The memories of yester-years could be nostalgic, bittersweet or heartbreaking; and at the Sandakan Memorial Park in Sabah, Borneo, it would be more heartbreaking for me, you and especially the very people, which the Sandakan Memorial Park remembers until today. These people were 2,400 soldiers of which 1,800 were Australians and 600 were British. They were Prisoners of War (P.O.W.) from 1942-1945 in Sandakan, Sabah, under the Japanese Occupation during World War II, which lasted 6 years from 1939 to 1945. Out of the 2,400 courageous soldiers, transported from Singapore in 1942 to Sandakan to provide free and forced labour to the Japanese in building an airstrip, only 6 survived the hardship and ill-treatment.
I was keen to see for myself the Sandakan Memorial Park in Sandakan, the second largest town in Sabah. Built on the exact spot where the Japanese P.O.W. camp was situated nearly 70 years ago, the Sandakan Memorial Park was located 11 kilometres outside of Sandakan, and took us a 15-minute drive to get there. Opened daily from 9am to 5pm, there was no need to pay any entrance fee; and the memorial park, with the cooperation of the Sabah government, was maintained by the Australian War Commission.
My first impression of the 11-hectare sized Sandakan Memorial Park, as we stepped into the site, was the tranquil atmosphere of the garden-like memorial park, where visitors were greeted by a serene pond with flowering lotus and lily pads floating calmly on the surface. Walking along the winding stone path with a well-manicured green lawn, I came upon relics of the past: an excavator for building the airstrip, which was not completed; and a boiler and an alternator that were used to provide electricity at the P.O.W. camp.
We stopped next at the Pavilion, which served as a mini museum filled with photos and documents covering the history of the Sandakan Memorial Park; the atrocities by the Japanese; the soldiers who were P.O.W., the many who died, either at this camp or from the infamous death marches of 1945 from Sandakan to Ranau; the few who survived by escaping; the local people who perished by helping the escaped prisoners; and so forth. This Pavilion, amidst the spacious memorial park that had real-life artefacts, would be a great place for historians or history enthusiasts to visit.
A little further down from the Pavilion building, we came upon a commemorative area at the Sandakan Memorial Park, identified by a dark granite plaque engraved with a beautiful tree-like flower and leaf motif, with these words written; “Sandakan Memorial – In remembrance of all those who suffered and died here, on the death marches and at Ranau.” There was believed to be a huge or big tree that grew at this commemorative area, and used by the prisoners to recognize the camp site. There was no such big tree in sight now.
Leaving the commemorative area of the Sandakan Memorial Park, we came across the other visible remnants from the P.O.W. camp: the Japanese Quartermaster’s store and kitchen as well as a few square-shaped concrete walls nearby, 4 feet by 4 feet wide and 7 feet high, which were used by the Japanese as “punishment cages” for the prisoners. I could only imagine in my mind the horror these soldiers had to go through day after day, trying to keep some hope in their heart that they would survive and could one day go back to their own homeland again, leaving behind the recurring nightmare of torture, starvation, sickness and death.
It took us close to an hour of leisure walking to go around the Sandakan Memorial Park, with plenty of benches or resting spots scattered about and cooling shades provided by the canopy of secondary forest trees; and I could sense a feeling of quiet respect in the greenness of the memorial park and in the freshness of the air. I would like to believe that the spirits were at rest and their souls in the heavens, touched that they were not forgotten. On our return to the town of Sandakan, Sabah, I was glad to have visited the Sandakan Memorial Park for it brought sharply into focus how lucky I am to live in peaceful times.