Sandakan Memorial Park, Sandakan, Sabah

The Sandakan Memorial Park is built on the site of the original Sandakan Prisoner of War Camp, active between 1942 and 1945. The Imperial Japanese Army captured Singapore and Malaya in early 1942 and as part of their strategy over the next two years, forcibly moved almost 2,700 Allied soldiers to Sandakan in northern Borneo. Instructed to build and maintain a military airstrip, the POWs were tortured, starved and made to endure extreme temperatures, illness and inhumane conditions at the campsite. In late 1944 the airstrip was attacked and destroyed by the Allies. In fear of an Allied advance, the Japanese Army began to move the remaining prisoners to the village of Ranau, 260 kilometres west of Sandakan. Over a number of months in 1945 close to 1,000 men were made to take part in the death marches to Ranau. Hundreds of men died on the way from heat exhaustion, sickness and execution at the hands of the Japanese captors. By August 1945 when the Japanese finally surrendered, only six Australian men had survived, all of which had escaped into the jungle and were looked after by local villagers.

Little is left of the original Prisoner of War Camp except a handful of markers that serve as testament to the activities that took place there. Understanding the significance of the site, an agreement took place in 1995 between the Government of Sabah, the Government of Australia, the Returned Services League of Australia and the Sandakan Municipal Council to establish a memorial park on the former campsite. Four years later in 1999, the Sandakan Commemorative Pavilion and memorial obelisk was unveiled. Inside the pavilion a permanent exhibition describes, in both English and Bahasa, the experiences of the POWs who lived there and the death marches they were made to endure. Maps and photographs depict the rough terrain of the death march routes and the terrible conditions inflicted on the incarcerated men, as well as the local people who attempted to help the prisoners via underground resistance movements.

Other relics that remain on the site include an old excavator used throughout the construction of the airfield and later sabotaged by an Australian prisoner attempting to slow the speed of work; parts of a boiler and alternator that were used to generate electricity for the campsite and in secret, the clandestine radio made and operated by Australian troops (the radio was found by the Japanese in 1943 and a number of prisoners were executed for their involvement); a concrete tank and slab which was originally the site of the Japanese Quartermaster’s store and kitchen; and the main gate and road out of the Sandakan Camp, the starting point for the death marches to Ranau. Interpretation panels that feature historical descriptions, testimonies and archival documents are located around the park to encourage visitors to gain a deeper understanding of the site and the experiences of the men who lived and died there.

Each year on ANZAC day (April 25th) and Sandakan Memorial Day (August 15th) a commemorative service takes place at the obelisk to remember both the Allied POWs and local people who died at Sandakan and Ranau. Services are also held at the nearby St Michaels and All Angels Church where an honour roll of the 2,428 men who died at Sandakan is kept and a stained glass window, funded by the families of the Sandakan POWs, portrays scenes of peace and hope.