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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

Sandakan Memorial Park on POW site

During the latter part of 1941 and early 1942 Japanese forces brought the war to South-east Asia. In July 1942 nearly 1500 Australian POWs were sent from Singapore to Sandakan POW camp. 1943 saw 770 British POWs arrive, and another 500 Australians. By late 1943 there were nearly 2500 POW held in the camp. In January 1945 the first of three Death Marches took place. Prisoners were forced to march 2600 kms to Ranau through marshes, jungle and up the side of Mount Kinabalu, all in weakened medical and near starvation. They were forced at gunpoint to carry baggage and supplies for the Japanese. Many died on the marches, and by the end of the war only 6 prisoners survived, and only because they escaped.

Between January and August 1945 this site saw tragic atrocities. Where the park stands today is where approximately 2400 Australian and British prisoners of war were held by the Japanese in the Sandakan POW camp. Situated about 11km outside of Sandakan, the former site of the notorious WWII prisoner of war camp is in the suburb of Taman Rimba. The opening ceremony of the site was held on 18 March 1999. Today it is well maintained and beautifully landscaped. It has been reforested with many plants being introduced from both Australian and Britain.

The rusting remains of an excavator, generator and boiler lie rusting away here as a reminder of those terrible times. The excavator was used to construct an airport for Japanese planes. However, whilst it was being repaired, the Australians sabotaged it by pouring sand into its workings and ensuring that it could never be used again.

The boiler and remaining piece of an alternator were part of the electricity generation plant for the camp. Fuelled by firewood that was cut and stacked by the prisoners. The boiler produced steam which in turn powered an engine driving the alternator. In 1942 until its discovery by the Japanese in 1943, the power supply was increased in the evenings by the POW’s underground network. This produced enough voltage to operate the clandestine radio made by the prisoners.

There are information boards along the walk with details of the heroism of both the prisoners and the local people. Locals built an underground network to help the POWs. They hid those who escaped, smuggled food, clothing and medical supplies to those still in the camp and provided them with news of the outside world. Some locals were arrested and executed for their actual or suspected activities. The boards also include photographs from the period.

There is also an old concrete slab and tank which was the site of the Japanese Quartermasters store and kitchen. It states that not all food was kept here. A large stockpile of rice was kept under the house of the camp commandant, and never reached the prisoners.

At the entrance of the park is a black reflective sign in both English and Malay that says “The Government of the State of Sabah has set aside this site as a memorial to the prisoners of war who suffered and died here, on the Death Marches and at Ranau. The memorial also commemorates the suffering and sacrifice of the local people.”

This site is also known as the Sibuga Forest Reserve and has a range of biological life forms. There is a warning at the gate that they may or may not threaten the safety of users. This includes pythons and cobras, giant monitor lizards, bees, wasps, hornets, scorpions, falling branches etc. Wooden walkways lead the visitor around the site.

Where the memorial obelisk is now, once stood The Big Tree. This huge Mengaris tree was where the Australian and British soldiers met and passed each other information. The tree was burnt down in the 1945 bombing raids. A new Mengaris tree was planted near the entrance on Anzac Day (25 April) 2008, in memory of the original tree and the POWs who lived in the camps beneath it.

There is a POW route that begins in Sandakan and ends at Ranau. The memorial park is the first stop on the route and a sign near the entrance shows this stop.

Our guide’s grandfather was part of the underground and was tortured for 15 days, every bone in his legs was broken and he was water tortured. He took his wife and daughter and hid in the jungle for 1944 and 1945. They only ate tapioca. A black marble obelisk was shipped from oz. oz flowers are engraved one both sides, one was words in English, and the opposite side has words in Malay. On Anzac Day, wreaths are laid here in respect. Locals say that at 3am each morning they can hear the ghostly sounds of soldiers marching. The Japanese burnt down the huts to hide evidence of their atrocities. No British survived the death march. Today there are groups of British people undertake the walk, in tribute, so that their nationality can finally finish it alive.

Visiting the memorial park was definitely a time for reflection and soul-searching. Lest We Forget.

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