In 2001 Jean and I went to Singapore and Sabah (previously North Borneo) to see the POW Camp at Sandakan, where Uncle Hedley died in 1945, Ranau and the route of the Death Marches from Sandakan to Ranau and the Labuan cemetery where the remains of all the victims were interred. There were 18 other relatives of Sandakan/Ranau victims in the party which was lead by Lynette Ramsay-Silver who researched and wrote the definitive history of the whole Sandakan tragedy.
In Singapore the Tour Guide was Mr. Singh and he was able to get us to places which previous Guides had not. So we were able to get to the water’s edge right next to the causeway connecting Johore and Singapore and into the Selarang Army Barracks which was where the Australian POWs were held.
In Kota Kinabalu we were met by Willie Teo who was our Tour Guide in Sabah. He had his son, Jude, with him. They were wonderful people and great guides.
In Singapore there really wasn’t a POW camp named Changi. This was the name of the area in which the POWs were kept. (Think of Port Arthur. Changi was surrounded by water on three sides so all they had to do was erect a fence across the only entry.) The Australians were housed in the Selarang Barracks which had previously been the Barracks of the Gordon Highlanders. The British, Indians, Dutch and others were in Roberts, India and Kitchener Barracks. The British civilians were interned in Changi Gaol. In Singapore, Lynette took us to the places where our relatives had fought and then to the place where they were gathered together before being marched out to Selarang. In the bus we followed the same route that they marched.
We landed in Sandakan on the afternoon of the 24th April. We went straight to Memorial Park which is the site of the POW Camp. (The Park/Camp is 8 miles out of Sandakan.) As we entered we walked past a big lily pond in which about 30% of the lilies were open. The polished granite memorial is on the high point of the camp on the spot where the ‘big tree’ was standing when the POWs were there and it really stands out in the old photos. The ‘big tree’ was the point of reference for all the POWs. There was an eerie feeling about the whole place which everyone noticed. Everyone on our tour group was looking forward to the Anzac Day service but, at the same time, everyone was aware that it would be an extremely emotional time.
I doubt that anyone really slept that night so we all heard the faithful being called just before dawn. ( Sabah’s population is 80% Muslim.) It was a pretty quiet and tense group that gathered in the hotel lobby ready for an 8.00am departure.
We firstly stopped at the Padang (grass, playing fields) in Sandakan which is where the POWs ate and slept their first night after arriving from Changi. (Some of the POWs went up the hill to St Michael’s and All Angels Anglican Church and slept the night on the stone floor. In the morning they went back down to the Padang to have some cold, leftover rice for breakfast.) Lynette told us that the locals were amazed by the Australian POWs who, when ordered to get going to the Camp, formed themselves up in sections and marched out singing Waltzing Matilda. She then told us that if they could sing it so could we. We tried but, it’s hard to sing through the tears.
When we got to the Park/Camp Lynette, Willie and Jude went off to prepare the Memorial for the service while we waited in the bus. After a few minutes we set off for the Pavilion and we were staggered to see that all the lilies had flowered overnight. The service itself was very emotional as it was the trigger for the long delayed grieving process to start. There were many high points but Lynette had organised a special feature which we all really appreciated. She had brought along many gum leaves which were burned at the memorial, partly because the POWs had often talked about their memories of the smell of the bush and the gum leaves and how they were looking forward to smelling the gum leaves again when they got home and partly in acknowledgement of the aboriginal smoking ceremonies which are to cleanse the area being smoked.
The following poems were written along the way to record my memories of the events and places.
The first of these was an attempt to capture my response to the Anzac Day service including the waiting and the trip to Memorial Park. Throughout Anzac Day I kept hearing in my mind the mournful rhythm of a funeral drum with its slow, insistent beat. I was still hearing this the next day when the words were written during our visit to Selingan (Turtle) Island.
Anzac Dawn, Sandakan
The Padang, Sandakan
Memorial Park, Sandakan
Anzac Service, Sandakan
Prisoner Camp, Sandakan
The second poem was written on 27 April when we were in the bus following the route of the Death Marches from Sandakan to Ranau. We travelled on an air-conditioned bus on a made road. The prisoners were marched on a track just a metre wide through nearly impenetrable jungle, carrying heavy loads, with little water, food or medicine and execution the certain result of falling behind or attempting escape. The track was often very wet and muddy and there were long stretches where it went through swamps. As we travelled along the road, Lynette gave us a vivid description of the dreadful events. I seemed to be in two worlds at once. Although I knew it was impossible, it seemed we were travelling with the men and I could see and feel them struggling and dying along the track. I wrote the following words which Lynette read exactly the way I had heard them in my own mind.
Heavy load, muddy track,
Come on mate, can’t be late;
Escape or die, escape and die?
On they go. Can’t be slow.
We stopped the night of 27 April in the Perkasa Kundasang Hotel which is on a mountain with a close-up view of Mount Kinabalu. This view was an incredible and beautiful sight in the evening and early morning. Next day when I decided not to get out of the bus during a short break, Colleen Kable-Jones challenged me to write a poem about something beautiful and suggested that something about lilies would be good. I told her I didn’t do lilies but did write the following which seemed to be an acceptable alternative.
Granite peak touching sky
Later that same morning we stopped in Kinabalu National Park. While some of us enjoyed a cup of coffee the others went with Jude (our Tour Guide) on a short walk through the Park. When the time came to pick them up at a pre-agreed spot, the walkers didn’t appear. The bus driver slowly circled the road and returned to the parking area to wait. The walkers arrived in dribs and drabs and we needed another circle of the park before everyone was found and on board. Strangely, no one seemed to think that they had been lost. I couldn’t resist the following.
The Legend of the Lost
Into Kinabalu’s green
We travelled by Ferry from Kota Kinabalu to Labuan on 29 April. During this trip I wrote the following which I intended to read at the Memorial Service at the Labuan Cemetery. I checked it with Lynette who encouraged me to read the poem. So our service on 30 April included
From Johore to Singapore
In Sandakan we met their ship
The Camp is not the same to-day
In the Camp and on the track
Within our hearts we were there
Now as we leave these brave men
We flew from Labuan to Kota Kinabalu on 1 May. As we were leaving I was remembering the Memorial Service from the day before and thinking of all those brave men we were leaving behind. As the island of Labuan grew smaller, I thought I heard something and I wrote
We have come and we have seen
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