“THE Sandakan Death March remains the greatest single atrocity committed against Australians in war,” Australian War Memorial director Dr Brendan Nelson said yesterday at an official handover of rare personal documents from Richard Braithwaite, one of only six survivors of the death marches in East Borneo in 1945.
The Dick Braithwaite collection was donated by Braithwaite’s son, Professor John Braithwaite, and includes a map of the Sandakan camp, letters and photographs, postwar medical reports, and witness reports.
The collection also includes a citation from General Thomas Blamey, Commander of the Second Australian Imperial Force, congratulating Braithwaite for “his initiative and fortitude in escaping from captivity”, and two manuscripts written by Braithwaite as part of attempts to annotate his own story.
Of the 2,500 Australian and British prisoners of war sent to Sandakan on Borneo’s north-east coast during the Second World War, only six men – all Australians – survived the horrific ordeal.
Prisoners began to be moved from Singapore to Borneo in 1942, where they were forced to work on building an airfield at Sandakan. In January 1945 as the camp came under heavy bombing by Allied forces, the Japanese forced the Australian and British prisoners of war to march from Sandakan westward to Ranau, through the island’s rugged interior.
The weakened and malnourished prisoners staggered along jungle tracks for more than 260 kilometres. Hundreds died along the way, their bodies never recovered. Those who were too weak or ill to continue were killed by the guards. At war’s end those in the camp who had not succumbed to disease were killed by the Japanese. Only six escaped to survive the war.
“It is an absolute honour for the Australian War Memorial to be entrusted with such rare and significant items that add depth to our archive and enable us to more deeply understand the realities of war.”
Another of Braithwaite’s sons, Richard Wallace Braithwaite, used his father’s material to research his book “Fighting monsters: an intimate history of the Sandakan tragedy”, which was also launched at the Australian War Memorial.