Sandakan: Australia's Most Desperate Sadness
Updated: May 8, 2018
The Australian Way, November 2010
Russ Ewin is watching the sun set from the window of a Borneo hotel. “They always have great sunsets here,” he says, as a wash of orange light floods the bay. “Of course, I saw three and a half years of them.”
The remark does not come with obvious bitterness, and that is remarkable, for the three and a half years he refers to were spent as a prisoner of war. And today Russ, 93, and his great friend Leslie “Bunny” Glover, 89, are the only able-bodied men remaining with first-hand experience of perhaps the most notorious POW camp of them all: Sandakan.
Russ and Leslie are here to take part in the Sandakan memorial, held every August 15 to commemorate the most desperate sadness in Australian military history: the Sandakan Death Marches. They are, remarkably, the lucky ones: part of a group of officers who were transferred out of the Sandakan camp in October 1943 to another near Kuching, also in Borneo, in order to reduce the senior ranks in the camp. Their removal saved their lives. After they went, there were 2,434 Australian and British soldiers in Sandakan. Six would survive the war.
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Six. That’s one in every 300 Australian troops, and none at all of the 641 British. The numbers are unfathomably bleak and it is perhaps for this reason that Sandakan, until recently, has not carried anything like the same touchstone resonance as more noted Australian military tragedies like Gallipoli and the Burma Railway. When so few survive, there is barely anyone to talk about what they saw; also, for 30 years after the war, the Sandakan story was suppressed by the government, apparently in a paternalistic attempt to shield the nation from unthinkable horror. Even today, many Australians, and more British, know very little about Sandakan.
But the memorial, attended by hundreds this year, illustrates the growing position Sandakan is occupying in the Australian national consciousness. There are treks available now to retrace parts of the three intolerable marches in 1945, in which prisoners were forced to walk through 240 kilometres of jungle to Ranau on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu. They did so with pitiful rations, carrying rice and ammunition for their captors, often barefoot, and frequently suffering from tropical diseases such as beri-beri, malaria and dysentery. If they couldn’t keep up, they were killed. Many died or were executed on the marches, others at Ranau, and those too ill to move died at Sandakan. Many executions in Ranau took place several days after the surrender that formally ended the war: there were intended to be no survivors. The six that made it were escapees, aided by local villagers.
What is remarkable today is how Russ and Leslie, who survived because an order to execute prisoners at their Kuching camp was ignored, talk of the atrocity of their time there with such calmness, even humour. “A guard bashed me behind the head with a pick handle and fractured three vertebrae in my neck,” recalls Leslie. “He thought I wasn’t working hard enough. Which was true.” A man of irrepressible energy, he has been able to find positives in the friendship that came with adversity – “a very close bond of brotherhood, even closer than family” – and believes the experience made him a better man.
Russ was transferred overseas just 10 days after his wedding; upon liberation he weighed six stone ten (“and I was known as the fat boy of the camp”) and learned his young brother had died elsewhere in the campaign. He has more reason than most to harbour resentment about what happened in Borneo. Yet he, too, is able to say of his incarceration: “I found it very rewarding for my character.” Prisoners formed education programs so they could learn of one another’s professions: he recalls a leading obstetrician learning the basics of chook farming from a fellow inmate. The idea of forgiveness, though, triggers a more complex response. “It’s hard to distinguish between forgiving and forgetting,” he says. “I suppose you could forget. Then you wouldn’t have anything left to forgive.” But he adds: “I have no feelings against the generations that have come since.”
With the growing commitment to honouring Australia’s lost troops in Sandakan has come a welcome acknowledgement of the vast contribution made by local people in Sabah, under brutal occupation, to help Australians there (Sabah is the Malaysian state that contains Sandakan). “The courage they exhibited under those circumstances exceeds any person who has won a Victoria Cross,” says Lynette Silver, the historian and author whose books on Sandakan have helped to bring events to wider public knowledge. She set up a scholarship program to help educate young girls from the mountain tribes that, in 1945, aided prisoners on the marches by bringing them water and rice, and without whom there would never have been a survivor to speak of what happened. “Entire villages took the escaped prisoners in and protected them knowing full well what the penalty was for harbouring a prisoner of war – not just death to the person who owned the house but the whole village,” she says. “Still they did it. I find it extraordinary.”
One such was Philip Mairon Bahanja, who was sent to work in Sandakan as a 14-year-old, escaped and ended up fighting a guerrilla campaign alongside the Australians. About 500 locals did the same. “Without much experience and skill in war we were suddenly in the jungle fighting,” he says now. “But we were high in spirit and we were proud to wear the Australian army’s uniform.”
Sandakan was razed in the war but today is a thriving tourist destination. Not far away is the Sepilok orang-utan sanctuary, where staff work with these beautiful apes for as long as a decade apiece in order to help them rehabilitate into a natural jungle life; a stark counterpoint of what humanity is capable of. Appreciation of this wildlife is bringing a considerable tourist force that is also discovering anew the history of the place and the terrible price paid on their behalf by Australian and British servicemen and local people here.
There is perhaps a nervousness that Sandakan could, as other tragic wartime sights have sometimes done, attract a mawkish voyeurism, a box to tick rather than deferent recognition, but for the moment servicemen seem pleased that people are becoming more engaged, and enraged, with what happened. “The tragic events are known by many people,” says Russ, “but not enough people”.
At the memorial, Australia’s governor-general, Quentin Bryce, spoke movingly about how Australians and Sabahans “vanquished fear and loathing and all their manifestations and in their place chose generosity and love”. Then she embraced tearfully with a lady called Jenny Smith.
Perhaps she had read the poem written for Jenny in the name of her father, Thomas Ebzery, who was imprisoned in Sandakan when Jenny was a small child; it’s a poem that could speak for so many of those cruelly treated men, and the impact of their loss on every later generation.
“My little girl,” it begins.
“If I could but have held your hand for just a little while.”
Later it continues: “My sadness is, my little one, I may never see this through.”
He did not.