December 79 years ago at Sandakan POW Camps, North Borneo two young Western Australian POWs extremely ill with tropical illnesses were fighting to stay alive. Australian medical staff working desperately to keep them living.
There was no Christmas shopping 1944 North Borneo WW2
Kalgoorlie born WX5222 Les O’Neil (above) was one of 71 POWs from 2/4th sent from Singapore to work at Sandakan Airfields in North Borneo. Les was with ‘E’ Force Borneo which departed Singapore on 2 March 1943.
In 1936 Les moved back to Goldfields from Perth to work at Kurnalpi mining near Kalgoorlie. It was from here Les enlisted July 1940 to join AIF, later becoming part of ‘B’ Coy 9 Platoon as a Driver.
In December 1944 the Sandakan airfields were being regularly bombed by allied planes from the east coast. The Japanese in turn ordered POW work parties to make hasty repairs, until finally by end of December 1944, the airfields were too badly bombed, no longer able to be repaired.
On 12 December 1944 Les O’Neil became ill at Sandakan No 1 Camp was assessed by an Australian MO saying he could not work. But Japanese guards would make the final judgement as to whether O’Neil should work and if he was sufficiently ill!
Goldfields’ boys Les O’Neil and Tom Smith (below) were sent to very primitive POW hospitals, separate from their barracks.
With few medical supplies O’Neil and Smith with their compromised immune systems due to several years of very little food, poor diet and excessively hard work faced survival odds. O’Neil was unable to fight acute gastroenteritis and died four days later on 16 Dec 1944 aged 36 years. Tom Smith died 18 December aged 32 years. Neither were married however came from close knit families.
We know Les and Tom were nursed by dedicated orderlies and doctors who would have fought desperately to save their mates.
These young Western Australians in the prime of their lives, who dreamt of being free, returning home to their families and perhaps marrying, having children of his own never saw Australia again.
Norseman born WX8731 Thomas (Tom) Ernest SMITH (above) who arrived at Sandakan with ‘B’ Force Borneo in 1942 nearly 12 months earlier than ‘E’ Force, became seriously ill and sent to hospital where he died 18 Dec 1944 of Pulmonary Tuberculosis and beri beri aged 32 years. Tom born 1912 Norseman is younger brother to Robert (Bob) Leighton Smith WX8736 (below) born 1908. The brothers enlisted 23 October 1940 and joined 2/4th’s ‘B’ Company, No. 8 Platoon.
Bob Smith was KIA Singapore 11 February 1942 when fighting with 8th Platoon under the command of Lt. MacKinnon. Bob was one of four men from 8 Platoon to tragically die that day, the others were – Sgt Richard Sandilands who was second-in-charge, Don Day and Raymond Carruthers.
Below: Sandilands, Don Day and Carruthers.
Tom’s mother Sarah Smith lost three sons to WW2. https://2nd4thmgb.com.au/story/sarah-jane-smith-mother-loses-three-sons-ww2/
Not a single 2/4th soldier survived Sandakan.
Approximately 2,400 Allied servicemen including 1,787 Australian POWs mostly perished between Jan-Aug 1945 at Sandakan and ‘marching’ to Ranau.
Just 6 Australian men survived the horrors of Sandakan in WW2.
Please read story of Sandakan and its brave POWs.