Remembering Fallen Heroes

26 April 2018

Anzac Day is celebrated annually in Sandakan to honour the service and sacrifice of those who lost their lives in all wars and conflicts.

Observed on 25 April each year, Anzac Day was originally to honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought and died at Gallipoli during World War I. It is now a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that commemorates the Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.

In Sandakan, a dawn service is organised annually at the Sandakan Memorial Park by the Office of Australian War Graves (OAWG).

Credit: Sri Pelancongan Sabah

Between 1942 and 1945, around 2,750 Australian and British prisoners of war (POWs) were held at this former POW campsite. The POWs were shipped in ‘hell ships’ from Singapore to Sandakan as forced labour to build a military airstrip. In 1944, some of the prisoners were transferred to Kuching and Labuan, leaving approximately 2,400 men behind.

With the aerodrome damaged after repeated bombing attacks, the POWS were split into three groups and forced to travel by foot from Sandakan to Ranau in what is infamously known as the Death March. Out of 1,056 men, only six survived the brutal 260km journey. The rest of the POWs who never left Sandakan died tragically due to execution, malnourishment and diseases such as malaria, beriberi and dysentery.

Credit: Melvin Ho

In Sandakan, an Anzac Day dawn service is organised annually at the Sandakan Memorial Park. Credit: Melvin Ho

In remembrance of these brave souls, visitors like 80-year-old Malcolm Smith, who was with the Royal Australian Air Force for 18 years, travel from afar for an annual pilgrimage to Sandakan.

"My first trip to Sabah was back in 2006," Smith recalls.

"I did the Death March tour and that raised a lot of questions about what happened. I needed to dig more and find the answers. I started to meet people and talked to a few of them who lived through the war. To listen to their stories of what happened to them and how they survived was a real eye opener."

Malcolm Smith

During this visit, Smith also stopped over at the No. 1 POW Camp in Ranau, where the prisoners were detained during the Death March. Saddened by the dilapidated state of the memorial, he realised that he needed to do something. With the assistance of the OAWG and Sabah State Museum, he managed to obtain funding for the restoration of the historical site.

"I'm still trying to get bits and pieces – remnants, photographs and stories of the local people," Smith says.

"Most of them are dead now, but I've managed to speak to about 30 families.  I've learnt to respect them for the hardship that they went through. If it wasn't for the help of local people, those six Australian POWs wouldn't have survived the Death March."

Major John Tulloch

According to Major John Tulloch, 71, previously with Britain's Royal Regiment of Artillery, few people know that between 1942 to 1945, 16 percent of the local population (close to 41,000 people) died through massacre, torture, execution, malnutrition and starvation in Sabah alone. He admits that he was completely ignorant about what happened in Borneo until he visited Sandakan 19 years ago. He now visits Sabah annually.

Surprised by what he learnt during his trip, Tulloch decided to do research on the subject. He was horrified when he learnt that 336 out of the 641 British POWs that died were from his regiment. It spurred him to organise Sabah Salute, a poignant act of remembrance and dedication held at the Kundasang War Memorial in 2011. He is currently researching and writing a book about what happened in Borneo during World War II and hopes to publish it in the next two years.

"There's so much that happened in the whole island of Borneo that hasn't been told,” says Tulloch.

“The books that are out there are mainly written by Australian authors on Sandakan, Ranau and the Death Marches. I want to give it a British [POW, local administration internees and Bornean local peoples] perspective. The history of Borneo during those terrible years is all-encompassing."

Both Smith and Tulloch are passionate about educating people about the past so that history does not repeat itself.

"History has everything to offer," Tulloch says. "It teaches us what might come ahead.”

The Anzac Day memorial service is open to public and takes place on 25 April at Sandakan Memorial Park. For more info, visit www.sabahtourism.com.

By Rozella Mahjhrin
Photos by Danielle Soong.
Event photos courtesy of Sri Pelancongan Sabah and Melvin Ho

This article is related to OFF THE BEAT ANZAC DAY SABAH MEMORIAL HAPPENINGS