As you enter the gates of Sandakan Memorial Park an eerie quietness hangs in the air. The park, stands adjacent to the site of the original prisoner of war camp, set up by the Japanese to house Australian and British POWs during the Pacific War. Unfortunately, it’s also the launching point for the infamous death marches carried out by the Japanese. It’s a site that would simply be lost to time if not for the efforts of the Australian Department of Veteran’s affairs in collaboration with the people of Sabah, Borneo.
The park itself serves as a great educator of the atrocities of the war and the tremens hardship the POWs endured under the horrific rule of the Japanese. It was 1942 when the Japanese began bringing prisoners to Sandakan, eventually imprisoning 2,700 Australian and British soldiers here, the majority of which were captured during the surrender at Singapore. The men were thrust into grueling labor at the camp including construction of a military airstrip, which was later bombed and destroyed. It was shortly after the Japanese decided to move the prisoners 260 kilometers to the west to the then extremely small settlement of Ranau. The prisoners set forth marching for days through the thick jungle, sick with malaria or poisoned by the horrifically small amount of food and water they received. They spent sleepless nights in the mud, covered in leeches and starving to death.
During three such marches, 500 prisoners died. If they made it, others were tortured or left to starve and died at Ranau or died at Sandakan before even embarking on a death march. Of the prisoners who were alive when the death marches began in 1945, only six Australians survived.
The fascinating yet harrowing stories of the two men who escaped into the jungle and the four who escaped from Ranau are told through panels on the walls of the Commemorative Pavilion located within the park. Also inside the pavilion, the stories of locals who were forced into grueling labor or killed by the Japanese hang on the wall or are told through video journals. As an American, it’s a startling and sobering reminder of the war’s impact on each and every country involved.
The park itself is a wonderful, self-guided tour of what remains of the POW camp. Once you enter through the main gate you’ll meander through two beautiful ponds filled with water lilies toward the excavator. Here the skeleton of a trenching machine stands rusted and rotted by time. It was used by POWs during construction of the airfield, but was eventually damaged by an Australian prison in an act of sabotage to slow construction of the airstrip.
Across from the excavator stand an old boiler and alternator that at one time were used to help supply the camp with power. The power plant, which was build by the British before the Japanese invasion of Borneo, was used as part of the prisoner’s underground network. A local operator of the plant helped the POWs by increasing voltage at night giving the prisoners enough power to operate a clandestine radio.
Other stops inside the park include the reains of water tanks, the japanese quartermasters store and kitchen, the camp gate and the new Commemorative Pavilion and Memorial.
A walk through the park is an eye-opening and humbling reminder of the struggles of the past, and in my opinion a must for those seeking to learn about Borneo’s past.