Forgotten army's death march retraced

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2006, 12:00am

One of the most brutal episodes of the second world war - the Sandakan death march in Borneo - has been commemorated with a heritage trail retracing the last steps of hundreds of emaciated British and Australian prisoners of war.

The first group of walkers will set off next week to trek the route taken by the prisoners, who were forced to trudge 250km into the jungle from Sandakan, a town in what was then British North Borneo, now the Malaysian state of Sabah.

The servicemen, dubbed the 'forgotten army', had been shipped to Borneo after the fall of Singapore in 1942. They were initially forced to build a military airfield, but in early 1945 the Japanese decided to move them west of Sandakan along jungle tracks to the village of Ranau, on the slopes of Mt Kinabalu, Southeast Asia's highest peak.

The prisoners were severely malnourished and many were suffering from diseases such as malaria and beri-beri.

The Japanese soldiers guarding the ragged column were ordered to execute all those who faltered for fear they would tell their story to advancing Allied forces.

Even those who made it across the razor-back ridges and mountain passes were not safe. They were later shot by Japanese commanders who decided they had become 'cumbersome' and wanted to cover up the atrocities of the march. Some were executed 12 days after the war had officially ended.

Of the 2,434 British and Australians taken to Sandakan, only six escaped, all of them Australian. There were no British survivors.

The route of the forced march, lost to the rainforest for 60 years, has been uncovered by Lynette Silver, an Australian military historian, and Tham Yau Kong, a trekking guide from Sabah.

They rediscovered it with the help of a detailed map drawn up by an Australian military war graves photographer in 1946, and with charts that plotted the location of where each Allied prisoner died.

'This is the first time that anyone will have walked in the steps of the POWs since Australian army recovery teams were there in 1946,' Ms Silver said yesterday. 'It goes through dreadful terrain and was reclaimed by the jungle soon after the war.'

The 60-year-old historian will embark on a six-day, 150km section of the trek next week, along with nine members of the Australian army and air force and a relative of a POW from Western Australia.

The hope is that the Sandakan trek will become as popular with history buffs and walkers as the Kokoda Trail in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, along which Australian forces fought a series of desperate battles with the Japanese in 1942.