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History buff debunks ‘Conspiracy of Silence’
Published on: Monday, December 30, 2019
By: David Thien
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Shari showing a map of historic North Borneo.
PENAMPANG: History buff Avtar Singh introduced one Colonel Robert Blake as a military consultant to debunk “The Conspiracy of Silence – Project Kingfisher (2) and the rescue of POWs at Sandakan in 1945" at a recent North Borneo Historical Society presentation here.

He said the POWs’ fate was sealed after the fall of Singapore. They were sent to Sandakan to build the airfield.

They were transported in a decrepit tramp steamer, the Yubi Maru, to Sandakan. When their labour was no longer required, they were confined to the prison compound where they slowly died from starvation, disease and brutalities.

As the Allies approached the islands, over 1,000 prisoners, still alive, were force-marched in groups of 50 to another camp in the jungle near the village of Ranau, about 120 miles away. The 291 prisoners, including 288 stretcher cases, who were too sick to march and left behind at Sandakan, were massacred soon after, many dying after undergoing diabolical torture.

In June, 1945, of the 455 prisoners that left Sandakan for Ranau on the first march, only 140 reached Ranau alive, the remainder had died or were shot during the march. Prisoners were shot out of hand, their bodies littering the route.

On the second death march, 536 P.O.W.s left Sandakan but only 189 were still alive when they reached their destination, 142 of these were Australians.

Another march, the third, consisting of 75 prisoners and about 100 Japanese guards, left Sandakan on July 10 on the different northern route but none of the prisoners or guards arrived at Ranau. The mystery remains to this day.

During their short stay at Ranau, four Australians managed to escape, another two escaped during the actual march, the rest were either shot or died from exhaustion, or illnesses such as malaria, beriberi, and dysentery.

Of the six escapees, three died later and only three from the original 2,434 were alive to bear witness at the War Crimes Trials which followed at Rabaul and Tokyo in 1946 in which 14 Japanese officers, convicted of war crimes in Borneo, were executed.

Project Kingfisher (2) was the code name for the rescue operation planned to liberate the Australian and British prisoners of war confined at Sandakan. In the planning stage for months under the direction of Australian General Sir Thomas Blamey and the Special Reconnaissance Department (SRD)

After 30 years the Project Kingfisher files were released for public access. They show that the RAAF had a pool of around 40 Dakota DC-3s and B24 Liberators in hand and that only 30 were needed for the paratroop assault on Sandakan for which 800 paratroops had trained in the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland (although they were never told for what purpose).

After months of planning, the rescue operation never took place and so, 2,428 Australian and British POWs died in the hands of Japanese captors.

Singh said there was no “conspiracy of silence” as the rescue of POWs at Sandakan in 1945 known as Project Kingfisher (2) was a non-starter, considering the priority of the Pacific theatre was to island-hop to Japan, after the conquest of the Philippines by General MacArthur.

Blake said thinking as a military planner, that after the failure of Commonwealth countries paratroopers at Operation Market Garden in Europe, and against this background, deployment of 800 Australian paratroopers into Sandakan without credible intelligence, was doubtful without adequate logistical equipment and support to overcome the Japanese soldiers.

They were against accounts like those presented by “Sandakan: A Conspiracy of Silence” author Lynette Ramsay Silver who argued that Blamey blamed MacArthur as an excuse to cover-up a SRD bungle in the gathering of accurate intelligence.

The Blamey-MacArthur relationship had never been cosy, each accusing the other of attempting to undermine his authority. Blamey, she claimed, told Air Vice-Marshal George Jones, the Chief of the Air Staff, that “while he [Blamey] had not submitted his rescue plan to the Australian government or other authorities, he had raised it with MacArthur, ‘who did not favour it’”.

Silver denounced Blamey’s claim about “getting the necessary aircraft” as utter nonsense which was not supported by evidence. 

First, she said, it was absurd to blame MacArthur and the American reluctance to supply the necessary air transport. No such request was made to MacArthur, who evidently then had at his disposal 600 C-47s. If the Americans were reluctant as was claimed, the RAAF had in its own pool of 71 C-47s.

It is difficult to dismiss the evidence from the AGAS operational report of February-May 1945 that the rescue of POWs was low in the priority of the AIF. Preparations were in earnest for the launching of the OBOE operations, and it would have been a diversion of effort to mount a rescue attempt in the midst of the overall invasion plan. – David Thien


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