Growing up in Canada, you don’t hear much about the conflicts in the Pacific region during World War 2. Most of our World War 2 education focuses on the situation in Europe. Now that I live in Australia, and have been here for several years, the focus is more on the Pacific and Gallipoli, more than anything else.
So it was no surprise that I hadn’t heard about the Australian war history in Borneo. What was surprising though, is that Dan, a native Australian and one interested in war history, hadn’t either.
Sandakan was the original capitol of Sabah, when it was British North Borneo. So it’s no surprise that when the Japanese captured Borneo, they chose this as the location for their primary prisoner of war camp. At the height of it’s operation, the prisoner of war camp here detained around 2,500 prisoners, about 2,000 of which were Australians.
Conditions in the camp, like most prisoner of war camps, was deplorable, and many prisoners died from malnutrition, disease, brutality, and over work. As the war began to come to an end, the Japanese became nervous about their position in Sandakan and decided to embark on a futile and ultimately dangerous mission. To relocate their prisoners to a potentially more secure location at Ranua, 260 kilometres through virgin jungle.
The marches were completed in three stages. One the first march, 470 prisoners left Sandakan, the most fit and healthy ones. Only a handful arrived in Ranua. On the second march, 536 prisoners left Sandakan and only 183 managed to finish the march. When the survivors of the second march finally reached Ranau they discovered that only six prisoners remained alive from the first march. No one survived the third march.
Conditions did not improve for the prisoners who survived the march. Disease, malnutrition and brutality all took their tole. Some prisoners were even tied to trees and left to die of exposure. One of these locations is marked by a stone monument in Ranua. About twelve days before the war finally ended, the remaining 38 surviving prisoners, from the 2,500 originally captured, were executed.
Only six prisoners managed to survive their experience in Sandakan. They were all Australians, and they were all ones who had managed to escape, either from the camp or along the march route.
A war memorial and gardens has now been established in Sandakan. This relaxing parkland, with shady trees and flower beds is a stark contrast to what it must have been like here when the POW camp was located here. A small museum and remembrance hall in the gardens documents the history of the camp, the death marches, and the people who lost their lives here. This memorial was our first stop when we visited Sandakan on a day tour with Sepilok Tropical Wildlife Adventures.
After our adventures in Sandakan we went north towards the capitol of the state, Kota Kinabalu. It was from here that we visited the Mount Kinabalu area. Here you can visit another war memorial dedicated to the war in Borneo and the Sandakan. In the village of Kundasang there is another war memorial dedicated to remember the cost of the war to the Australians, British, and local populations. Built on a hill side, the first garden is the Australian garden, next the British garden, and finally the Borneo garden. At the top of the hill, a memorial lists the names of all the known victims of the war as well as offering beautiful views across the countryside to Mount Kinabalu.