Sandakan and the ‘8-mile camp’; anchors and trawlers. November 08-28, Sandakan to Kudat.

On the site of the big tree above the Australian camp.

Eight miles outside the town of Sandakan is one of the most melancholy places you might visit in Borneo. It’s easy to get to, just take a bus from in front of the market, get off after going past the ‘Giant’ supermarket at about 7 miles, then walk up the hill between the houses. Go past the community centre and turn right just after the new townhouse development. You will probably get funny looks from some of the locals walking down to the main road and from others who jog along the road and in the memorial park at the top of the hill; there after all aren’t that many non-Malaysians out here or tourists getting about on foot.

For that matter Sandakan doesn’t really rate very high in the tourist destination stakes except perhaps for people headed out via boat to go diving on island resorts like Palau Lankayan. In fact if it wasn’t for the Japanese occupation of Borneo during the second world war, the town of Sandakan might be just as unknown to Australians as places like Kudat, Miri and Lahud Datu. Instead, Sandakan sits high in the pantheon of Australian military history albiet for all of the worst reasons, and most Australians have probably heard some mention of it.

The Japanese in Sandakan in1942 in one of their standard moments of appalling behaviour decided to use Asian prisoners and Australian and British prisoners of war to build a new airfield to support their expanding empire. Some 3600 Asians and 2400 Australian (largely) and British troops were shipped in and by the end of the war almost all of the prisoners of war had died. By 1945 after two years of neglect and torment and just before the end of the war the Japanese for reasons they could only explain, decided that as the Australian army was approaching, those that were left and could walk would march through virgin jungle and swamp all the way across Borneo to Jesselton, now Kota Kinabulu; carrying Japanese supplies of course. None got to KK but some made it to Ranau, 260 km away on the flanks of Mount Kinabulu where, except for six Australian excapees, they stayed until moved to the war cemetery at Labuan. In most circles the ‘Sandakan Death Marches’ are widely considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during the Second World War; not to mention the fate of British and Asian prisoners.

Jack Cameron.

The ‘Memorial Park’ is on the site of the original ‘8-mile’ camp, largely where previously the Australian compound was situated with the memorial marker on the location of the big tree that used to stand above the Australian’s camp. Nowadays the area and park is a jungle/forest enclave with a small lake, boardwalks, signs explaining the past, and a memorial pavilion containing the standard pictures and accounts of what happened here along with a model of the camp.

Little remains of the camp proper, the old boiler and alternator for providing lighting, an old excavator that hasn’t moved since being sabotaged by an enterprising but unknown Australian soldier; the site of the British compound is currently in the process of being built over by encroaching housing development. Inside the park the footpaths are perfect for the locals out for their afternoon jog while one must wait patiently for the visiting school groups to finish up before taking a few photographs. It’s in the pavilion and after reading the background and accounts of the few survivors that one is left with a very deep sense of sadness for those who thought that one day they might have made it home. Of course from sixty-five years after and without personal involvement it is difficult to really comprehend and engage with the scale and tragedy of what happened here. For others though it is much closer. Jenny (The Librarian), a friend from Melbourne has an uncle who died here; John (Jack) Kenneth Cameron, he died 15th May 1945. Jenny would like to visit but in her words, some photos would be nice. Jack is possibly in the war cemetery in Labuan, but many didn’t make it that far.

The ‘big tree’!

After visiting the 8-mile, further sightseeing around Sandakan did seem somewhat self indulgent so the next step was to get organised to head back around to Kudat and to then head north. The boat however, did need some work including new batteries and seats for the cockpit and eventually we were ready to leave on 20Nov; that is until we tried to pull our anchor up the day before. A week earlier at night during one of the usual squalls that slip through this part of the world we were almost mowed down by a German boat whose anchor was proving somewhat slippery. Given that Thyme also appeared to have moved around a bit, Trevor was somewhat suspicious that our anchor might have been attached to something more substantial than sand or mud.

The battery carriers.
Sylvie and the new seats.

After their evening of squall induced anchor dragging the Germans had later anchored unsuspectingly inside a sunken fishing boat and as suspected, it turned out that our anchor was attached to something formidable enough to defy all our and the local Police boats attempts at extraction by either diver or engine. The bottom here would appear to be a full on scrap-yard and fishing boat graveyard which with zero visibility, strong current and enormous amounts of submerged logs and rubbish makes for interesting diving.

Love the way they name boats here.

Big engines and bending the anchor!

