Pte William Samuel Charles Smith, Ballina, died Sandakan Death March, 1945
Pte William Samuel Charles Smith, Ballina, died Sandakan Death March, 1945

Conspiracy of silence surrounded Sandakan death marches

IN MAY 1945 the Allied War with Germany ended.

There were great celebrations in the United Kingdom and in much of Europe.

However, in Australia the War continued as the Japanese still controlled many areas of the South Pacific. Australia had lost some of its best soldiers when Singapore fell.

Other soldiers had died or been captured as the Japanese pushed further southwards towards the Australian shores.

After the War finally ended in August 1945, we started to hear the stories of the men who had been prisoners at Changi, on the Burma Railway, and other centres.

However, there was one story which became shrouded in secrecy, partly because there had been only six survivors and therefore few who could tell the story, and partly because the Army authorities wanted to keep it that way, even from the Australian Government.

This story related to the Sandakan death marches which had resulted in the deaths of nearly 2500 Allied prisoners of war.

In 1942 and 1943 some of the Australian and British soldiers who had been captured by the Japanese were taken to North Borneo (now Sabah) to build an airfield.

The airstrip and camp were to be built at Sandakan. In late 1943 most of the Allied officers were removed to another camp so that the remaining men could be held under stricter control.

Starvation rations were imposed, with beatings and torture happening frequently.

After construction of the airport was completed in late 1944 the surviving prisoners remained at Sandakan for some time. But in early 1945 the Allied forces were gaining ground and one of their successes was the destruction of the Sandakan airfield!


Thus began the Sandakan Death Marches.

It was not until some years after the War ended that two pieces of information emerged.

Firstly, the Allied High Command had decided to try to rescue the surviving prisoners in early 1945. The plan was delayed for some months and then abandoned, even though by then it is likely that at least some of the men could have survived. 

Secondly, as the Allied forces closed in, the Japanese authorities decided to remove the prisoners by sending them on a series of marches into the interior.

All of the men were starving and most were very ill. When the prisoners stopped walking they were killed by the guards or left to die. There were only six survivors.

They had all escaped and been helped by the local population. Others who had tried to escape had been tortured before being killed.

Among those who died in Borneo were men from our North Coast area.

Some of these were:

  • Alstonville: V.E. Grills;
  • Ballina: W.S.C. Smith;
  • Bangalow: J. Knowles;
  • Bexhill: G.O. Dickie; J.V. Kealey; 
  • Byron Bay: G.A. Graham;
  • Clothiers Creek: J.F. Anderson;
  • Grafton: G.K. Barber; J.N. Nicholson;
  • Keith Hall: A.W.J. Woolnough;
  • Lismore: J.C. Bryant; A.T. Day; L.C. Harding; G.F. Kane; A.B. Last; J.B. Oakeshott; R.M. O'Connor; V.R. Raison; R.M. Ruane; Nimbin: M.G. Thomas; J.S. West;
  • North Lismore: T.F.U. Dixon;
  • Old Bonalbo: A.H. O'Connor;
  • Rappville: E.D. Bancroft;
  • South Lismore: R.J. Davis; C.A. Rundle; C. Stevens.

Most men died on the horror marches.

All are remembered in Memorials in Borneo and some also in local Memorials.

Most died of illness, usually malaria, while others were killed by guards when they dropped back too weak to continue.

If you wish to learn more about Sandakan and the death marches, Lynette Silver has written a fine book entitled Sandakan; a conspiracy of silence.