Drawing by Bill Young


By John Lewis

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.

Sandakan Service.

Anzac Dawn, Sandakan
calls to prayer
fill the air.
Anzac Day, Sandakan
gather we few
to pay their due.

The Padang, Sandakan
marching they waltzed
The Padang, Sandakan
riding we cried

Memorial Park, Sandakan
we do not talk
but wait and walk
Memorial Park, Sandakan
by lily pond
to tree of stone.

Anzac Service, Sandakan
words spoken
hearts broken
Anzac Service, Sandakan
gum leaves burned
lessons learned.

Prisoner Camp, Sandakan
this sad place
we few face.
Prisoner Camp, Sandakan
We face the past
free at last.

John Lewis
26 April 2001
Selingan (Turtle) Island

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.

Ranau Road

Heavy load, muddy track,
miles to go, no turn back;
men die
bodies lie
on the Ranau Road.

Come on mate, can’t be late;
Up you get, now you’re set.
feet fumble
men stumble
on the Ranau Road.

Escape or die, escape and die?
jungle voice, Hobson’s choice;
shots heard
no word
on the Ranau Road.

On they go. Can’t be slow.
Miles to go. No smoko.
men die
bodies lie
on the Ranau Road.

John Lewis
27 April 2001
on the Ranau Road.

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.

Mount Kinabalu

Granite peak touching sky
drifting clouds passing by
perched here on mountain height
waiting for the dawning light.
Terraced plots rise to meet
green valleys at their feet
nature’s gifts on display
during Kinabalu’s day.

John Lewis
28 April 2001
leaving the Perkasa Kundasang Hotel.

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
Jude’s walkers last were seen
briskly striding by the sign
now pointing the wrong line.
Walkers leaving here and there
Jude went on to who knows where
walkers sweaty one by one
found the bus with circle done.
All aboard, no time to bide -
wait a minute, where’s our guide?
Another circle - where’s the boss?
Finding Jude or getting lost?
So our legend quickly grew
but - we weren’t lost - where were you?

John Lewis
28 April 2001
somewhere in Kinabalu National Park.

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

Sandakan Pilgrimage

From Johore to Singapore
we saw their fight, felt their plight
to Selarang with them we marched
watched by ghosts of people past.

In Sandakan we met their ship
shared their relief to be ashore
climbed to the Church from the Padang
Waltzing Matilda with them sang.

The Camp is not the same to-day
but to the past we found our way
watched them starve and go and come
to fetid work never done.

In the Camp and on the track
we held them near, shed a tear
died with them these soldiers true
said goodbye mid morning dew.

Within our hearts we were there
when the precious load was found
carried with such loving care
buried in this sacred ground.

Now as we leave these brave men
with thanks that they have lived again
we pilgrims all heartsore
know they live for evermore.

John Lewis
29 April 2001

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

Borneo Farewell

We have come and we have seen
what never should have been
we have said our prayer
and left them there
heard them sigh

John Lewis
1 May 2001
leaving Labuan.