The eventual answer for the Police was to press gang a fishing trawler to use their winching gear to extract our recalcitrant CQR. After breaking two sets of gear the answer became, we will tie the chain to the back of the trawler and pull the thing out; now these fishing trawlers are big, very heavy and have very big engines. In spite of Trevor’s pleas of don’t do it, they did manage to pull the thing out while completely redesigning the anchor and converting 10 metres of 3/8 short link chain to 5/16 long link. Next day was spent at the local engineering works converting the anchor back to something approaching its’ original shape.

Not supposed to look like that is it?

We eventually got away on the 21st, this time with Canadian Ron coming on for the trip around to Kudat then up to Puerto Princessa in the Philippines (never had heard of Puerto Princessa before coming up here). First stop was the Turtle Islands where we weren’t allowed to go ashore. At Lankayan we could go ashore but not on the beaches at night where we might see some turtles, we were told that this was for our own safety. While one wonders how fast those turtles can actually move we eventually decided this was more about the resort not making money from grotty-yachties. Well after some persuasion that night the local, Sabah Parks fellows relented and let us, that is crew from Gadfly, English Andy on Shah and the same Germans from Samba, go with them where we found a big turtle hauling out to lay her eggs. Problem here was that instead of laying her eggs she actually dug up another nest where the eggs were hatching which had us running about at two in the morning carrying little turtles to the water; though they really did actually seem to know the way without our help!

The next day from Lankayan we slipped across to Tigapil and beers that night with English Andy on his starship ‘Shah’, then a longer hop to Malawali before a good day of sailing the last thirty miles down into Kudat and the basin in front of the non-marina (never got built of course). We were in the Basin for a week, shopping, buying cheap beer from the Chinese, yet again fixing things and chatting to the Navy guys in their new, fast boats. Quite amazing really, six metre runabouts with mounts for four (yes four) 50-calibre machine guns. That’s really a lot of firepower for a biggish, potential fishing boat; wonder where they will put the rod holders?

Sandakan market.

These boats also carry two, two hundred and fifty horsepower outboard motors on the back making them without too much doubt probably the fastest and most heavily armed fishing boats getting about, but they probably need the horsepower. In Sandakan even the local fishing boats that they launch from the yacht club are not short on horsepower with twenty foot, flat bottom fishing boats (barges really) having as much as 500 horsepower of outboard motors hanging off their transom. This does make one wonder what the average smuggler or aspiring pirate might run around with?

The numbers say it all!!!
At the Sandakan Yacht club.

The program now after getting sorted in Kudat, was to day hop the 210 miles up the east coast of Palawan to Puerto Princessa stopping at nights of course in true cruising mode. The only problem with this plan though is that the direction we need to go is north-east and by now of course the north-east monsoon had set in. We had been regaled with tales of woe from a number of sources about the problems of moving north in December and the weather which had set in during our trip around from Sandakan seemed to support said woe; you will never get there, it will be horrible! Anyway, operating on the basis that ‘I bet it doesn’t blow hard all day and for that matter every day’, on 28 November after sitting through some really crappy weather we recovered our stern lines, pulled up our still working anchor and with the wind ENE at 5-10 we quietly slipped out headed north for Palawan and the Philippines; must be getting soft even worrying about the weather up here, can’t be that bad?

After the marches; (from Wikipedia).

Due to a combination of a lack of food and brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese, there were only 38 prisoners left alive at Ranau by the end of July. All were too unwell and weak to do any work, and it was ordered that any remaining survivors should be shot. The prisoners were killed by their guards during August, possibly up to 12 days after the end of the war on August 14. In total, only six Australian servicemen managed to escape. During the second marches, Gunner Owen Campbell and Bombardier Richard Braithwaite managed to escape into the jungle, where they were assisted by locals and eventually rescued by Allied units. During July, Private Nelson Short, Warrant Officer William Sticpewich, Private Keith Botterill and Lance Bombardier William Moxham managed to escape from Ranau and were also helped by the local people, who fed them and hid them from the Japanese until the end of the war. Of the six survivors, only three survived the lingering effects of their ordeal in order to give evidence at various war crimes trials in both Tokyo and Rabaul. The world was able to receive eyewitness accounts of the crimes and atrocities committed. Captain Hoshijima was found guilty of war crimes and hanged on April 6 1946. Capt Takakuwa and his second-in-charge, Capt Watanabe Genzo, were found guilty of causing the murders and massacres of prisoners-of-war and were hanged and shot on 6 April 1946 and 16 March 1946 respectively.

Don’t think the weather is worth worrying about really!!!!


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