Frank Armstrong – First Sandakan Tragedy and Korean & Formosan Guards

Lance Corporal Frank Armstrong WX7717

The first casualty at Sandakan

Armstrong Francis

Despite a history of stomach ulcers Frank decided to enlist in the 2nd AIF, August 1940, joining the 2/4th MG Btn.

In May 1942, a few months after the Fall of Singapore and surrender by the Allied Army, Frank Armstrong was admitted to Australian General Hospital at Roberts Barracks Changi where he was diagnosed with having a peptic ulcer.   Frank was discharged back to his unit within two weeks.

Despite his medical history, Frank was included on the ‘B’ Force draft.

On the 30th July 1942 twelve days after his arrival at Sandakan, Frank died of a duodenal ulcer. He was age 31 years of age.

The following account was included in “From Hell to Eternity” (Page 12) by Peter C. Firkins.

‘On one occasion not long after arrival at Sandakan, Captain D.G. Picone, who had been the medical officer in an artillery unit was preparing to operate on a prisoner who had suffered a burst duodenal ulcer. Being nighttime, and the operation being urgent, Dr. Picone borrowed a stronger globe from the guardhouse.

He had just given Frank Armstrong the first anesthetic injection when a Japanese burst into the theatre asking “Who had given you permission to perform this operation?’

“No-one. It is an urgent operation,” replied Picone.

‘Who gave you permission to take this globe from the guardroom?” continued the guard.

With that the Japanese guard beat Picone with his wooden baton and made him stand to attention for two hours outside the guardhouse while the patient waited.

Frank Armstrong was the victim and his death was  due to the guard’s intervention.

Padre A.H. Thompson conducted the burial service. Frank was buried at the European section of Sandakan cemetery, located close to town. Frank’s grave was marked with a wooden cross with a metal plate bearing his name, rank and number.

Frank Armstrong’s body was exhumed at the end of the war and now rests in peace at Lubuan War Cemetery.

Of interest is Frank Armstrong’s POW number. He was 1,467 of the 1,494 issued to prisoners in ‘B’ Force. These numbers must have been issued between Frank Armstrong’s arrival on 18th July and his death on 30th July. Frank’s was the highest POW number amongst the 2/4th machine gunners in ‘B’ Force. This would indicate he was one of the last to disembark from the transport ship ‘Ume Maru’ and may well have indicated the state of Frank’s health at that time.

(These POW numbers were not issued at Singapore as ‘B’ Force left Singapore prior to August 1942 – after August the Japanese began issuing POW numbers prior to departure from Singapore.)

All the guards at Sandakan camp were Formosan (Taiwanese) under the command of their Japanese Imperial Army and Kempeitai Officers.

Korean and Formosan Guards

Their Status within Imperial Japanese Army.

No Koreans or Formosans were pressed into Japanese military service prior to May 1942. The Japanese considered Koreans and Formosans as being of a lower Class and were treated accordingly. For this reason they were never used as combat troops. The status of Koreans and Formosans within the Japanese military hierarchy was even lower than the lowest private in the Imperial Japanese Army.

If a lowly Japanese private could punish a Korean or Formosan guard – what hope of immunity was there for the prisoners, regardless of rank. Accepted as a fact of life, the guards vented their pent up resentment upon the POWs.

In the guard’s eyes the POWs were disgraced for allowing themselves to be taken prisoner and treated with contempt. This attitude was not isolated to Borneo. It was endemic along the entire length of Burma-Thai rail link and POW camps throughout the Far East and Japan.

Brutality was a way of life in the Japanese military system.

It is not difficult to see how easy it was to dehumanise the POWs. They were looked upon as commodities, not as human beings. POWs were mere slaves of the Emperor of Japan.