Remembrance comes in many forms, sparked by a personal or national need to honour our war dead. In Sabah, that spark has been created time and again, not by officialdom, but by The Sandakan Family – families of prisoners of war and others interested in Sandakan’s story.
Sandakan Day had its genesis in August 1999, when a small group of relatives travelled with me to a raw and newly established Memorial Park to conduct a private service, the first to be held on the POW campsite since the opening of the park in March that year. Although services had been held previously, they were near the old boiler, in the mistaken belief that it was within the POW compound. It was not until April 1995 that research I was undertaking revealed that the campsite lay beyond the crest of the jungle-covered hill, resulting in an invitation to join the Australian government team entrusted with developing the park.
The following year, I accompanied members of The Sandakan Family to Sabah, where we conducted an ANZAC Day service at the site, the first commemoration held there since 1944, when POWs paused to remember Australia’s war dead. Private services were organised each year until 2007, when the profile of ANZAC Day had risen sufficiently for the Australian government to take over.
It was not until the early 2000s that the concept of Sandakan Day was officially recognised in Sabah. Inspired by services held every August since 1996 by The Sandakan Family in a Sydney Park, Datuk Adeline Leong and Datuk Irene Benggon-Charuruks decided on a recommended date of 15 August as being the most suitable for Sabah’s Sandakan Day – the date on which Japanese domination of Southeast Asia came to an end, and the date on which, at around 7.15 in the morning, Sandakan’s last surviving POW was beheaded.
Since then, Sandakan Day has gone from strength to strength and is now an important date on the commemorative and tourism calendar.
As The Sandakan Family expanded, we initiated other remembrance projects. The first of these was the installation in 2005 of magnificent stained glass Windows of Remembrance, in Sandakan’s Church of St. Michael and All Angels, to honour both POWs and local heroes. Three years later stage 2 of the project was completed, with the unveiling of the Friendship Windows, commemorating the friendship between Sabah, Australia and Britain, originally forged at a time of great adversity.
Since the inaugural trip in 1999, members of The Sandakan Family had been following the approximate route of the death march track by vehicle along the main highway, linking Sandakan to the west coast. Constructed in the 1960s and 70s, the road was a joint Australian-Malaysian project. On discovering that it would follow the POW track, or run parallel to it in places where it was impossible to build a highway (such as large areas of swamp, or difficult terrain, including the precipitous climb from the then uninhabited Taviu Valley), both the Australian and Malaysian governments declared that the road would be a memorial to the prisoners of war.
The desire by The Sandakan Family members and others to walk in the footsteps of the POWs was the catalyst for months of research in 2005 by myself and Tham Yau Kong and his TYK team, to identify the ‘lost’ section of the original track from Bauto through the Taviu Valley, and to open up 95 kilometres of the original 250 km route to trekking groups.
In March 2006, a team of mostly Australian military personnel became the first to walk the death march track since 1947, when the last of the body recovery teams completed their searches. The first civilian party made the journey in August that year, to coincide with Sandakan Day. It has been my privilege to accompany trekking groups several times each year ever since.
The year 2005 also saw the first of a number of humanitarian remembrance projects to assist Sabahans, when The Sandakan Family and St Michael’s Church launched the Sandakan Memorial Scholarship Trust – a program to educate financially disadvantaged students from Dusun farming communities in Sabah’s interior whose schooling would otherwise cease at the end of primary school. A large number of students have benefited from the Trust’s generosity, completing secondary schooling at St Michael’s and going on to tertiary study. Created as a Living Memorial, the education program is a practical way of thanking the Dusun people, who sheltered and saved the lives of six survivors of the Sandakan holocaust.
The success of the Scholarship Trust inspired other initiatives – the building and equipping of a pre-school in Kampong Miruru to thank villagers for sheltering an Australian POW, hiding in the jungle along the death march track in the Taviu valley. Led across secret hunting trails to the old village, on the far side of the Labuk River, he was cared for until sufficiently strong enough to be passed to a village headman further downstream. The Sandakan Family also provided the village with drums and musical instruments for the community church, food and clothing, a wheelchair for the disabled and a much-needed printer. The bravery of the village man who rescued the POW was belatedly recognised by the Australian government in 2010, with the presentation of a plaque and a Certificate of Appreciation.
Our exciting discovery in August 2009 of artefacts buried by POWs at the site of the Last Camp, deep in a valley 8 kilometres south of Ranau, resulted in funds flooding in from The Sandakan Family to build a memorial. Completed the following year, and overlooking the campsite, it commemorates the events that occurred there in the last days of the war. The Last Camp, where the death marches ended, is the only POW site to be untouched by modern-day development.
Also in 2010, members of The Sandakan Family joined with villagers from Kampung Paginatan to initiate the installation of a Historic Marker near the site of a POW staging camp, a project that was facilitated greatly by the Sabah Tourism Board.
Five years later, disaster struck in the form of an earthquake beneath Mt Kinabalu, damaging or destroying the homes of ten of TYK’s Dusun death march guides. The Sandakan Family, acknowledging the assistance given by the Dusun people to POWs in their time of need, rallied to the cause, providing funds to repair or rebuild all the homes and to provide a much-needed bus shelter and toilet facilities.
The end of this project saw the beginning of another. Known as Buy-A-Smile, and facilitated by Likas Bay Rotary Club, it provides plastic surgery for children and others disfigured by hare-lips and cleft palates, who do not have the financial means to pay for an operation. This enormously successful project, which fosters the on-going friendship between Australians and Sabahans, has so far brought a smile to the faces of more than forty people in need.
The role of my husband and myself in all of these undertakings is one of facilitation. While we organise the logistics necessary, our strength and ability to see these memorial projects to fruition lies in the power of Remembrance and is fuelled by the generosity of The Sandakan Family, our silent army.
As we commemorate Sandakan Day this year, it is a timely reminder that Remembrance is not always about annual services held at an official memorial. It also creates a priceless opportunity to help one’s fellow man, to give thanks for past kindnesses, to acknowledge the heroism of ordinary folk and to turn tragedy into triumph.
Sandakan Day 2020.
More information on the various Remembrance Projects supported by the Sandakan Family is available on www.lynettesilver.com