Using our downtime to unwind and have a couple of play days with The boy, the only thing on my agenda for the last two days of our stay in the Sandakan area is a visit to the World War II memorial located near the 8 mile post on the road out of Sandakan.
The memorial grounds mark the site of where between 1942 and 1945, approximately 2400 Australian and British
Prisoners of War (POW’s) were interned by the Japanese under atrocious conditions.
The camp inmates were exposed to beatings and cruel punishments by their captors (one involved being force fed uncooked rice and then being made to drink water so that as the rice expanded in the stomach the prisoner would suffer excruciating pain). They were remorselessly overworked and sometimes starved to death or even abandoned to allow their sicknesses to take a tragic toll.
Against the dictates of the Geneva Convention, the POW’s were being used as forced labour to construct a military airstrip but by late 1944 and with the war turning in the direction of the allies, the airstrip was destroyed as Sandakan came under heavy bombardment.
In early 1945 the Japanese started a series of forced “death” marches across the interior jungle and mountains. With rice rations by now, severely reduced or in some cases stopped, the POW’s were forced to carry munitions 260 kilometres west towards the mountains around the settlement of Ranau.
On the three marches, approximately 500 prisoners died. Those who fell behind were either shot on the spot or never seen again.
Of the remaining prisoners, only 6, all Australians, survived. The rest perished either at Sandakan or Ranau.
The memorial grounds upon which the POW camp used to stand are immaculately kept thanks to an Australian Government initiative. The commemorative pavillion provides an insightful and moving tribute to those who lost their lives and suffered the horrors of internment at the hands of the Japanese.
With videos, photographs and quotes from the survivors, you truly get a picture of how degrading and pitiful an existence the Allied prisoners led. Their suffering was extreme. Their treatment, inhumane.
One story tells how an Aussie prisoner already suffering from tropical sores which had split open the flesh on his shin to expose the bone almost from knee to ankle, was subjected to a beating with a stout stick along the open wound.
Another recounts a “chap” of about 25 years old, returning from beating “bent and broken like an old man”. He died only five hours later.
Dispersed across the grounds lie the scattered remnants of the old camp such as water tanks, a generator and a boiler.
All of these displays escaped the destruction the Japanese left as they retreated from this part of Borneo.
The 8 Mile prison camp may be gone, but the remembrance of what happened here will not be forgotten. The memorial creates a poignant and fitting tribute that anyone from the UK or Australia with time to spare in the Sandakan area really should make the effort to visit.
For what they went through, the Australian Army and the British Army deserve no less. For their work in creating the memorial, the Australian Government must be praised.
Hailing a minivan to take me back to Sandakan, and after 30 minutes with my knees bent double to my chin wedged between a row of seats which can only have been designed with pygmies in mind, we arrive in the town centre.
As we near the bus station, I spot a family of four, two adults, two small children and a buggy.
As soon as the minivan pulled over, I shot through the heat of the afternoon to try and catch up with them.
Finding them engaged in an unwelcome conversation with a local nutcase on virtually the same spot where I had seen them, I introduce myself and discover they too are backpacking with both a 10 month old baby and a 4 year old.
Agreeing to meet up once the sun had lost a bit of ferocity, the couple turn out to be from Copenhagen and have already been on the road
for 5 months during which time we are the first other “baby backpackers” they have met.
It was great to swap tips and stories and to get the encouragement that what we are doing can be sustained.
It was also a welcome relief to stay out until 1am drinking beer and chewing the fat with the dad. The talk was primarily about football and politics with very little in the way of nappy brands or milk formula coming into the conversation.
Bizarrely, my new Danish friend had chosen Swansea City as his club of choice when he played football manager on his Commodore 64 back in the day. I saluted him.
I’m sure the 0.5 will write more in depth about our encounter at her blog so I’ll leave it at that for now.