Thursday, April 29, 2010

Lest we forget: Sandakan to Ranau Death Marches,1945

Picture in the Kundasang Memorial Hall - by artist, Non Meston in honour of her father, Alwyn CADWGAN who died on the Second March, 2 June 1945. Aged 43

The Sandakan to Ranau Death Marches made deep imprints in my husband's mind. He caught it by accident on the History Channel, ASTRO. Then, we had planned a trip to Kota Kinabalu ( formerly Jesselton). The story which unfolded moved him and he was determined to visit the memorial in honour of POWs who perished under the Japanese during WW2.

We stayed at Kinabalu Park during our recent holiday. Kundasang War Memorial, at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu was on our 'to visit' list. The taxi man took us there. A short ride away from the bustling colourful vegetable markets of Kundasang. In the Hall, with some Australian families, we watched an ANZAC Day video presentation of the story of the Sandakan Death Marches.

A silent audience watched and listened to the tragic episode of the war. Hearts weep for these brave men, some in their teens, mostly in their twenties who suffered severe atrocities by the Japanese army. Humanity must never walk down this road again.

The POWs in Sandakan were members of the Allied contingent transferred to Sandakan by the Japanese in 1942 -43 following Singapore's fall. They were forced to build an airstrip with not much more than their bare hands.

In mid 1943, the Japanese discovered that the POWs not only had a radio but were in league with a local resistance organisation. Discipline became hardened for the remaining 2428 prisoners.

As the war raged on and with the Allies getting closer, the Japanese decided to move large groups of prisoners at Sandakan. In Jan 1945 the first of the three forced 'Death Marches' began. The Japanese army decided to move 455 of the fittest prisoners to Jesselton (renamed Kota Kinabalu). The POWs were used as mule trains - carrying baggage, heavy ammunition, rice and other stuff on their backs for the Japanese battalions relocating to the western coast. Owing to Allied air and sea activity on the west coast of Borneo, the POWs were halted at Ranau, a small village on the flanks of Mount Kinablau. Then followed the 2nd march (570 servicemen )and 3rd march (537 servicemen ) to Ranau.

The POWs had to trek through swamps, dense, inhospitable jungles and mountain terrains. A trek of 265 km through rugged jungle of Borneo . Little or no medical aid was given. The POWs were malnourished or suffered from illnesses. On starvation rations, the prisoners were forced to forage for food. Those who were too ill to do any work were shot by the Japanese guards.

Bombardier Richard 'Dick' Braithwaithe, one of the survivors on the 2nd March who was helped by the locals in his escape recalls, 'It was a one -way trip when we started to hear shots and you felt there was no hope for anyone who fell out.' The ones who could not keep up were 'disposed of'' or left to die en route.

Private Keith Botterill, 2/19th Battalion recalls: 'No effort whatsoever was made to bury the men. They would just pull them 5-15 yards off the track and bayonet them or shoot them, depending on the condition of the men. If they were conscious and it was what we thought was a good kind guard, they'd shoot them. There was nothing we could do.'

In captivity for 3 long years and living in the harshest of conditions and under brutal treatment by the Japanese, these servicemen were walking skeletons, unrecognisable as human.

Back at Sandakan, 200 prisoners unable to undertake the death march also died - killed or suffered diseases like dysentery and many tropical ailments.

2428 prisoners were incarcerated at Sandakan. 1787 were Australian. The remaining were British. Only 6 survived because they escaped - all Australian.

The story of Sandakan and the death marches is one of the most tragic yet heroic. These POWs showed indomitable determination and spirit to live.

A War Memorial and Gardens of Rememberance was built at Kundasang, Sabah in 1962 to commemorate those who died at Sandakan and Ranau. The memorial also remembers the people of North Borneo who risked their lives to help the POWs.

Outside the Hall, under a shelter crammed with memorabilia - visitors get glimpses of the tragic story of the POWS

Australia honours her dead

4 interlocking gardens to represent homelands - Australian, English, Borneo and the Contemplation Garden and Pool.

Great Britain honours her dead

Borneo Garden - beautiful orchids and plants of Borneo

From the balcony of the Memorial looking down on Kundasang

Private Nelson Short, 2/18 th Battalion, one of the survivors . He wrote this song/poem

Lest we forget

By the pool where the rememberance roll of honour plaques hang

Contemplation Garden and Pool of Reflection

Grim reminders

Domima OKK Akoi, from Kg Paginata, Ranau helped the POWs. At age 12/13 years, she left food for the POWs at the same spot. For 6 days, food was eaten. On the 7th day, the food was untouched. She heard gunfire and the soldiers never appeared again.
Amazing find : 6 gold rings in a tobacco tin at the same spot as a token of gratitude. She still keeps one; the rest were given away after the war.

Dearly remembered - A face we love is missing

265 km slow walk through HELL!
( picture credit: Lynette Silver, author, military researcher and tour guide)


  1. I have been to Kota Kinabalu and I find that it is a very beautiful place. I like their pace of life. I salute to all the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the countries and also to the families they left behind. Such brave and courageous people.

