May 29th is Sandakan Day, commemorating allied prisoners of war who died in the notorious forced marches that left from that town in 1945.

An Australian Minister for Veterans Affairs has said that, “Of all the days that we, as Australians, set aside to remember and honour the sacrifice of our sons and daughters in the service of our nation, this day stands alone.”

I learned of the tragedy and savagery of the death marches when I lived in Sabah (formerly North Borneo) for two years in the ’70’s. I worked briefly in Sandakan and also visited Ranau, the destination of the marches. Ranau was a small trading own that now benefits from tourism in the Kinabalu National Park. Sandakan is a fine town and until the end of World War 2 was the capital of the North Borneo territory. It is sad that its name is associated with such ghastly events.

On 29 May 1945, about 530 Australian and British prisoners of war left the Sandakan PoW camp in Borneo, on a forced march to Ranau. They were the second group of prisoners to be moved—another 455 had marched out in January as the Japanese emptied the camp ahead of the expected Allied landing on Borneo. Many died of starvation and illness. Others were killed because they could not keep up. Of the 530 men who left Sandakan, 142 Australians and 41 British prisoners reached Ranau. They found only six men left of the 455 who had been sent out to Ranau four months earlier. The prisoners were put to work and died at the rate of seven a day.

kundasangThe Sandakan camp was burned and the remaining prisoners were killed or left to die. The last prisoner at Sandakan was executed on the 15th of August 1945, the day that Japan surrendered. The last Australians at Ranau were killed 12 days after the war had ended. Only six Australians survived the death marches, all of them by escaping. More than 2000 Australian and British Prisoners of War held at Sandakan had died in all. A memorial park was created built in Sandakan in 1999 on the on the site of the former prison camp. There has long a memorial near at Kundasang near Ranau, near to Mount Kinabalu (pic). I was moved by my visit there in 1977, but then the place was rather remote and in need of care. I had always hoped that something else might be done to remember the events of 1945.