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Poring to Kota Kinabalu


An early start initiated with a minivan transfer back to smalltown Ranau was a little troublesome in the unobliging drivers trying to exploit their cartel situation. Their 8 Ringgit wishful thinking was fortunately scuppered by my timely Bahasa rebuke "Saya becuk orang bordoh, saya tahu berapa harga" (I'm not stupid, I know how much it costs), the boy noticeably winced at discovering at least one of the dumb tourists wasnt so dumb. The short drive back to Ranau saw our 7 person gaggle now split in varying directions, with me being happy to break out on my own in deference to the popular onward journey to Sandakan or Roberto's return to KK, I had first of all wanted to investigate signs I had just witnessed a few Ks short of town indicating Ranau's notorious POW Camp and Death March route. Though little publicised, this was the spot at which the Death March from Sandakan had terminated for the few who had survived thus far. My own march through the heat to get there revealed merely a line of 4 stone obelisks bearing a series of plaques, actually a smorgasbord of inscriptions, the first perhaps rather skeptically commemorating the oath of loyalty proclaimed by Ranau natives to the government after the crushing of the doubtless popular Mat Salleh rebellion in 1898. A second was testimony to the efforts of Evangelical missionaries in the area during the 1920s. The main draw however were the final 2, an original memorial and anniversarial re-affirmation, in rememberance of the site of the POW camp. Most tragically, the Australian Army crested inscription here related that " on this actual spot Gunner Alfred Neil Cleary....was chained to a stake and beaten and starved for 11 days before he finally died 20th March 1945 aged 22 years". Any trace of the actual camp was long gone and perhaps not coincidentally a simple timber church had been erected on the site.

Back in Ranau I chanced upon the Swiss duo again in a net cafe who conveniently obliged me with a much appreciated copy of their photos of Kinabalu, and then an especially notable parting had me back off to Kundesang in a minivan for the unexpected paltry local price. Perhaps being on my own again and speaking Bahasa made all the difference but it was a breath of fresh air considering the constraints of organised packages I had recently been subject to. It was annoying to have had to pit stop back here again but I had resolved that I just had to pursue the aforementioned Memorial Garden here after all, appeased now by Roberto's revelation that it was as much a museum presentation than a conventional rememberance place and so the originally distasteful hiked up entrance fee had become more palatable.

Offerings from the owner/caretaker revealed that the forced march from Sandakan to Ranau which didnt actually quite reach this far had to have been a deliberate ploy to decimate prisoner numbers, a strategy of brutal efficiency in that of the 2400 Australian and British soldiers subjected to it, only 6 Ozzies survived the 260K ordeal, and even this only because they were the lucky few who risked prompt execution by escaping into the trials of the jungle and surviving to eventually run into helpful natives. A newspaper narrative related how this sad debacle originated from the fall of Singapore, with quotes from Winston Churchill and general Yamashita, the "Tiger of Malaya", juxtaposed in their convictions. Churchill had regarded any Japanese advance on Singapore to be fully requiring at least 50,000 men, yet Yamashita prevailed with much fewer in a bluff which hid his relative numerical weakness and poor supply chain. From there 1500 Ozzie prisoners were transported in July 1942 to Sandakan, later joined by 776 British POWs. Their forced labour in building a nearby airfield (now possibly Sandakan airport) was continually delayed by their own sabotage, with eventually the officers being separated from the men and sent to Kuching in order to strengthen Japanese control and distance them from links to local resistance groups. Their numbers were completed when 1,000 more prisoners, half British half Ozzie later joined them.

Upon the Allied bombing of Sandakan in late 1944 the writing was on the wall for the Japs and so they instigated 3 series of Death Marches under fear of invasion, the deliberate policy of starvation and privation doubtless a measure to ensure that none would ever be able to return to the fight if ever liberated. Successive waves of men overburdened with Japanese supplies struggled barefoot through tropical swampland, with the majority succumbing within 60Ks of leaving Sandakan. Of those who reached Ranau, continued starvation and the hardship of carrying sacks of rice back the way took the lives of many more, until by June for example only 6 of the 455 men who had left Sandakan in the initial wave in January remained alive. Upon the wars end and even after the armistice, the few remaining at Ranau were then dispatched with a shot to the head. A total of 1787 Australians and 641 Brits perished thus, with the only survivors being the 6 Australian escapees. It is only in their survival that we have attained knowledge of the affair, and the lack of a single British survivor means that details of their individual ordeals and fate are more sketchy. Of those who chanced escape many succumbed to the privations of the forest and perished unaided, any recaptured prisoners were summarily shot, the few successfull all fled north and were picked up by friendly locals around the Bongaya River as much as a month later.

Many Japanese guards were tried and executed upon the wars end but the Jap commander in Borneo Colonel Sugu cut his own throat to avoid justice. Other newspaper articles told of native guerrilla operations, most notably an attack on the Japanese police HQ at KK (then Jesselton) which resulted in many being killed or captured. One such fighter Lee Ming, aged only 19 at the time, escaped death by being warned by a Javanese labourer to play dead until nightfall, and survived to relate that "during the attack all of us were armed with machetes and were naked, wearing only a "cawat" (underwear) in order to distinguish ourselves from the uniformed Japanese forces". The force of 300 men was finally crushed by Japanese recriminations and lack of supplies.

Though a little short of the actual Death March route, Kundesang was selected as a memorial site in the 1950s after the story came to light simply because it was the furthest reach of the road at that time. Having subsequently fallen into neglect, a local resident Thai expat took it upon himself to rejuvenate the site with his retirement savings, and now a beautiful series of gardens dedicated in turn to the Australian, "English" and Bornean victims has been created. Alongside a colonnaded pool, a nominal roll call of them just had to muster at least one Hay, and so it was that a C.G. Hay, an Ozzie from South Australia died at Sandakan 18th February 1945 aged 38. The listing related how there were more than a few pairings of brothers who had died within weeks of each other, one pair twins, a group of 3 brothers even, there was also a father and son too.

Finally, a video documantary related how many trying to escape were rounded up by guards, one survivor only succeeding by killing a lone Jap with a tree branch. Upon escaping to an Allied hospital, another begged for intercession to save the remaining prisoners but "Operation Kingfisher" was only approved too late and was never executed. It surprised me to learn that the Death March route has now been retraced and its now possible to walk it, where you might chance upon traces of Japanese ammunition and even an old woman who had risked her life as a teenage girl in offering the prisoners food. Of 7 unknown men who left her their wedding rings, she still retains one.

Posted by andyhay2 00:00 Archived in Malaysia

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