Dr Michele Cunningham

Margaret George Award 2009

Topic: A fundamental reappraisal of events leading up to, and surrounding, the deaths of Australian prisoners of war in Sandakan, and of the cancelled plan to rescue the prisoners – Project Kingfisher

Biographical note

Dr Michele Cunningham is a Visiting Research Fellow at the School of History and Politics, University of Adelaide.


In July 1942, 1500 Australian prisoners of war were transported to Sandakan, North Borneo, to construct an airfield for the Japanese. They were later joined by about 800 British and a further 500 Australian prisoners, and they laboured on the airstrip until the end of 1944.

Shortly after their arrival in Sandakan, a number of Australian officers set up an intelligence network that involved local civilians and contacts with guerrillas in the Philippines. They constructed a radio receiver in the camp, but unfortunately they were betrayed to the Japanese before they could build a transmitter.

After the intelligence network was broken up, the Japanese transferred the Australian and British officers to Kuching, leaving only a few officers, including one doctor, to look after the 2500 men in Sandakan. By August 1945, all but six of those left in Sandakan were dead as a result of malnutrition, sickness or being murdered along the route of the forced marches from Sandakan to Ranau, or at Ranau in the last weeks of the war.

Dr Cunningham has undertaken a fundamental re-appraisal of events leading up to, and surrounding, these deaths and of the cancelled plan to rescue the prisoners – Project Kingfisher. She has investigated why so many died, whether a rescue was really feasible or, indeed, if a rescue was seriously planned.

Her research has unearthed more concrete evidence of the stages of planning of Project Kingfisher; the opinions of those in command; and whether the plan was a firm one, or merely a feasibility study to determine if a rescue could be staged as part of the invasion of Borneo.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019