Approximately 455 POWs left Sandakan in different groups between January and March, 1945. By the end of June, five months later, only six of the group from this first march were still alive at Ranau.
Trying to survive with only four days rations – rice, some dried fish and salt - and burdened with Japanese equipment - sacks of rice, ammunition and other items - the men struggled through the swamp, jungle and mountain forest. Those too weak to continue were shot or beaten to death. Keith Botterill one of the six survivors from the Sandakan death marches later recalled:
I’ve seen men shot and bayoneted to death because they could not keep up with the party. We climbed this mountain about 30 miles out from Ranau, and we lost five men on that mountain in half a day. They shot five of them because they couldn’t continue. But I just kept plodding along. It was dense jungle, I was heartbroken, but I thought there was safety in numbers. I just kept going.
[Keith Botteril, quoted in Richard Reid, Laden, Fevered and Starved, Commonwealth Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Canberra, 1999.]
Many of the men had been sent on rice-carrying parties between Ranau and Paginatan, a village approximately 20 kilometres before Ranau. Men from some of the groups on the first march just wasted away there and died. Others, who couldn’t complete the nine-day trips, were either shot or bayoneted to death.
No effort whatsoever was made to bury the men. They would just pull them five to fifteen yards off the track and bayonet them or shoot them, depending on the condition of the men. If they were conscious, and it was what we thought was a good, kind guard, they’d shoot them. There was nothing we could do.
[Keith Botterill in Laden, Fevered and Starved.]
Those who survived to reach Ranau were herded into insanitary and crowded huts and many died from dysentery. By 26 June, only five Australians and one British soldier were still alive.
Those POWs who had remained at Sandakan were also suffering from malnutrition and disease and between February and May, 885 Australian and British prisoners died at the camp. In May, after a large Allied sea-air bombardment of Sandakan, the Japanese evacuated the remaining ill and malnourished 800 or so prisoners and burned their camp. Approximately 500 of those well enough to move were gathered in eleven groups for the second march to Ranau. Those too incapacitated to move were left behind in the burnt-out camp to die.
Those on the second march left Sandakan camp on 29 May 1945. These men were sicker and even more malnourished. They ate what they could find in the jungle – snails and tree ferns – and the Japanese guards beat them with their rifle butts to urge them on. Those who couldn’t walk any further were shot, bayoneted or in some cases, beheaded. Only 183 of the men (142 Australian and 41 British POWs) survived to reach Ranau on 27 June, 26 days after they left Sandakan.
On 28 July, when four Australians managed to escape, there were about 40 POWs still alive at Ranau, despite the beatings, bashings and tiny rice ration they were given. In August 1945, the Japanese massacred the surviving prisoners. Evidence suggests that these last survivors were put to death on 27 August, 12 days after the official Japanese surrender.
Only six soldiers, all of them Australians, survived
the Sandakan death marches:
Without these survivors we may never have discovered the fate of more than 2000 Australian and British POWs.