Where in the World are Margie and Peter? Sandakan War Memorial

Peregrina's Journey
Peter and Margie Benziger
Fri 24 Aug 2012 04:02
05:50.3N  118:07.4E

"Lest we forget..."

                 Traveling around the world as we have aboard Peregrina usually means experiencing the idyllic life of beautiful beaches in exotic destinations with spectacular scenery and warm, friendly people. We are treated as honored guests in the countries we visit and we are wined and dined with much celebration and goodwill. 

                However, there are also times when we witness the clash of cultures and ideologies around the world and we re-live parts of history that have a very sad tale to tell.  Not long ago, we were humbled and privileged to attend a memorial service in Sandakan, Malaysia for the brave soldiers from Australia and Britain who died in the Death Marches in Borneo at the end of World War II.



                Attending this memorial service brought us face-to-face with the horror of war and the toll it took on those courageous young soldiers who proudly represented their countries - bearing arms to defend freedom around the world. 

                 For many participants on the Sail Malaysia Rally from Australia and Great Britain, it was an opportunity to pay their respects to relatives and countrymen who had served during WWII.  Peter and I eagerly joined the contingent of yachtsmen in two mini-vans headed for the ceremony.  We all signed in with the help of the Girl Guides of Malaysia.


                This incredibly moving service was held at the site of the POW Camp in Sandakan that housed 2700 servicemen captured by the Japanese in 1942 during the Battle of Singapore. It was known as 8 Mile Camp as it was eight miles from the city of Sandakan. The soldiers, approximately 2000 Australians and 700 from the UK were confined here by the Japanese under horrific conditions and forced to build an airstrip.  Mostly enlisted men, they were not much older than boys.  All the officers had been moved to a POW camp in Kuching in order to leave those in Sandakan leaderless and easier to control.

                The prisoners were malnourished and disease-ridden with malaria, dysentery, beri-beri and tropical ulcers.  They were beaten and tortured and worked constantly under threat of gunpoint and bayonet.  Those who fell and could not rise were brutally murdered.  One soldier remembered it this way…“In the morning, when the men were too weak to stand, we used to shake hands with them and say goodbye as they more or less knew what was going to happen.
                Close to the end of the war in 1945, the airstrip was bombed by the Allies and the Japanese burned everything else that was left standing after sending the strongest of the 1400 remaining prisoners on a series of three Death Marches from Sandakan to Ranau, near the base of Mount Kinabalu - 165 miles to the west.  The arduous trip began in marshland, continued through dense jungle and finally ended in the mountainous terrain of Borneo’s highest elevations. 


                The soldiers carried heavy baggage and supplies for the Japanese battalions at gunpoint.  The first March was conducted in groups of fifty between January and March of 1945.  The Japanese set a blistering pace, averaging of 17 miles a day for 9 days with little rest and only 70 grams of rice per person cooked in polluted waters. Of the nearly five hundred who began the first March only about half of them made it to Ranau. 

                The second March took longer (approx. 26 days) as the prisoners were weaker and given even less rations.  Miraculously, out of five hundred, 183 arrived in Ranau but, to their dismay, they found only six men (5 Aussies and 1 Brit) from the first March still alive.  The third March began on June 9, 1945 with just 75 men who were so sick and emaciated that none survived more than 31 miles. 

                One survivor wrote, "All the way along the track we smelt and saw bodies.  They were Australian soldiers' bodies from the previous marches.  We could recognize them - some we knew personally.  In all my dealings with the Japanese, I have never seen anyone of our chaps after they have been left with the Japs.  Once you stopped, you stopped for good."

                The 300 enlisted men who were too sick to leave 8 Mile Camp in Sandakan now had no shelter or food.  They either died of starvation and illness or were murdered before the Japanese surrender so as to leave no evidence behind.  Those who made it to Ranau continued to be brutally treated by the Japanese and, by the end of July, there were only 38 prisoners still alive – all starving and much too sick to do any work. It was ordered that they should be shot. They were killed by the guards in August 1945, possibly up to 12 days AFTER the war officially ended!  As far as the Japanese were concerned, there was to be no record of the atrocities that were committed in Sandakan or on the Death Marches to Ranau. 

                But, in the end, there WERE six Australians alive - out of 2,700 men - and that’s only because they had managed to escape.  Two escaped during the second March and were assisted by local Malaysians until they were picked up by Allied units.  Four others escaped from Ranau in July 1945.  They hid in the jungle and were fed and cared for by locals until the end of the war.  These brave young men were able to testify in court against their tormentors to ensure that the world received eyewitness accounts of the crimes and atrocities committed against them. See three of the six below left to right: Private Nelson Short, Warrant Officer William "Bill" Sticpewich and Private Keith Botterill.

m_3survivors of Death March.jpg

                As a result of their testimony, Camp Commandant Hoshijima Susumu was found guilty of war crimes and hanged on April 6, 1946. Captain Takakuwa and his second-in-charge, Captain Watanabe, were found guilty of causing the murders and massacres of prisoners-of-war and were hanged and shot on April 6, 1946 and March 16, 1946, respectively.  However, nothing can undo the slaughter of those servicemen denied their rights under the internationally recognized code of conduct for prisoners of war outlined in the Geneva Convention.

                Lest we forget…The Returned & Services League of Australia with support from the Malaysian government here in the State of Sabah has created Sandakan Memorial Park, a commemorative area on the site of the Australian B Force Compound at 8 Mile Camp.  Each year, on August 15th a memorial service is held here.  It is a beautiful tribute to those fallen soldiers and attended by hundreds from around the world. 


They come wearing medals – some they earned themselves in service to their country, some awarded posthumously to their relatives who served here in Borneo.

                The service began with a catafalque party of Australian servicemen (sentries) who stood silently with heads down and hands crossed as a unique sign of respect to the memory of a great soldier(s). They didn’t move an inch during the entire two-hour service.


                After the formal welcome addresses from representatives of the Malaysian, Australian and British government, the Royal Navy’s Defense Advisor to Malaysia from Britain and Defense Attache to Malaysia from Australia, we heard heart-breaking remembrances about the veterans from family members including Steffoni Brackenbury, 77, who was six years old when she last saw her father, Engineer Ted Keating, who died in 1944 after a failed escape attempt in Sandakan.  She wore his medals so proudly and described him as “…a rather likable larrikin, a great mate, also a loving husband to our mum, Olive and a devoted father to his two young children.”  He called her “Bubbie.”



There were letters and songs and poems written by family members and, in some case, the soldier’s themselves, long ago.  A young boy read a poem written by his grandfather, Lieutenant Jon Cleary from Australia titled “If You Go Home…”

“If you go home…
Tell them this for me:
That in that final age-long moment,
I remembered these:
Children’s voices, laughing and gay;
A full-moon night and a soft blue day;
A bird singing in a tree in bloom;
Soft wind on long grass and clouds that loom;
Trains brightly lit, neons and a ship’s riding light,
Street-lamps climbing a hill: now, miracles in the night.
I can’t go home…

That’s why I ask you,
To tell them this from me:
I remembered her beside me,
Her kiss, her close-pressed warmth.  And I
Felt still the agony sweet of our last good-bye.
Tell them this and tell them
Not to grieve for me.  Tell them that though I remain
Here among the blood-covered mud-smeared slain,
I am proud to have died for these things.
I ask you to tell them this for me
If you go home…"
And then, one final salute. 


                Rest in peace…