DAILY EXPRESS REPORT: Village’s young rewarded for WW2 deed
Australian war historian Lynette Silver has raised close to RM1 million just by giving motivational talks all over Australia about the 1945 Death March in Sabah and used the money to fund the education of scores of descendants of natives who helped the Aussie prisoners of war, principally at St Michael’s School, Sandakan. Since the end 2011, she has expanded her funding attention to a totally unsung hamlet named Miruru, in the isolated Liwagu River basin, where she and husband Neil organised the construction of a new pre-school building.
Last Saturday, the jungle clad mountains surrounding Kg Miruru reverberated with the sound of Scottish bagpipes, a fine tenor voice, traditional gongs and the distinctive rhythm of Dusun music as a group of Australians and Dusun villagers celebrated the opening of a new pre-school building funded by Australians and built by villagers as a special community project.
The event that led to the momentous day for all began in 1945, during the infamous Death Marches when Domoit, the father of Petrus, the current village headman, was a teenager.
Recruited and forced to work for the Japanese Imperial Army to deliver messages from regional headquarters to various camps along the Death March route, Domoit was near the Kuporon River Crossing one day when he discovered an Australian Prisoner-of-War (POW) who had fled into the jungle when Japanese guards shot dead his ill companion.
Although the escaped POW was weak and sick, Domoit led him, via secret hunting trails, over the mountain range to Kg Miruru, which at that time was located on the western bank of the Liwagu (Labuk) River, unlike today when the village had been moved to the eastern bank.
But it was too dangerous to keep the escapee in the village because the Japanese Army used the river for transport, and would show up from time to time to procure or seize vegetables and to round up workers for coolie labour.
Domoit and the villagers built a small shelter for the “guest” in the nearby jungle, where they risked their lives daily to care for him over the next few weeks.
When he (the POW) was strong enough, Domoit and his brother took him on a raft downstream to Telupid village, where the headman had helped several escaped POWs.
After the war, the Australian Government rewarded all those known to have helped POWs in some way or another. However, as Domoit lived in Miruru village, which was a long way from the Death March track, the contribution was unknown and he missed out.
It was not until August 2011 (after Sandakan Day) that Lynette, while refuting claims that the Death March had passed through Miruru village, interviewed Domoit, then aged 83.
After the elderly man confirmed that the Death March track was confined to the Taviu Valley and had never come anywhere near Miruru, Domoit told her about the lone Australian POW he had saved.
Moved by the risks that Domoit and his villagers had taken, and ashamed that such bravery had gone unrewarded so long, Lynette and husband presented a much-needed keyboard for the village church and funds to help convert the basement of Domoit’s house to living quarters, as he was becoming too old to climb the stairs.
Lynette also alerted the Director of Australian War Graves, Chris Appleton, who made a special visit to the hamlet to present Domoit with a plaque and to thank him on behalf of the Australian Government.
The gratitude may have ended there had Lynette not related Domoit’s story to families of Australian POWs and to Tham Yau Kong’s trekking groups whom she accompanies along the Death March route.
The response was so great from the others who wanted to help that the Silvers established a fund known as “Friends of Miruru Village”.
Since 2012 The Friends have provided food, clothing, a wheel chair for the village elderly, a printer/copier to save a long trip to Ranau, a set of drums to complement the keyboard, toys, books, pencils and school supplies for the village children.
However, it soon became obvious to Lynette and Neil that what the village needed most was a purpose-built pre-school to replace their makeshift room in the basement of a house .
The Friends, with further financial assistance from the Silvers, rallied to the cause, with Australians supplying the funds to purchase necessary materials and villagers carrying out the construction work.
With the work finally complete, the grand opening was scheduled for Nov. 8, 2014 so that an Australian group participating in a trek organised by Tham, along with their Dusun guides, could attend.
The Australian party included the son and grandson of a POW who died in Ranau after completing the gruelling march from Sandakan, and two Scotsmen, one an expert piper and the other a professional singer, who were keen to add to the entertainment provided by the villagers prior to the actual opening ceremony.
Eighteen pre-school children dressed in bright yellow T-shirts with the words “Kg Miruru Pre-school” and featuring a kangaroo logo, which the Friends had provided for the occasion, along with other children dressed in traditional costume, sang and danced for the Australians and for Datuk Othman Minudin, invited as special guest by the Silvers.
Othman was integral in helping create the Last Camp Memorial and, as a prominent member of the Dusun community, is also well known to Miruru.
The Australians reciprocated with solo performances by their piper, Don Drysdale, and James Walker, whose magnificent tenor voice added to the delight of the audience.
After handsome Certificates of Appreciation were presented to Lynette and Neil by Petrus and Othman, the piper led the way to the Pre-school to the strains of the well known folk song, Waltzing Matilda.
With the ribbon cut and the plaque unveiled by Lynette, Othman, Neil and Petrus, the new Pre-school building was officially opened.
Unveiling the plaque
The occasion was too much for elderly Domoit.
Domoit with Lynette and his grandson
Little did he realise that his kindness and bravery towards an Australian POW could result in a beautiful new pre-school, 70 years later.
Overcome by the enormity of the occasion, Domoit wept in the arms of Lynette who, with Neil, had made the village dreams come true.
What a difference from the pre-school the Silvers had visited in the basement room, where the sole furniture and equipment was a rough wooden table, made of salvaged second-hand timber. And the kids sat on the floor.
The old pre-school, in the basement, with one roughly-made table for equipment.
The room now featured brightly coloured tables and chairs, a white board, shelves filled with toys and equipment, a keyboard and other musical instruments, and with educational charts and posters on the walls.
The excitement was all too much!
Now that the building is complete, the project has already moved to Phase 2, thanks to a POW family in Sydney who organised a dinner, with Lynette as motivational speaker. In the space of one hour, the diners donated RM10,000 to enable the construction of a kitchen and toilet and to connect water and electricity to the pre-school.
When War Graves Director, Chris Appleton, visited Miruru at the end of 2011, to thank Domoit and acknowledge the bravery and kindness of the villagers, he said Australia would never forget those who helped.
Journalist Kan Yaw Chong. Published Sunday 18 November 2014.
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