Sandakan has been described as the most appalling single event in Australia’s War history. Yet, for many years Sandakan was little known by Australians and all but forgotten.
After the fall of Singapore on 15th February 1942, relatives waited almost a year before learning whether their men had survived the battles.
Then, at War’s end, the families of those who had perished as Prisoners of War of the Japanese in British North Borneo, now know as Sabah, received only the briefest of messages. No details were given, nor could any further information be obtained, thus adding to greater heartache and anxiety. Many relatives carried the worry to the end of their days.
In August 1988, Don Wall, a former Prisoner of War of the Japanese on the Burma –Thailand railway, published his book Sandakan-The Last March. Based on archival and anecdotal evidence, this book was regarded as the most definitive account of the Sandakan tragedy to date, and was greeted with grateful acclaim by relatives and friends. This book was without doubt the catalyst that led to the formation of The Sandakan Memorial Foundation.
A committee comprising relatives and 8TH Australian Division veterans was formed and on 1 August 1992 a memorial service was held at Kirribilli Ex–Services Club, Sydney. Attended by more than 700 Sandakan relatives and friends from all states of Australia, the Service was led by the late Father John Brendan Rogers OFM OAM, formerly Chaplain at Sandakan and Kuching Prisoner of War camps. Such was the feeling at that Memorial Service, that a decision was taken on the spot, to establish permanent Sandakan Memorials throughout the Eastern States of Australia to be located in the regions or districts from which significant numbers of Sandakan POWS had originated. Subsequently a company was formed, to be known as The Sandakan Memorial Foundation Limited, the board being elected from and by the Committee. The company then executed a Trust Deed and the Sandakan Memorials Trust came into existence.
It then remained to proceed with the selection of sites for the proposed Memorials, the criteria being an established well kept, well attended park open to the public at all times, serviced by adequate public transport, and of course a co-operative local council.
Meanwhile, in 1991, Ted McLaughlan, also a firmer POW of the Japanese, had erected a small plinth in his local park at Boyup Brook, Western Australia, to honour three mates who had perished at Sandakan.
This site was later developed and expanded by members of the Western Australia EX-POW Association to include the names of all Western Australians who died as POWs at Sandakan –Ranau. This Memorial was dedicated in 1994.
The establishment of the Sandakan Memorials was not a government project. This was a community initiative, conceived and executed by the friends and relatives of the men who died and by Veterans of the 8th and 9th Australian Divisions with the co-operation and support of R.S.L. Sub Branches and the Australian Army Band Kapooka.
All the Sandakan Memorials in the Eastern States take the form of a topographical scale model, cast in bronze, of a section of the Crocker Range in Sabah. A brass ribbon demonstrates the 265km route of the infamous death marches from Sandakan Camp westward to the village of Ranau in the foothills of Mt. Kinabalu. The viewer is given a clear understanding of the ruggedness of the terrain, which, at the time of the forced marches was covered by dense rainforest and tropical swamps. The sculpture rests on a shelf of Riverina granite quarried at Tocumwal; the whole being supported by brickwork which in turn supports the bronze Honour roll plaques.
The mould for the sculpture was made by Don Wall and Tom Connolly whose father was among the last of the Prisoners massacred at Ranau. All the casts were made at Phoenix foundry, Uralla N.S.W.
These Memorials serve, not only to honour the men who died and to ensure that they are not forgotten, they also serve the living. They provide for relatives a focus for their grieving, which was for so long put on hold. Ninety per cent of the men who perished at Sabah have no known graves. So many were denied the known time honoured rites and dignity of burial given to the comrades in death. The Sandakan Memorials in Australia represent these unknown graves, the plaques bearing their names, the headstones.
This has been amply demonstrated through the many letters sent to the Foundation. A Sydney relative wrote “thank you for finding a resting place at last for John Alan Taylor, along with other courageous Australians. I feel he is home at last”
And from Brisbane, “it meant so much to my sister and to me to see our father’s name on the Memorial stone. It has helped us so much to think that our father was at last laid to rest in a place so close to us.”
It is hoped that no attempt is ever made to re-write the story of Sandakan to accommodate any social trend or fashion. It would be equally abhorrent should Sandakan ever be used to promote any disparate cause or agenda.