The Untold Stories of Sandakan Death March


By Chloe Tiffany Lee

Unlike the Kokoda, Gallipoli, and the Vietnam war for example, the Sandakan Death March is still a barely known episode of unimaginable horror of the three-year ordeal of the Sandakan prisoners of war (POWs) that happened at North Borneo in 1942. Only six Australians survived the war. For decades after World War 2 (WW2), the Australian and British governments would refuse to divulge the truth of what happened in Borneo, for fear of traumatising the families of the victims and enraging the people. 

L-R: Pat McPhie (76), Roy Robins (86), Anne Gomes (83), and Glenys Ralls (70) | 3 May 2019

For at least 15 years, 86-year old Roy Robins has been travelling with groups  from Australia to Sabah during Sabah’s ANZAC Day (25 April) and Sandakan Day (15 August) to share the stories of Prisoners of War (POWs). 

“It seems like the Returned and Services League, Australia (RSL) and the government are very discreet about the war that was ever here. They remember Kokoda and Gallipoli – the two main focus points. But here (Borneo), it’s not focus at all. People don’t seem to want to know about Sandakan Death March and it is always a trouble getting people to come” said Roy. “Some of those who have travelled with me are the families of the POWs. They were really happy to visit” he said adding that the package includes visiting the camps located in Kundasang, Ranau, and Labuan. 

Ryan Rowland, Roy Robins, and Kevin Smith share their stories by either publishing books and articles via Lion’s Club of their chapter (Roy has written stories on Sandakan Death March in the 2018 Yarragon Lion’s Club 40th Anniversary book in which more than ten pages mention Sabah), as well as organising tours to get to know more about the Sandakan Death March. 

Roy is also  married to a local from Papar, Anne Gomes. They started off as pen-pals and by the twelfth letter (despite having not met each other), Roy proposed to Anne. “That was in 1970” he explained. “Anne’s father wasn’t that happy because she had to leave her job to come to Australia and marry me,” he said. His first trip to Sabah was in 1977. The loving couple recently celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary. 



Meet radio announcers, Caroline Hutchinson and Todd Widdicombe of Mix FM Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia who decided to spend their first time in Sabah experiencing the Death March after completing the  Kokoda Trek in Papua New Guinea. 

SMB: Why did you decide to try the Sandakan Death March? 

CAROLINE & TODD: We have done Kokoda a couple of times and that was very poignant. It’s part of the ‘Give Me 5 For Kids’ charity fundraising event. When we finished Kokoda for the second time, we were asked if we would like to try Borneo, and we immediately said yes. It’s heartbreaking to know that not a lot of Australians know about the Sandakan Death March. Now that we have done it, we need to spread the word because it’s incredible what the Sabahans went through. 

Is the Sandakan Ranau Death March well-known in your country?

CAROLINE: No, it’s really not. A lot of the people who walked with us did not know too. I have heard of it when as a child, I knew it was a terrible piece of Australian war history, but I didn’t really understand, but I grew up having interest in it. Through this trip, I know better that we need to keep the history alive and it is important to share the story of the Sandakan Death March which affected the Australians, British, and Borneans. History can’t be changed. We need to learn from it.

TODD: It is the untold story and now it is our job as media to go back and tell the story. Nobody knows this story because it could have been a military cover-up where at least 100 POWs could have been saved. I think the reason it is not a huge thing is because it is a very dark time in the Australian military history. 

What are your thoughts for those who perished during the march?

CAROLINE: It is one of the saddest stories in history. It was such a terrible time and I feel for the Japanese that I’m sure they would look back at this part of the history, they would be ashamed of it too. War is a terrible thing and it makes people do things that are out of their character. No one can change the past; we have to remember it, learn from it, and move on.

TODD: Sorrow, disappointment, compassion, and unbelievable anger towards their captors. These soldiers didn’t have a choice; they fought for their country. 

How did you feel after completing the  Death March?

CAROLINE: I have a story to go home with and I am ready to share the story of Borneo and why people should come here to get to know Sandakan Death March. I never gave up during the walk; I am always committed to the soldiers. I think we really did something worthwhile. I got to meet incredible people, we understood each other very quickly, and had great connection. I’ve learned that it is important to remember that these people deserve to be acknowledged, remembered, and celebrated. Definitely the story of the soldiers will never leave me. I will take this story to my grave. Lest we forget.

TODD: I cried after knowing the Sandakan Death March in depth. I thought of those young men as being some of them were fathers, brothers, sons, and that upset me a lot. I felt very honoured to have walked the Sandakan Death March. It was emotional. What I have also learned is that it is incredibly important to get the story out.  The Sandakan Death March needs to be elevated to the Kokoda level, because this is probably one of the darkest chapters from WW2 and not everyone is aware of it. 

Have you ever met any one of the six survivors who escaped and survived?

CAROLINE & TODD: We wish we had, but no. We didn’t know about this until we planned to come here. However, we would love to meet Keith Botterill, one of the six Sandakan death march survivors, in particular. We think what he did was incredible. 

Any words for the Sabahans and fellow Australians who want to try out the Death March?

CAROLINE & TODD: JUST DO IT. To the Sabahans, thank you for looking after the POWs. I am sorry about the Japanese occupation. Know what your forefathers did, how they tried to desperately save the Australians in need. Remember your history, lift the unsung local heroes, and be very extremely proud. It is an honour to come to Sabah. So, go do the death march and learn about their heroism, the amazing bravery and courage shown by the people who went before you.

It was an amazing opportunity to meet the groups who came to Sabah, listen to their interests and stories on the march. – Chloe

See you at the  75th Anniversary of the Sandakan Death March in August 2020!