Thursday, 3 November 2016

Serenity in Sandakan: Memorial for WWII POWs

The city of Sandakan is in Borneo. It had been on my travel wish list for quite a time as it was the place for a remarkable story of a forced march from Sandakan to Ranau that was made by Australian and British Prisoners of War under the Japanese in World War II.


We arrived from Kota Kinabalu on our Air Asia flight, luckily only 2 hours long, as hubby, being typically taller, was squashed into a seat custom designed for a smallish built person... perfect for me!

Arrival in Sandakan.

At once, the oppressive heat hit us like a wall, the humidity was so bad that I reneged on some of our usual long walks and sat in air-con admiring the foreshore from our lovely waterfront hotel with a cool drink.

Admiring the view from our hotel on the Sandakan waterfront.

Peaceful waterfront scene.

At this stage I wondered how on earth the Australian and British Prisoners of War from WWII in this heat, on rations, weak and in barely liveable conditions, could have survived at all for any length of time.


Sandakan itself is a very picturesque town and our Swiss Inn Hotel was pretty luxurious for us. Our room overlooked the bay, such a peaceful spot.

High on the hill is Agnes Keith's house. Agnes was a famous American author who wrote autobiographical accounts of her life in Borneo pre-WWII, during her imprisonment there as a Japanese prisoner of war, and her life afterwards. Three Came Home, her second book, was later made into a film.

We were infuriated to find that after walking quite a way and climbing a huge number of steps in the heat, the tickets we had bought in Kota Kinabalu were only valid for the day before we got there!

Agnes Keith's home in Sandakan.


Next morning we set off in a taxi for the War Memorial in the suburb of Taman Rimba, as the heat prevented walking long distances. The memorial has been funded partially by Australia. It is the most moving memorial I have seen in Asia, with stained glass windows portraying the beauty of Australian flowers. It is an area of reverence and peace where not a word was exchanged while reading the harrowing story of how the men were forced to march from Sandakan to Ranau.

Only six men escaped from this camp in 1942. With local help they stole a boat and sailed to the Phillippines. They alone survived out of the 2400 British and Australian POW soldiers. Originally the internees were sent to build an airstrip at Sandakan, but by 1944 Allied forces were advancing towards Borneo and the Japanese decided to send 2000 Australian and British prisoners to Ranau in the interior jungle. Many died on the 240km walk, sick and weak before they even started out. The "death march" as it became known was the greatest single wartime atrocity against Australians in wartime.

Every year, Australian veterans or their relatives now, attend a memorial service here. We kept thinking as we trekked back a kilometre in the heat to find the local bus, how these prisoners did not have the benefits that we had of a hotel, cool drinks and wonderful food to look forward to.

The approach to the well kept tropical garden  Memorial.

The beautiful reflection pool which is a feature of the well kept gardens.

Lest we forget.

Rusting remains of an excavator at the site.

Map of the compound as it was in 1942-1943.

The memorial was a perfect area for reflection on the heroism of wartime. While this type of destination may be off the usual tourist route, we really enjoyed our visit and it certainly is well worth the effort to include some important wartime history in your travels. Lest we forget.

Is there any place or memorial you have visited that affects everyone so much that words are not necessary?