Labuan War Cemetery & Memorial, Labuan Island, Sabah

In February 1942, only three months after the Imperial Japanese Army had invaded Malaya, Singapore was also attacked and captured in a number of days. Following the fall of Singapore, hundreds of Australian and British Prisoners of War were sent to camps in Borneo, which had also been claimed by Japan in early 1942. Ordered to work on aerodrome construction, mainly in the northern town of Sandakan, many POWs were treated horrifically by their captors. Conditions only continued to get worse over the next three years as the war dragged on and both sides battled for victory.

In February 1945, the Japanese camp officials, fearing an Allied attack at Sandakan, sent over 1,000 British and Australia POWs on three different death marches to the village of Ranau, a distance of 260 kilometres away. When the Japanese finally surrendered in August, all but six men had died – the six had escaped only weeks earlier and were living in the jungle supported by local civilians until they knew of the Allied victory.

After the war had ended, the Australian Army Graves service arrived in Borneo and over time located the remains of many of the POWs who perished on the way to Ranau. Hundreds of other bodies buried on battlefields and in temporary gravesites were also found throughout this search period. Another 500 bodies were shipped from Kuching to Sabah, where another large Prisoner of War Camp had been located. Initially the dead were taken to Sandakan where a small burial ground containing other POWs had already been started. However, constant flooding forced officials to move the graves to Labuan War Cemetery, a burial site on the island of Labuan specifically built to hold the war dead from all over Borneo.

Labuan War Cemetery is the only war cemetery in northern Borneo. Managed and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the cemetery was started in 1945 and officiated by the Australian Government in 1953. Inside the entrance gate, a colonnade and forecourt, known as the Labuan Memorial, commemorates the officers and men of the Australian Army and Air Force, as well as the local northern Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei forces, who all died in service or as a Prisoner of War and has no known gravesite. Bronze panels on the columns list the names of those who were never found.

In total, there are 3,922 burials at the Labuan War Cemetery. 1,752 of those are identified individuals, while another 2,225 are of unknown men. In the final days of World War II, the Japanese forces in Kuching destroyed almost all of the Prisoner of War records, ultimately leading to the large number of unknown soldiers located at Labuan. Each gravesite has a small white headstone with the name, military rank and age of death inscribed on the front, along with heartfelt messages from family members. For those unknown graves, the words ‘Known unto God’ is all that is written. In the far right corner of the cemetery, a memorial stands in remembrance of those men of the Indian Army who were cremated in accordance with their religion.

An annual Remembrance Day Ceremony is held at Labuan Cemetery on November 11th. Organised by the Labuan Tourism Council, the commemorative ceremony is attended by a number of dignitaries from Commonwealth countries as well as the descendants of the Allied troops who fought in Borneo throughout World War II.