Remembering a significant chapter in Australia’s war history

On Sandakan Day, Australians are encouraged to remember the fate of thousands of our servicemen during one of the worst atrocities of the Second World War, the Sandakan death marches of 1945. Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Warren Snowdon, said some 2,400 Australian and British Prisoners of War (POWs) lost their lives in Borneo at the Sandakan prisoner of war camp, in Ranau and in the death marches towards the end of the Second World War.

“Sandakan Day, 15 August, is an opportunity to reflect on the immense suffering endured by Australian and British servicemen, as well as recognise the efforts of the local people who often put their own safety at risk to help the prisoners,” he said. “Today, as we mark the end of the marches, we honour the spirit and courage of the men who endured brutal conditions and for most, a tragic death.”

Between January and June 1945, surviving POWs undertook three forced marches of more than 260 kilometres from Sandakan to Ranau POW camp. Around 500 prisoners died of illness or starvation, others were killed by Japanese guards. The remainder died at the Ranau or Sandakan camps. By the end of August 1945, only six Australians remained alive, after escaping from the Japanese.

“Far from those terrible POW camps and the horrendous suffering of those few remaining survivors, the world was on the cusp of peace. 15 August also marks Victory in the Pacific (VP) Day, when the surrender of Japan signalled the end of the Second World War,” Mr Snowdon said. “VP Day is an opportunity to remember the almost one million Australians who served in the Second World War, and to honour the more than 39,000 who made the ultimate sacrifice in the fight for peace.”

“The Victory in the Pacific, and the earlier Victory in Europe ended almost six years of Australian involvement in the Second World War. Today’s anniversaries act as a timely reminder of the importance of remembering the contribution of those who served during the Second World War, and the anxiety and grief faced by families and friends during and after the war.”

Victims of the death marches, and the POWs who died at Sandakan and Ranau, are buried at the Labuan War Cemetery in Borneo. Those with no identified grave are commemorated on Memorials to the Missing at Labuan and Singapore. A service will be held at the Sandakan Memorial Park, Sabah, to commemorate the local people and POWs who died.