St Michael’s Church Sandakan 2005

Frank Murray at Sandakan POW Camp - Drawing by Colin Prior

Neil Silver, Lynette Silver, Phillip Handel and Elizabeth Handel at Dedication St Michael’s Church Sandakan

Lynette Silver running after Willie - Drawing by Colin Prior

Mr Singh, our tour guide in Singapore - Drawing by Colin Prior


by Colin Prior

We started out as nineteen people in Group A on the recent Dedication Tour but ended up with a total of 69 under the care of tour guide supreme and author of “ Sandakan a Conspiracy of Silence,” Lynette Silver. The thought and detail she put into making the tour a success was amazing. Everyone participated in the activities if they so desired. If you wanted to sit back Lynette respected your wishes.

There were four West Australians; my partner Margaret Douglas, my brother Frank, his grand daughter Alison (the youngest person on the tour), and yours truly. The rest were from Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. The thread joining us together was the loss of someone either on the Death Marches or in the POW Camp at Sandakan. Some had lost fathers, some relations or friends while some had adopted a deceased soldier with no connections.

The purpose of the tour was to attend dedication of the windows at St Michael’s Church at Sandakan. The windows are a work of art and an historical record of the suffering of the soldiers and the local people at the hands of the Japanese. The idea came from Lynette Silver who approached retired stained glass expert Phillip Handel, to produce one more work of art. He asked for time to think about what seemed to be an impossible dream, to draw then manufacture more than 2000 pieces of glass, ship them to Sandakan, to fit in to windows that someone else had measured. The word impossible doesn’t exist in Lynette’s vocabulary. She rang Phillip early next day for his answer and the project was under way. Eventually the carefully packed glass left Australia in the care of a team led by Lynette’s husband, Neil Silver. The pieces were assembled in the windows at St Michaels Church after several minor problems but made the deadline.

The unveiling on the 24 th April was by invitation only. The official opening was on ANZAC Day. Both occasions were an unforgettable experience, especially the curtain rising slowly to reveal Phillip Handel’s work of art as the choir was singing “Hallelujah”.

Lynette had a book printed on almost indestructible paper with the names the people to whom the windows were dedicated. The book is displayed in a cabinet at St Michael’s and a page is turned every day. In an amazing coincidence the day I looked at the book it was opened at the page with my Father’s name on it. Near the cabinet is a tapestry dedicated to the first church service held on the ruined site of St Michael’s after the war. The officiating padre was Alec McLiver who not only married Margaret Douglas and her late husband but was a family friend.

A Sixty Minutes team was in the region doing a story on the Death Marches. They had arranged a meeting on Labuan with Lynette, Frank Murray and me to do interviews in the War Cemetery. Our group was in Brunei so we were supposed to be booked on the ferry to Labuan. We found there were no tickets and the ferry was full. Once again Lynette’s solved the problem by going to the Port Captain who managed to find three seats. After our fifteen minutes of fame as TV stars we were dropped back at the ferry by the Willie, a travel agent from Labuan. As he drove off Lynette realised the departure tax had to be paid in local currency so she sprinted after his car calling out “Willie, Willie,” which the locals thought was hilarious. We were back in Brunei the same evening. The Sixty Minutes team crossed our path several times, shooting hours of film for a segment which when shown will last for fourteen minutes.

I will give a quick resume of the tour highlights; the friendship that sprung up between Alison Prior, aged 22 years and Peter Lee, an ex RAF officer, aged 89; the Changi murals painted by a very ill English POW; the Sultan of Brunei’s treasures; “Floating Coffins” or boat taxis that transport passengers around the floating village; the ANZAC Day ceremony in the POW camp; the markets at Sandakan; retracing the path of the Death Marches to Ranau; watching the sunrise from the Mt Kinabalu Perkasa Hotel which is perched on a mountain near Mt Kinabalu; (In the morning the hotel is above the clouds.); seeing the Kundasang Memorial which a Mr Sevah has restored by himself; The Australian section has a map of Australia made out of white stones lying on a green lawn. The memorial is close top Mt Kinabalu, which emerged from the clouds to show its “torn and ragged battlements on high.” The incorporation of the aboriginal “burning of the gum leaves” to cleanse the spirits that Lynette introduce to the ceremonies, was another highlight. Margaret and I caught a taxi to the cemetery at Labuan on the eve our departure for a final visit. Everyone of the people we traveled with had a story to tell.

One downside to the tour is the memorial erected in what is supposed to the site of the Big Tree at Sandakan by two prominent officials. They thought it appropriate to have their names in very bold lettering while the names of the six survivors of the Death Marches are in small type. The journalist, Alan Ramsey, wrote a scathing article in the Sydney Morning Herald, suggesting the “memorial” should be removed.

We left Perth on Sunday the 17 th of April and returned on the 4 th of May. It was an action packed tour brilliantly organized by a lady with an insight into people’s emotions. For many of us it helped lay some ghosts to rest. The tour will be on again next year but on a smaller scale. A wonderful sight too is seeing Perth welcoming us home.