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Sandakan

The harrowing story of the Borneo death marches of 1944/5

 

Paul Ham

Bantam Press, July 18, 2013

 

ISBN9780 857521033

It cannot be good for one’s health to hold one’s breath for prolonged periods. But this is a book that causes stasis in the reader’s lungs. In a world of 21st century comfort it is difficult to conceive that (ostensible) humans can inflict such misery on fellow men. And then a page or two later, new depravities are chronicled.

 

Paul Ham is an Australian historian and journalist; and this is a towering work that should be read by anyone interested in Japanese culture. It is fitting that the author is Australian since the majority of the victims of this sustained barbarism were from that nation. Most of the remainder were British – sorrowful prisoners of the Japs after the fall of Singapore. Ham sets out the succession of flawed strategic decisions by senior commanders (mainly Percival and other British) regarding the creation of that island’s defences before its fall in early 1942. This was followed characteristically by dissent amongst those officers as to whether and how to defend the city once under siege. Their case was not helped by Allied troop numbers being top heavy with non-combat men, and London having starved the theatre of air defence assets. General Gordon Bennett, the commander of Australia’s 8th division, makes an unedifying escape with a couple of staffers.

 

But first there is a breath-taking introduction – which by the book’s end, the reader will feel is fully justified. The introduction is no more, and no less, than an open letter to the current Emperor of Japan (Akihito) asking him to express a sincere apology for the actions of the previous generation. For it was in the name of his father – Hirohito, the previous Emperor – that the Japanese military hordes were so eager to give their lives in battle, and to enact institutionalised barbarism. It is of note that even the highly Westernised and modern current Japanese PM, Shinzo Abe, has yet to articulate any heartfelt apology or need for atonement. So presumably Ham was not expecting a reply from Akohito.

 

But to the book. The Japanese set out their modus operandi immediately: (as has been reported in many other histories) when they overran the Alexandra Hospital in Singapore, they raped the nurses and ran “through doctors and nurses with their swords, as well as an anaesthetised corporal on the operating table”. 320 staff and patients in all were murdered in two days.

 

The Chinese population of Singapore are the first to feel the force of the Japs’ ethnic cleansing, with more than 70,000 civilians imprisoned, and up to 10,000 executed.

 

Despite the horrors of his raw material, it is to Ham’s credit that he never loses his balance. For this is a man who authored Hiroshima Nagasaki in which he argued that it was unjustifiable for atomic bombs to have been dropped on those cities. If this book is to be believed, what actually brought the Pacific War to an end was the Allied promise to spare the lives of the Emperor and his family. Is it just me, or does that seem to go against the grain of self-sacrifice that appears bred into the Japs?

 

Sandakan makes it plain that, from the outset of their conquest of South East Asia, Japan saw conquered peoples as no more than slave labour, and was prepared completely to ignore the Geneva Convention in order to finish its construction projects, of which the Thai- Burma railway is the best known. Death rates were between 26 and 50%.

 

In July 1942 the first 1500 Allied prisoners who are to become the heroes of the book assemble at Changi prison and endure a hellish journey in the bowels of a tramp steamer to their new prison, Sandakan, on Borneo. Sustained under-nourishment – and absence of medical welfare – began here. Ham paints a quaint picture of pre-war Northern Borneo, and there is more than a hint of Pom bashing in his prose – but we can rise above that! Of course by 1939 the brains of Whitehall had left the island’s defence to little more than a sub-Home Guard outfit – extraordinary given the island’s potential as a source of natural resources.

 

Ham employs an astonishing number of sources, not the least of which are testimonies of those who suffered – for some diaries survived, incredible as it may seem. He also interviews a large number of prisoners’ descendants. In his calm, even-handed way, Ham takes pains to explain the rationale for the Japanese soldiers’ culture of violence – it is embedded in their society: senior officers beat junior ones, who beat NCOs, who beat privates, who beat guards, who therefore punched (at the bottom of the food chain) the prisoners. Further the men are forced to sign up to an order that essentially makes them accept they will be shot if they try to escape.

Jap 4

The diet amounted to murder by starvation