Remembering the deadly Sandakan march at the Kundasang war memorial
By Patricia Hului
Dedicated to the lasting memory of the 641 British servicemen
Who died in terrible circumstances
In the Sandakan prisoner of war camp
On the death marches and at Ranau 1943–1945
They shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them
These were the words inscribed on a black marble slab with the flag of the United Kingdom in the English Rose Garden, one of the gardens in Kundasang War Memorial.
It’s one of four memorials, the others which include Australian Garden, Borneo Garden and Contemplation Garden.
Located in Kundasang, the memorial is about two hours’ drive from Sabah capital Kota Kinabalu.
It was built in dedication to British and Australian soldiers who died in the Sandakan prisoners of war (POW) camp during the now infamous death march to Ranau.
In 1942, over 2,400 POW were taken from Singapore to build an airstrip in Sandakan where they endured the most appalling conditions in the Japanese POW camp.
Between January and August 1945, towards the end of World War Two, they were forced to march a torturous 260 kilometres from Sandakan to Ranau.
They were reported to have died of disease, starvation and beatings.
Only six – all of them Australian – survived the prison camp and the death march when they escaped.
Locals risked their lives helping the escapees, feeding and hiding them until the war ended. Established in 1962, the memorial also recognised the suffering and sacrifice of the natives of Sabah.
The idea of a memorial was mooted by a New Zealander named Major G.S. Carter in the early 1960s which was then built and funded by the people of Sabah and local expatriates.
Unfortunately, the memorial fell into disrepair and neglect until Thai born Sevee Charuruks restored it in 2004.
It’s no coincidence that the memorial was built with Mount Kinabalu in the background as according to local belief, the cloud enveloping the mountain harbours the souls of all those who have died.
News clippings from all over the world on the Sandakan death march are also exhibited.
Step this way
The first garden visitors step into before the English Rose Garden is the Australian garden where an Australian flag and a plaque titled ‘Kinabalu Kundasang War Memorial and Australia’ sits at the centre of the garden.
There is also a panel written in English and Malay on the history behind the prisoners of war in Sabah.
Meanwhile, the Borneo Garden is dedicated to the victims from Sabah who tried helping the prisoners of war and got killed while doing so. Fittingly, the plants found in Borneo Garden are those native to Sabah.
The Contemplation Garden is the last part of the memorial where marble panels were installed five years ago listing the names of all the victims.
It was moving to look over the long list of over 2,000 names which should be remembered not just as prisoners of war but also as friends, sons, fathers or brothers.
In fact, 38 names were not supposed to be inscribed on the panels as they actually survived the deadly march, arriving in Ranau in weakened states.
Nonetheless, they were shot dead by the guards, possibly up to 12 days after the Japanese surrendered on Aug 15, 1945.
During my visit to the memorial, my thoughts immediately went back to Batu Lintang POW camp.
Following the liberation of the camp, official Japanese papers were found describing the proposed execution methods of all POW and internees.
The first order to execute was scheduled on Aug 17 or 18 but was not carried out while the second order scheduled on Sept 15 did not occur because the camp was liberated four days earlier.
If the execution order was to proceed, 1,392 POW mainly British and Australian soldiers, 395 male civilian internees and 237 civilian women and children in Batu Lintang would have shared the fate of Sandakan POW.