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Sandakan Surrounds



From Sepilok it was an abrupt farewell to Geoff and Nicky as I made a dash for an infrequent bus headed back for the city, though I already knew from the outward journey where to jump off prematurely by one of greater Sandakan's many beastie adorned roundabouts, this one centred by a parody of a giant erect crocodile with one claw pointing the way out of town. It was a unassuring climb out past the odd army base and into a new housing estate development, but eventually a small plaque by the roadside revealed my next goal, the Sandakan Memorial Park. Entering the walled grounds of what otherwise appeared to now be a park of impressive trees and an idyllic lotus scattered pond, a further couple of inscriptions related this to be the site of a former POW camp, the spot from where the Japanese had instigated the Death March to Ranau.


A decade after expansionism into China, Japan swept across South East Asia with the aim of securing raw materials vital to her development. They captured over 132,00 Allied troops and 180,000 Asian troops in the process, including over 50,000 British and 20,000 Ozzies, 2 thirds of whom fell with the capture of Singapore. These POWs were transported in order to serve as forced labour on projects such as the Death Railway in Burma, a railway in Sumatra and airfields all over the region. Some also ended up in Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. At wars end over 8,000 of the 20,000 Ozzies had succumbed to Japanese brutality, and nearly one quarter of those on the Death Marches instigated from this spot outside Sandakan to Ranau. Brought here to build one such airfield a few Ks East North East of the POW camp at what had formerly been a British Agricultural Experiment Station dubbed simply "Mile 8", conditions were difficult and sabotage was often implemented by them but 2 airstrips employed for bomber operations were eventually completed. As the Japanese became more desperate for progress they pushed the POWs hard, and numbers soon began to dwindle. Allied air raids began here in September 1944, upon which the POWs were employed to repair the damage inflicted and remove UXBs, some being killed during the raids. In a daring escape in June 1943, 8 men slipped offshore from Berhala Island, 3 in a stolen canoe who made a 10 day voyage to the Philippines, with the other 5 joining them after being picked up by a Philippino vessel. After joining local resistance guerrilllas, they rejoined the fight before 3 survivors got back to Australia to tell of the deplorable camp conditions. In July 1943 an underground organisation which liaised with the locals was betrayed however, leading to torture and imprisonment in Kuching where some perished. Most officers were also sent to Kuching at that time so that more control could be exerted over the ranks. Though the officers fared better than the men, many died similarly building an airfield at Kuching and of 300 sent similarly to Labuan, not a single man survived. The liberation of Kuching revealed that the Japanese had planned another Death March from there to Dahan but were too quickly overrun to effect it. By late 1944 the prisoner's rice ration had been halved and then in January 1945 the Japanese stopped it altogether. After force marching the POWs as porters, the Japanese burned the camp on 29th May 1945 before withdrawing to the West, those not fit enough to march being massacred. Operation Kingfisher, a rescue mission which had landed north of Sandakan in February of that year did not liberate them due to faulty intelligence.

Happy that I had squared away another successful day in great efficiency, retracing Sandakan led me to check out further corners of its realm, discovering a hotchpotch of watercraft down by the highly pungent central market, where variously trawlers chugged in to unload their catch, ropey looking wooden ferries departed for unspecified Kampungs and police launches lumbered unmanned in testimony to the prevailing threat of piracy. The city mosque beyond made an excellent backdrop, a shuttlecock framed by forest clad hills, a very atmospheric spot.

From there, a shower and a beer were the only solution to another super scorchy day, reflecting along the way upon another local consideration. Though I was still ignorant of the ethnic diversity of Sabah which I knew at least to be considerable, it was in contrast to the persistent prevalence of Chinese shop names that palpably different traits had become obvious in many of the locals. The women of Sabah were particularly notable for their beauty and yet the spectrum here ran wider than most areas in the array of Malay, Chinese and indiginous peoples, of whom I still knew little. Doubtless there were many Philippinos now entering the mix, the outer islets of the major (troubled) southern Philippino island of Mindanao lay only 20 minutes away by speedboat after all, and some were appreciably darker with prominent jaws, wider noses and full lips which surpassed even the Malay.

Posted by andyhay2 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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