  2. Hi Keats,I have been to the Kundasang war memorial a number of times. It is a pity that not many people know about it or visit it. SO much history.

  3. I got goosebumps reading about this! I really hope we can learn from history. Such tragic events.

  4. thank you for telling this story. very moving. unfortunately atrocities still go on.

  5. Let us be reminded again ...
    "Humanity must never walk down this road again."

    A great write-up. Thanks again for the efforts to educate!

  6. Hi
    Autumn Belle, I love Kota Kinabalu too. Kinabalu Park is its gem as a UNESCO world heritage site. Memories of the POWs are very much alive. Truly, we salute them.

    Monyet King,yes, so such history for all to know and learn from. A well kept War Memorial.

    Rosey Pollen, thanks for sharing your kind thoughts for the fallen in such tragic circumstances.

    sonia, we have not been to Sandakan. There's also a memorial dedicated to these heroic men.

    lupie, thank you!

  7. Hi Keats, nice write up, so much we could discover from your article, keep up your great work....

  8. War is always tragic. It's good to be reminded!

  9. What a picturesque town -- with such a sad history! Those POWs -- so sad... promising and strong young men going abroad in high spirits... only to die as POWs and military porters... simply horrible. I hear almost identical stories everyday from the people I work with, Keats, so the practice hasn't ended yet. The governments of the world must do much, much more to end all these gross violations of human rights. I hear your call -- we must prevent such terrible and brutal history from repeating itself -- but some isn't even history yet! That Domima -- what a heroine! What a courageous and good-hearted child she was! I am glad she lived up till a ripe old age. Must be all the good karma!

  10. Thank you for all the pictures to show us the memorial place. I truly wish that this history will never happen again..

  11. Hi
    PALATABLE, thanks for coming by! good to share.

    AJ7, you're absolutely right.

    ~Covert_Operations'78~,I sense your grave concern for preserving human rights. Domima deserves recognition - so righteous at a tender age even in such troubled times to do the right thing which many would fear to do.

    Icy BC, amen.

  12. This is such a meaningful post. I think many of us have no inkling about this painful history and the sufferings of the POWS. We seem to take things for granted nowadays. Thanks for sharing!

  13. There was also a Death March in our country and I have heard of stories, aside from history classes in school, about what happened during that time. Those who had joined will always be remembered.

  14. This is so sad. The thing that touched me most and will stay with me forever is the girl (now grown up) leaving food for the soldiers. For six days it was eaten, on the seven days it was untouched. That says so much to me. I just wondered how she felt.

  15. HI
    petite nyonya,thank you. war is always tragic.

    Sashindoubutsu,may I now which Death march? so much history to remind us not to violate human rights.

    Anne Lyken-Garner,you're right - what a lass!

  16. This is so sad. I've never been to KK.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    Happy Sunday!

  17. tQ for the history, yeah have a couple of those bananaz money haha. Oh yeah Jesselton was the former name for KK forgotten about it. ~;).

  18. Hi
    Veronica Lee,Do visit KK. it is one of our gems. Do the great outdoors which people flock there to experience. I hope to visit the Sepilok orang Utan Centre and other wondrous places.

    Bananaz, how could I forget? - you're the'keeper' of the banana money!! have a good Sunday:)

  19. What a story..
    People should never forget these war atrocities. No matter what side committed them.
    Have a a great day.

  20. Thanks for telling this horrific story Keats _ I was not aware of it ... sadly, given man's base nature, this type of atrocity may well happen again ...

  21. that was a very interesting read but left me very moved and thoughtful to think of those war torn days.
    thanks for visiting my blog. looking forward for many more.

  22. Thank you for this beautiful post. I think, as you suggested in your title, Mr. Kipling actually had its significance (incalculable) pretty much encapsulated: "lest we forget."

    I also love the way you interleave your photographs with the text. Striking a proper balance seems surprisingly difficult, but you have certainly achieved it. Well done!

    My boyfriend is Filipino and says that stories of the Death Marches still haunt the islands.

  23. HI
    Naturedigital, you are dead on!(pun intended).

    OneStonedCrow, some call this ' australia's holocaust' - may this never happen again - anywhere.

    nituscorner, as we remember, we grieve and learn.

    flyingfish, thank you! i appreciate your kind comment.

  24. Thank you for bringing all these statistics to my attention, I was not aware of some of them. Very nice and sensitively written post.

  25. Hi
    Eternally Distracted, thank you very much.

  26. What an incredible history lesson you give us in this post. Very interesting.

  27. Hi
    Laura in Paris, thanks! history is always relevant 'coz we learn so much:)

  28. Tks 4 sharing. The better half and I love to visit such places. We were at Kanchanaburi's infamous death railway in Thailand and Auswich-Birkanu Concentration camp, and this is another crime against humanity. A must see and one from my bucket list.

  29. Hi
    Thomas C B Chua, I should make it to Kanchanaburi as it is nearer home. Horror stories like these make us very sad and we have to learn from them. Thanks for visiting my blog.

  30. Touching...feel free to visit mine;


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