a POW In Changi, Singapore. However, I discovered his true fate when I took my 8 year old daughter to the War Memorial earlier this year and asked for details regarding my grandfather Walter. It was only then I discovered his true fate. I now know that I need to know more about this horrible part of Australian war history simply because our men were so brave. It is a story that needs to be told.

  6. Bill Kilner says:

    I have just returned from Sandakan where I visited the Memorial dedicated to our POWs.
    My wife and I were moved by the experience. I was well aware of what had happened in Borneo having many contacts with ex-POWs over the years and it saddens me that the truth over what really happened has never really been exposed.

  7. Mitcheel says:

    My great grandfather was Walter Wallace, I have a few copies of his book, ‘Escape from Hell – The Sandakan Story’.

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