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Australian prisoners of war: Sandakan, Japan, female POWs and Europe

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Over 30 000 Australian became prisoners of war (POWs). Over two thirds were taken prisoner by the Japanese at the beginning of 1942. The remaining third were taken prisoner by the Vichy French and Germans.

The treatment of Australian prisoners of war at the hands of the Japanese was brutal. They were often forced to live in uninhabitable jungle, at the mercy of the elements, perform back breaking manual labour for hours on end, receive no medical treatment, to be starved, taunted, abused, maltreated, beaten and derided by their Japanese captors.
The Japanese treatment of prisoners of war did not act in accordance with the various international conventions regarding human rights of prisoners. Instead, it often ended in the deaths of their prisoners.
The inhumane treatment of POWs was not forbidden in Japanese culture. In January 1941, the Japanese minister for the army, General Hideki Tojo issued a 'no surrender' clause in a battle ethics brochure. This clause explained that it was more honourable for Japanese soldiers to die in battle than surrender.
Therefore, Japanese soldiers often had little respect for the human rights of prisoners. They considered surrendering troops morally weak. 

Women prisoners of war

Women and nurses were also taken prisoner by the Japanese. Two camps in which women were taken prisoner included Rabaul and Muntok. See image 2

As with the other prisoner of war camps, living conditions at Muntok were unbearable. Food consisted of a mugful of water a day, a handful of rice, and poor quality, tinned food. The women were often afraid of rape and, though the Japanese tried to force them into prostitution, there were not many cases of rape.
Women were concerned with the same issues as men - food, health, and safety. The same diseases that plagued men were shared by women. Eight women died in POW camps, one nurse died in the days after the war. 
When Betty Jeffery, a nurse from Singapore, was released from Muntok, she weighed only 30 kilograms and had contracted tuberculosis.


Some Australian prisoners of war were transported to the Japanese home islands for work in the war industries. Some prisoners worked in steel mills and were accommodated in barracks one kilometre away from the mills. They were made to run to and from work. If they tripped and fell, they were beaten. Work also included unloading ships.

The brave prisoners of war in Japan often attempted to sabotage the Japanese war effort. The most difficult labour was in the mines. 
Prisoners of war also endured the bitter winter in Japan, the lowest temperature recorded for 80 years was in 1943 at -36 degrees. The housing for workers was inadequate - there was not enough clothing or bedding during the winter and hundreds died of pneumonia. There were 24 Australians only two kilometres from Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped. They survived.
When Japan surrendered, the Australian government brought back the POWs very quickly.


Of all the POWs in World War II, 97 per cent were taken in the Pacific. The remaining 3 per cent were taken in Europe. 170 000 British and Commonwealth servicemen were taken by German and Italian forces.

6039 prisoners were able to escape.
Australian POWs in Europe number 8591, including RAF personnel and soldiers captured in campaigns in the Middle East and North Africa. POWs in Europe suffered from a lack of food and the climate. They did not, however, suffer from the almost constant beatings and hard manual labour imposed on the Pacific POWs.


Surviving POWs carried the emotional and physical scars of their internment for life. The families of lost POWs never learned what had happened to their loved ones. After the War, POW survivors attempted to gain further assistance from the government, explaining that their treatment had permanently undermined their health.

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1. Where was the Sandakan camp?

In Singapore

In Borneo

In Thailand

In Australia


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