Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.

Paul Ham
William Heinemann, $49.95

By the late 1950s, Japan's post-World War II economic ''miracle'' was well under way and Australia and its former enemy had established a trade pact. Yet a good deal of public unease about Japan and its people remained, to the extent of Japanese cars being unwelcome in RSL club car parks.

From this distance, such might seem a touch xenophobic. However, at the time, it was completely understandable, given the appalling horrors suffered by captured Australians - mainly service personnel but not entirely - at the hands of the Japanese military during the Pacific War.

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Australian author and journalist Paul Ham's Sandakan: The Untold Story of the Sandakan Death Marches revisits one of the worst Japanese atrocities against Allied prisoners of war.

After the fall of Singapore in 1942, about 2500 Australian and British prisoners were shipped to a camp near Sandakan in then British North Borneo, the Australians the majority. As Japanese fortunes began rapidly deteriorating in early 1945, they decided to march in two lots those prisoners who were able - in Japanese eyes, most - to Ranau, about 256 kilometres away, the POWs to be used as porters en route and workers there.

Along the way, men would die of their labours, illness, starvation or be killed - usually shot or bludgeoned - where they dropped if unable to continue. Those still alive after the marches were killed, too. Of those remaining at Sandakan, too ill or incapacitated to be moved, none survived. Indeed, indications are one British officer left there was crucified.

Ham's interpretation of Japanese wartime documentation is that the camp's closure and the marches were intended to ultimately be death sentences for the inmates. Despite POW movements in and out of Sandakan, prisoners still numbered about 2500 at its end. Just six, all Australians, survived, escaping into the jungle during or after the marches.

Ham's history is wide-ranging, detailed and human, the author having sourced much official, public and personal material from this terrible time and since. His recounting of POW life in Sandakan ranges from surprising to expected: better than we might think to shockingly brutal.

In early times, although the rice-based food was basic, work building a nearby airstrip was hard and punishments sometimes harsh, the prisoners were paid a small wage, from which they could buy additional food, tobacco and perhaps other items. Nevertheless, dysentery, beriberi and malaria remained constant throughout the camp's existence.

Later, under a new commandant, and as Japan's fortunes waned, conditions became tougher, culminating in the camp's closure and the two marches to Ranau. A short third seems to have been abandoned, while a rumoured fourth looks to have been just that. Although the POWs, their plight and eventual fate remains central to Ham's book, one of the most fascinating aspects of it is about the underground movement that sprang up among Sandakan's civilians, its links and interaction with the POWs and what happened.

Ham's recounting of the work of the prisoner-medical officers in caring for sick and injured men, under at-times extremely trying conditions, leaves one with great admiration for the MOs. His investigation into the issue of whether there was or wasn't any serious Allied plan for a rescue attempt of the prisoners is revealing, while his account of the Sandakan war crimes trials is thorough.

Just what the ''untold story'' referred to in Sandakan's subtitle may be, I remain unclear about, as, judging by the book's references and sources, a huge amount of information on the event has been available for years.

Nevertheless, even if there is nothing particularly new it matters little, for Ham has given us a highly comprehensive and worthwhile military history.