Mary Aird Bath in Kuala Lumpur


by Mary Aird Bath

SANDAKAN is on the east coast of Borneo. A place only the hale and healthy should venture to. The climate daily is hot and humid, 35 degrees with very high humidity.

I was truly surprised when watching 60 Minutes and its very sad and untold story of World War Two. I have travelled for the past 10 years or so and seen many cenotaphs honouring brave young men. The oil slick from the Arizona still comes to the surface in Pearl Harbour. There still stands in Warsaw part of the wall that kept the Jewish race in the ghettos.

We did not go to Sandakan to relive the past; we went to see the 'Man of the forest' – the orang-outangs. We were not disappointed. Sepilok National Park is 23km from Sandakan; a 20-minute ride by taxi. The park is virgin land surrounded by swamps, mangrove forests and flowers that are so exotic yet can be so deadly to man. Trees that block out the sun at times can be quite a blessing to a white traveller like me. Heaven on earth? But it is only heaven to the animals of the forest.

Sabah was our destination with all its mod cons; a winter respite, swim and eat to our hearts' delight. "Oh you must go and see the natives of Borneo," the pamphlets and locals were telling us. We did not know we had to fly over South-East Asia's highest mountain, Mt Kinabalu, to the far east of Borneo. However, this was a holiday that was to be different.

On the plane I picked up some very informative literature about Sandakan and its sad history. Immediately I went deep into thought and our morning trip was to the Memorial Park at Sandakan. Sandakan is quite a small town up and down hills that can really tire even the healthiest of travellers like myself. The memorial park is 37km from the city and port. It is quite a small area, about 2ha. Its lush green manicured verges were once covered in jungle vegetation. Lying serenely at the entrance is a lily-pond. Tony, my husband, was, I suppose, lost in his thoughts too at the tranquility and beauty of the surroundings. Tony's dad was a survivor of the El Alamein conflict in Egypt. Tony will not speak about his own days in Vietnam, but I knew his lack of words towards me was his way of showing respect to the fallen heroes of Sandakan.

The grounds have a few war relics which are just skeletons of 1945. They include a couple of water tanks not much bigger than a child's swimming pool and a rustic old tank that was obviously Japanese. The only physical piece of machinery that was provided for the prisoners was a road digger. Prisoners were brought to Sandakan to build an airstrip that never was accomplished because of the inhuman conditions they had to survive under.

There is a small Museum at the top of the hill, which tells the story of the camp thanks to the six Aussies who took a chance and escaped into the jungle. The allies heard about Sandakan, but it was all too late as the march to Ranau had begun and was to be the last steps many young men would take.

I had such an unearthly feeling in the grounds I was walking through that it makes it quite uneasy to write this story; at the time I wished I had wings on my feet so my shoes would not tread where many felt so much pain. No Saturday night barbie, no beer around the fire or sausage on a roll. These Aussies did not see the Aussie dream, the Holden car. No, for what reason did they suffer so much?

Their souls were beneath my feet but their spirits were calling me; the fair the short the tall, 2700 (including British prisoners) I could hear and I could see faces of youth beckoning me, or was it just a mother's fear as I have three sons? I was really distraught. I collapsed on the steps of a small sanctuary, which tells the story and holds pictures of yesterday's heroes. This small pavilion and its contents are the true stories told by the six men who took great courage and fled into the jungles and survived with the help of the natives of Borneo.

I hope their families will forgive me if my words are not worthy of the fallen. I have been privileged to have had the good health and stamina to pay homage to so many that did not live the life they should. I wrote in the visitor's book "I will never forget".