Book Review: Paul Ham – Sandakan (2013)

Writer Paul Ham gives the history of the Sandakan Death March, a war march that lead to only six survivors. Nothing is spared in this book, which gives details of the gruesome punishments the prisoners went through, how they died and how the very small few survived.

Cannibalism, bayonetted, shot, starved, given no illness, medical supplies, locked up in cages, kicked until unconscious – These are just some of the awful deeds done to the prisoners of war by the Japanese soldiers.

Only 6 survivors from 2,508 soldiers, a 99.8% casualty, a 3 year war.

The book opens with Paul Ham’s letter to the Emperor of Japan. A modest yet truthful letter, asking for an apology on behalf of the prisoners killed at North Borneo. There has been controversy surrounding this letter as some say, what is done is done, and an apology has been said. This is untrue as only personal remorse from Japanese officials has been stated and the nation itself has not apologised. It’s not about accepting guilt but more about acknowledging what happened.

I don’t think I can give too much away with this book as the majority of people know about the war in North Borneo and the Sandakan Death March, what you won’t know is how life actually was for the prisoners and the hell they experienced at the hands of the Japanese. War is always a tragedy and young lives are lost, but these were lives wasted at the atrocities of human beings who seem to have dislodged their humanity.

The book is chronologically pieced together, the information can be a tad heavy at times, but Paul Ham has put together an amazing factual reference of war crimes in Sandakan, the courage of the prisoners and the brutality of the worlds worst war camp in the Second World War.

Britain never forgave Japan for the loss of Singapore. Churchill states that after Singapore the troops wandered around in disbelief as the battle for Singapore was to be fought at all costs. Alas we surrended. All captives were taken to Changi Prison initially, but young Japanese soldiers don’t know what to do with the white prisoners. Camp life here isn’t too bad compared to the future. The prisoners have veggies, rice, art and crafts, sports and a chapel to entertain their days. This was 1942, 87,000 prisoners are at Changi and 809 die there. It’s a myth that Changi is a hellhole.

Then the soldier’s surroundings change dramatically – some prisoners head to Burma and die at an alarming rate. Another group of men are needed to head to Borneo as ‘Force B’ and the prisoners are told there will be better food and conditions so fit men are selected to make the journey. In July 1942 there are 1,494 men assembled and they aboard the Yubi Maru steamer where the men are forced to endure awful conditions. They are kept below deck, filthy and cramped. Dysentry is ripe. On July 18th the ship enters Sandakan and they stay nearby overnight before heading to the camp.

Sandakan was at colonial peace and was rich, now the Japanese soldiers and prisoners take over. Borneo is like an onion, with layers of humans, the tribal people were head hunters and the British stayed close to the coastal town of Sabah. After whispers of a Japanese attack a volunteer force of Malay, Chinese and Indian’s begin – although they were lambs to the slaughter, not enough people to protect their homes and the volunteers perished. The whole island is in the Japanese hands not long after their arrival. North Borneo was made ‘Japanese’, mandatory lessons were given on speaking Japanese, Japanese holidays were brought in and the clocks changed to Japanese time.

The prisoners, after one night sleep, prepare to march to the prison camp, life, they thought, certainly wasn’t going to get worse than what they experienced. They sang Waltzing Matilda and Along the Road to Gundagai as they marched to their camps. As part of the labourer at the camp (Sandakan) they were told to build an aerodrome, work till its completed they are told, no matter how long. The prisoners learn quickly how they’ll be useful to the Japanese – slaves.

Lionel Matthews’s gains vision of prisoner uprising with Lieutenant Rod Wells and Gordon Weynton by organising an underground network with the help of Sandakan’s senior civilian doctor, Dr John Taylor, and parts of the old British North Borneo Constabulary. Wells turns his mind to build a secret radio.

Many try to escape but are captured mainly to trusting natives they shouldn’t, all in the name of money. Hoshjima arrives, bringing orders with him, as the man in charge now. Punishments get worse. Christmas time brings food and a concert which brings a little light into the prisoner’s lives.

There are no victories in the second half of 1942 to celebrate. The war is turning, rice is replaced by tapioca and clothes disintegrate. The Japanese take out their frustrations on the prisoners. The Formosans (Indigenous Japanese that are placed at Sandakan as well) are ‘outcasts’ and take anger out on prisoners also. Some prisoners are tortured and this shows the other prisoners a new expectation. They are locked in cages, starved, full of lice, malaria, beriberi and dysentery which are all clear breaches of the Geneva Convention.

English prisoners join the Australians and then more Aussies come in to the prison camp. June 1943, the prisoner’s start to plan escapes but all are brought back and tortured. The British and Australians are in separate parts of camp and time passes slowly. The prisoners are resigned to this life now – beaten on whim, forced to stand hours in the sun, no adequate meals and hard labourer.

The Japanese are losing the war slowly but they won’t surrender. The prisoners are told if we die, you die.

You’ll shake your head a lot at the Japanese but admire our troops. Communities are divided and threatened. Basically all must pledge their allegiance to Japanese or die. The Japanese are psychology programmed to scorn death.

1944 – still ongoing. Some villagers live in the jungle, rather than deal with the Japanese, where they eat any animal they can. Prisoners are moved again to barely better conditions. At times they are like animals and the longing for food overrides those qualities of fairness with other men.

Late 1944 allied aircraft bomb Sandakan but by Christmas the raids are useless. The first march takes place early January 1945 as the Japanese realise they must move on. 455 prisoners are ordered to march. It’s also the movement of Japanese troops to Tuaran and Jesseltown. The prisoners are moved to help carry the Japanese’s goods, food and beds. Sandakan to Ranau is 160 kms. The prisoners are told there will be food aplenty at the end. They believed this as hope was all they had. Nine groups walk the march mainly in bare feet and a loin cloth. Sick prisoners were last in line and if they held the soldiers up due to their illnesses, they were shot or bashed to death. Some were just left to die. Japanese die too along the way.

Conditions at Ranua are terrible, awful and sad. The Japanese start to realise they must kill all prisoners; none must live to bear witness to Japanese humiliation and the war crimes they will face if any prisoners survive. ‘Saving face” is what the Japanese now think about. A second march is started, the sick are disposed of, and the few escapees are found and killed. The few prisoners that do manage to escape are helped by the natives. This in itself is brave because if the Japanese find out, the native’s lives would be in danger also. The natives hate the Japanese for destroying their villages and families.

Furthermore, at the camp, a tip from a soldier tells the remaining prisoners that all are going to be killed, so the last four escape, they are going to be killed anyway they figure, so they make a run for it. Three make it out alive with the help from natives and are finally rescued by English soldiers.

Behind at camp is the Australian prisoner called William Sticpewich who becomes friendly with the Japanese, only to gain information, but the other prisoners think he has turned and don’t care for him anymore. He escapes in the final days and is the last to make it out alive. Sticpewich is actually a great help after the war as he gives crucial evidence on their mistreatment at the trials and also helps allocate missing bodes along the Sandakan track.
Once the Japanese surrender on August 15th 1945, they are taken to court and charged with war crimes.

The natives from North Borneo are given rewards for helping our soldiers.
The Sandakan death march is walked over and over again and bodies are found and finally laid to rest in dignified graveyards. Some bodies are never found and some are too weathered that they are deemed unknown.

You’ll hear of what happened to the six survivors – Bombardier Richard Braithwaite, privates Keith Botterill, Owen Campbell, Nelson Short, William Moxham and Warrant Officer William Sticpewich.


Publisher: Random House
Release date: June 2013