Paul Ham’s SANDAKAN
As I’ve said previously I rank Paul Ham as one of the best Australian historians writing at the moment and his latest book only confirms this status. Ham evocatively recounts the story of the 2500 Allied serviceman, mostly Australian, captured at the Fall of Singapore and sent to a prisoner of war camp in northern Borneo in World War Two. He poignantly captures not only the courage, resilience and heroism of the Australians held captive in Sandakan but he also tries to explain the opposite: the brutality , the barbarism, the sadism and cruelty that led Sandakan to become the deadliest POW camp of the entire Second World War.
War is full of tragedy and young lives cut short, often before their prime. But there is something more saddening when not only are these young lives wasted but brutally extinguished at the hands of other human beings who seem to have lost all their humanity.
Ham begins his book with an open letter to the Emperor of Japan. It is a polite, modest and eloquent piece that has stirred some controversy. For some it is because they believe it is inappropriate for Ham to address the Emperor, others believe that what is said or done now cannot undo the past and this letter and an apology, they think, now seeks to blame all Japanese for what occurred during the war. Others argue that Japan has already apologized but as Ham states in the letter while some ” Individual Japanese officials have expressed personal remorse… Japan has not hitherto apologised as a nation” (I don’t think Germany has officially apologized either but reparations have been made by the German Government). Personally I think Ham’s letter is quite moving and humble and its intent is to promote debate about the issue. Apologizing is not just about accepting guilt or responsibility but also acknowledging a wrong doing. Both the Japanese and the Allies committed terrible and atrocious acts in the conduct of the war and nothing can ever truly repair what was done. But without acknowledging the past we will never learn from it.
Piecing together facts and stories from a war fought almost 70 years ago is challenging at the best of times but given only 6 out of the 2500 POWs survived imprisonment makes what Ham has done even more remarkable. Ham tells the men’s stories from their moment of capture in Singapore through to the ghastly death marches in the last days of the war. Some of the men’s stories defy belief, how they survived, what they endured. Some tried to escape. A few were successful, others were recaptured and ironically sent to other POW camps which spared their lives. The brutality and savagery of the Japanese was not as evident at the start of their confinement, it gradually increased over time and as the tide of war turned against Japan their cruelty and disregard for the lives of their prisoners got exponentially worse. The culmination of which was three horrific death marches that served to destroy the evidence of the Japanese Army’s war crimes; the prisoners themselves.
Ham not only recounts as many stories as possible from the Australians who were prisoners at Sandakan he also tells the Japanese side. Ham attempts to contextualize the different philosophy Japan had to life and death particularly in the context of war. His account isn’t about apportioning blame or seeking retribution but setting the record straight. Both the Australian and British Governments suppressed from the public what happened in Sandakan and no Japanese Government has apologized or accepted responsibility for the atrocities perpetrated not only against Allied POWs but also the native peoples of Borneo.
Sandakan is an important and devastating book. It is about the worst of humanity with glimmers of the best too. Australia’s involvement in the Second World War is often maligned. Usually because of the scale of the conflict and also because the British and Americans maligned us during the conflict. Australian soldiers did the nation proud in Crete and Tobruk before returning home to aid the brave and under resourced reservists in Papua New Guinea. Our best and brightest soldiers were rushed to Singapore and Malaya only to fall en masse into Japanese captivity after mere weeks of conflict thanks to the British capitulation. These men then had to endure unspeakable horrors in Changi, Burma and Borneo. We have not honoured them as they deserve. Paul Ham’s book sets the record straight but it is up to us to read, remember and never forget.