Published in NST: 25 April 2013
Anzac Day, commemorated today, is also a reminder of the gruesome Sandakan Death Marches. Andrew Law reflects on his solemn visit to Sandakan Memorial Garden.
I have never served in the regular military. But from young, I always wondered what type of person does, knowing they will be called upon to make the ultimate personal sacrifice.
I was an army cadet for six years. Self-discipline, leadership and teamwork were the character-building qualities instilled upon us. But one annual event had the greatest influence on me.
Every Remembrance Sunday in the United Kingdom, held the second Sunday of every November at 11am, a two minutes’ silence would be observed in the Remembrance Courtyard of my old school.
It signified the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. That is the time and date when all of the guns on Europe’s Western Front ceased firing, signifying the end of World War I.
Remembrance Sunday commemorates the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian men and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts, and all those who mourn them.
ANZAC DAY IN MALAYSIA
I don’t consider myself a pacifist. Neither am I someone that agrees with the hawkish reasoning behind some of today’s world conflicts. But I do have the utmost respect for those willing to fight for my freedom by making the ultimate sacrifice, and for those who mourn for them.
Today, Thursday, April 25, is Anzac Day. It is a National Day of Remembrance in Australia and New Zealand.
It originally honoured members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) who served and died at Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire (what is now part of Turkey), during World War I.
More than 8,700 Australians and as many as 2,700 New Zealanders were killed at Gallipoli. Given the two countries’ smaller populations at the time, it was a massive loss of life.
Anzac Day is also meant to remember and honour those involved in more recent conflicts, such as World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Anzac Day is also of great local historical significance because of the Anzacs that were imprisoned in Sabah by the Japanese during World War II and the subsequent Sandakan Death Marches.
From late 1941 to early 1942, Japanese forces were victorious the further south they went, bringing World War II to Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
Many of the Allied Forces servicemen were taken as Prisoners of War (POWs). In July 1942, nearly 1,500 Australian POWs were shipped from Japanese-occupied Singapore to Sandakan.
Their task, as forced labour — alongside Javanese civilians — was to build a Japanese military airfield, where today’s modern airport stands in Sandakan.
In 1943, over 770 British POWs arrived, followed by a further 500 Australians. All of these POWs were imprisoned at the Sandakan POW camp.
By late 1943, there were around 2,500 POWs at Sandakan. As the tide of war began to turn against the Japanese, in January 1945 the first of three Death Marches took place.
The physically weak POWs were force-marched in their loincloths during the 260-kilometre route to Ranau.
The Death Marches claimed the lives of many of the malnourished, wounded and sick POWs. By the end of the war, only six POWs survived. And only because these Australians had managed to escape their Japanese captors, and were hidden and fed by the locals. No British POWs survived.
The Returned & Services League of Australia (RSL), a support organisation for the men and women who are or have served in the Australian Defence Force, began the task of preserving the old Sandakan POW site.
SANDAKAN MEMORIAL GARDEN
A memorial park has been developed with the help of the Australian government with close co-operation of the Sabah government in Taman Rimba, about 11km outside Sandakan.
It is a memorial to those who suffered and died there, on the Death Marches and at Ranau.
When you enter the serene Sandakan Memorial Garden, the flowers, trees and water features belie its horrific significance. This is the site of the original POW camp where so many perished, and the setting off point for the Death Marches.
When you see the different memorial stones and read the explanations of what happened during the Death Marches in the small Museum, you begin to wonder how the natural beauty of the memorial garden can reconcile itself with acts of human nature at its very worse. You’ll see the old boiler used to heat water, an old excavator used to dig trenches at the airfield, and parts of an electric generator.
The small museum is filled with wall-mounted displays that document the POWs lives, maps, photographs and a scale model of the POW camp. An Anzac Day memorial service is held in Sandakan every year, while another more specific service is held on August 15, the official Sandakan Memorial Day.
If you are in Sabah and you meet those attending the Anzac memorial service, mourning their family members and lost ones, go and talk to them. Listen to the stories of personal sacrifice. Let them know of your appreciation and respect for their fallen.
Likewise for those attending the Anzac Memorial Service held in Kuala Lumpur’s Cheras Road Christian Cemetery. Talk to them. Listen to the stories of their loved ones.
We must remember them. To forget those who have made the ultimate personal sacrifice is to take for granted our daily way of life and freedom. Lest we forget.
RESPECT AND APPRECIATION
When I first started at my old school in the UK, I never appreciated the significance of the courtyard and its flagpole. When I became an army cadet, I learnt to respect the small courtyard and not run through it wildly, like any other part of the school grounds.
As cadets, we would stand to attention during the Remembrance Sunday parade while the Last Post was sounded by the bugle player, signifying sunset or death, followed by two minutes of silence.
This was followed by the Reveille bugle call, signifying sunrise and resurrection, during which the half-mast flag was raised.
During the memorial service, a long list of former pupils who were killed in the two world wars was read out by the chaplain. And a wreath made from red poppies would be laid at the foot of the flagpole.
Red poppies because these brightly coloured flowers bloomed across many of the battlefields where the worse fighting took place in Europe, symbolically representing the blood spilled by the fallen.
We would be dressed in our khaki number two service dress uniform, light blue berets and pin our Parachute Regiment cap badges. Simply wearing a military uniform during the commemoration made us young and naive teenagers quickly appreciate that in a different time and place, former pupils who were not that much older than us had made the ultimate personal sacrifice. Whether they volunteered or were called up for national service, the chaplain’s list was very long.
The memorial service gave me a very intense solemn feeling that made me wonder why ordinary men and women are prepared to personally sacrifice so much, in such an extraordinary way.
Few of us truly appreciated what they had done, while most have quickly forgotten that our lives would be very different, were it not for their self-sacrifice.
It is a set of emotions that I have not felt since I was a young army cadet. But a feeling that returns to me on my trip to Sandakan.
“Lest We Forget” These words were written in 1897 and are the refrain to each of the four verses of the poem Recessional by the poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).
They have been incorporated into the regular commemoration ceremony of the Returned and Services League of Australia and the Royal British Legion.
After the sounding of The Last Post, the recital of the Ode of Remembrance, and the two-minute silence, the leader of the ceremony says: “Lest we forget”.
The phrase is then repeated by the gathering. The words call us to remember the sacrifice of those servicemen and women who died in the war.