Sandakan-Ranau POW Death Marches
POWs and The Last Camp
In late June 1945, six emaciated Allied prisoners of war, held in a remote jungle camp near Ranau, in Sabah’s mountainous interior, shuffle about, collecting firewood to cook their meagre rice ration. They are the sole survivors of a 455-strong group force-marched from Sandakan to Ranau, a distance of 250 kilometres, by their Japanese captors, less than five months previously.
As they move slowly about their compound, they look up to see a line of 183 cadaverous men, naked but for ragged loin-cloths and barely recognisable as human, straggle past.
This is all that is left of 536 prisoners who left Sandakan at the end of May. Their arrival raises the population of The Last Camp to 189. History will dub these gruelling treks, through crocodile infested swamps, steaming jungle and rugged mountain ranges, The Sandakan Death Marches.
Conditions are appalling. By the end of July, there are only 32 prisoners left alive in the compound. Six have managed to escape and are hiding in the jungle with the help of local people. The rest have died from malnutrition, disease, overwork and inhumane treatment meted out by brutal guards.
On 1 August, 17 extremely ill and weak men are carried or forced to crawl on hands and knees to the crude POW cemetery, where all are shot dead. The remaining 15 cling to life, only to be murdered on 27 August, twelve days after the war ends. Among the last victims are two Australian doctors, Don Picone and John Oakeshott, who could have escaped with the others, but steadfastly refused to leave their men.
Killing these gallant officers and the stoic men under their protection wipes out the last of the 1047 POWs who marched from Sandakan to Ranau. More than 1400 who remained at Sandakan are also dead. Four of the six escapees, hidden by Kadazandusun villagers, survive the war and are eventually rescued. Another two prisoners, who escaped early on the 2nd march and have been harboured by villagers along the Labuk River, also survive, bringing the total number of survivors to six. The rest, a staggering total of 2428, have perished.
In late 1945, Australian Army recovery teams reach the Ranau area. After exhaustive searches they locate the remains of the prisoners who died in or around The Last Camp. All are reburied in Labuan War Cemetery. (A full account of the Sandakan story is in ‘Sandakan. A Conspiracy of Silence’
A Memorial Project Evolves
In the course of her historical research Lynette Silver located The Last Camp in the 1990s and, some years later when road access to the area had improved, managed to visit the site, hidden away in a steep valley and virtually untouched by modern-day civilisation. However, it was not until early 2008 that she met the owner of the land, Dr Othman Minudin, and his wife Dr Lungkiam, who had been found by Lynette’s trekking colleague, Tham Yau Kong, some months previously.
After successfully plotting the route of the original death march, the latter part of which was opened to trekkers in 2006 (www.sandakandeathmarch.com), the pair had gone to The Last Camp site to launch a new tourism product with Drs Othman and Lungkiam – white water rafting down the Liwagu River to Paginatan, a key village on the original death march track.
The Doctors, who run a highly successful ‘home stay’ program for overseas and local guests at their comfortable country house, are well-known in the Ranau area.
On learning of the tragedy which had occurred on the family’s land, Dr Othman and his wife enthusiastically embraced the idea of setting the area aside in perpetuity and to erect a memorial to all those who died at the camp. This enthusiasm increased immeasurably when Lynette and her husband Neil were given permission to investigate the POW area with a metal detector.
Many interesting artifacts, including improvised weapons and utensils were uncovered, but the outstanding find was a large cache of brass fittings from army webbing belts and haversacks, all neatly and very deliberately stacked together. And on the very top of the pile was a single brass button, embossed with the map of Australia and the words ‘Australian Military Forces’.
The Silvers had been preparing to leave when Neil took the metal detector outside the general search area. He shouted for Lynette and the helpers to come. They then unearthed the last desperately sad evidence in the Sandakan story.
These tragic relics were presumably buried by the handful of POWs still alive in August 1945. As the spot where the items were discovered was not marked in any way, the prisoners must have left some kind of sign, unnoticed by post-war investigators, and now long since gone.
The last message, from the last camp.
Neil cannot explain why he moved from the POW hut search area to where he found the artefacts. Tham Yau Kong and the Doctors have no such problem: the spirits of the POWs were at work.
Extracts from a newspaper article, Fairfax Press. Published in Sydney Morning Herald and syndicated round Australia
Unearthed: a final message from Sandakan’s doomed soldiers
22/09/2008 1:00:01 AM
HERE, as the dirt was scraped away, lay the last, sad unspoken message from the soldiers who died on the Sandakan death marches: the brass buckles from their long-perished uniforms, the adjusters from their haversacks, neatly stacked together in the soil of Borneo.
