Discovering Sabah’s World War II sites
By Lara Dunston
I AM standing solemnly in the sticky heat, my shirt clinging to my back, despite the fact I’m in a shaded area of forest. It’s mid morning yet it’s already sweltering and humidity is high here at Sandakan Memorial Park, in the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo.
I’ve joined a group of some 60 people, mostly Australian passengers from the Orion cruise ship which has docked at Sandakan for the day. Two Australian women are laying a wreath at the base of the black marble monument, another two stand together, tears welling in their eyes, and arms linked to comfort each other.
The four women are descendents of the six Australian men who survived the horrific Sandakan Death Marches in which 2,400 Australian and British Prisoners of War (POWs) died between January and August 1945, and they’re here, along with the rest of the group, to pay their respects.
Sabah is best known to most travellers as an exotic tropical destination that’s teeming with wildlife and boasts some of the world’s best diving, snorkelling and hiking. Yet it’s also the site of some of the most horrific atrocities committed against POWs during the Second World War.
The leafy park, now towering with lofty trees from which I spot pygmy squirrels leaping from branch to branch, was the location of the original Sandakan Prisoner of War camp, where some 2,700 Aussie and Brit soldiers were brought by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in February 1942 to build an airstrip.
Some 300 were transferred to other camps, with the remainder subjected to the most brutal of conditions. Sick, weak, starving, and over-worked, suffering from tropical ulcers and malaria, they were forced over three interminable periods to stagger some 250 kilometres from Sandakan to Renau. They either died or were killed, often in horrific circumstances, on their way or upon arrival, with just six Australian men surviving, after escaping into the jungle and being helped by local people.
Every year, thousands of Australians and British visit the sites, and experiencing these places with older Australians who have a connection to the tragic events can be very moving. If you’re travelling in Borneo and would like to pay your respects, these are the key sites of commemoration in Sabah you should experience:
Sandakan Memorial Park
It’s worth beginning your visit by reading the display boards at the small but compelling museum in the traditional wooden pavilion at the centre of the park so that you quickly gain an understanding of the hell that the 2,400 Australian and British soldiers went through in this seemingly tranquil forest. The black and white photos and testimonies reveal how very different it was when they were imprisoned here in the closing years of the war.
Labuan War Memorial
Nothing can quite prepare oneself for this enormous expanse of manicured lawns with row upon row of marble headstones etched with the most touching of messages – there are almost 4,000 Commonwealth soldiers buried here in total. Jalan Tanjung Purun, 2kms east of town, Pulau Labuan.
Kundasang War Memorial
The lovingly tended Australian and English gardens here commemorate the prisoners of war who died here at the end of the horrific Death Marches. Protected by high walls, each garden is quite different to the other, the Australian garden comprising a sprawling lawn with flower beds, modelled on a typical suburban garden, the other a quintessentially British cottage garden. Visitors are invited first to an air-conditioned room to watch a poignant Australian documentary, which follows the recent journey of a group of Australians, including young soldiers, re-tracing the route. Equally touching are the photographs, articles, letters, and various paraphernalia on display. There are lists of those who died on the Marches in a third area with a long pergola shading a pond, with majestic views of Mount Kinabalu. Various reports claim that the soldiers came to hate Mount Kinabalu, continually in their sights and representing quite a different challenge than it does today. On the KK-Ranau Highway, near the junction to the Mesilau Nature Resort, Renau.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website
About the author…
Australian-born, Dubai-based travel writer Lara Dunston and her photographer husband Terence Carter have been living out of their suitcases since 2006, bouncing around the planet on assignment for publications from National Geographic Traveller in the USA to The Independent in the UK. The couple also have a popular travel blog Grantourismo, where they blog about slow and sustainable travel, local travel, and experiential travel.