Then there was the globular shape resting on top of the buckles, in pride of place. Lynette Silver rubbed away the dirt, spat on it and rubbed again. Now she could see an outline map of Australia and, now, a crown on top, and then the words ‘Australian Military Forces’. It was a brass tunic button from an Australian uniform.
‘The button was most likely a treasured possession,’ Ms Silver, the historian, said last week, ‘with the map of Australia a reminder of home. Its placement, on top of the buckles, appears to be an attempt to identify the nationality of those imprisoned there.’
By the time the button and other relics were buried 63 years ago, the burial party would have harboured no hopes of survival, or rescue, or of anyone in the outside world knowing where they were. They knew that people who came to this remote place were doomed to die. This place was the last camp.
So the dying soldiers buried these artefacts, the only non-perishable things they owned, in the hope that someone, one day, would know that Australians had been there.
Now the owner of the land on which the relics were discovered, with the help of Ms Silver, the foremost authority on the Sandakan tragedy, is planning to preserve the site. He will build a community facility with the artefacts in special pavilions.
The memorial’s design, conceived by Dr Othman, is very symbolic. The large concrete base, onto which a large star-shaped plinth has been placed, incorporates 1047 rocks from the Liwagu River, which flows through the Last camp – one rock for each POW who left Sandakan on the death marches and did not survive. The memorial itself is constructed from concrete imbedded with another 183 river rocks – one for every POW who died at The Last Camp. On the very top of the memorial are four rugged slabs of rock, representing the four prisoners who escaped. The commemorative panels, constructed from polished granite, are inscribed in gold. Three record the story, in English, Chinese and Malay. The fourth has the names of the 183 POWs inscribed upon it.
The Last Camp Memorial
The camp site, in the floor of the valley, and the park-like grounds in which the memorial stands, have been donated in perpetuity by Dr Othman Minudin, the land owner, and his wife Dr Lungkiam Binte Dambul, and will remain untouched. A viewing platform to the rear of the memorial creates a vantage point which offers a panoramic vista of the camp site below and its beautiful environs.
The memorial was unveiled on 27 August 2009, exactly 64 years years after the last 15 POWs were murdered, five of them at a spot very close to this site. The unveiling itself was performed by Minister for Tourism Datuk Masidi Manjun, who supplied funds for perimeter fencing; Dr Othman, who donated the land; and Lynette Silver, who raised the funds to build the memorial and who also represented the POW families. After the unveiling, a British POW relative and Australian POW relative symbolically completed the memorial by cementing in the last two river rocks into the base. Everyone in attendance then placed a red carnation onto an ’empty wreath’, as a special act of unification and remembrance, while four pipers from the Malay Regiment, dressed in ceremonial uniform, played ‘Amazing Grace’. This was followed by the burning of gum leaves to honour the dead Australians and Last Post. At the conclusion of the ceremony, fifteen ‘Flame of the Forest’ trees were planted by POW relatives and others, to remember the fifteen POWs murdered on 27 August 1945. It is also planned to erect an information pavilion nearby, where the relics uncovered at the camp site will be displayed, along with other memorabilia, to which POW relatives are invited to contribute.
While many people helped make this memorial reality, Australian and British families of the POWs who died at The Last Camp acknowledge with deep gratitude the generosity of Drs Othman and Lungkiam – a priceless gift for future generations.
The Last Camp Memorial, situated about 8 kilometres south of Ranau on the road leading to Tambunan, is open to visitors from 9 am to 5 pm each day. Those wishing to hike down to the actual campsite on the valley floor should phone 0198828817 or 0198204012 to make arrangements.
There are excellent toilet facilities for the convenience of visitors, at the Memorial site.
Be a donor!
Funds for the memorial itself were provided by relatives and friends of the prisoners of war, and other private supporters. Although the Office of Australian War Graves has been able to provide considerable funding to protect the actual camp site from water buffaloes, and to upgrade fencing around the memorial, the day-to-day running costs are met by Drs Othman and Lungkiam, with the help of a small entrance fee and the generosity of visitors.
Now that the Memorial has been completed, the next stage is to erect an information pavilion, where the POW artefacts uncovered by the Silvers can be placed on permanent display. Those interested in the POW story, especially families who lost a relative at The Last Camp, are invited to contribute to this project.
In 2011, claims were made that writer Kevin Smith had pinpointed the site of the Last Camp in 2004 and that, as a result, the Office of Australian War Graves (OAWG) has erected the memorial. This is not correct. The location was identified in the early 1990s by Lynette Silver. The first Australians to visit the site did so in 1995. All funds for the memorial came from private donors.