Kota Kinabalu city, Sabah, Malaysia, is built mostly on reclaimed land and overlooks the South China Sea. It was almost leveled as part of the Borneo Campaign by Allied forces during 1945 with bombings day and night for over six months leaving only three buildings standing. The war in North Borneo ended with the official surrender of the Japanese 37th Army in September 1945.
Tucked into the hillside and unable to be bombed is the Clock Tower, beside Australia Place, site of old timber Chinese shops in Jesselton, as KK was called then, and where the Australian Liberation Army camped when they landed in 1945. I stayed in one of these old buildings, above a coffee shop called Museum Kopitiam that serves a good cup of coffee and makes traditional ANZAC biscuits (Australia New Zealand Army Corps). Both Australia and New Zealand claim to have been the first to make these sweet oat biscuits for their soldiers and many myths and legends have grown up around them.
More history I didn’t know about, perhaps as no New Zealanders were in involved, was the Sandakan Death Marches – a series of forced marches in Borneo from Sandakan to Ranau. I learn more when I attended the annual (15th August 2013) Sandakan Memorial day event to remember the fallen heroes of the Australian and British prisoners-of-war who had endured the notorious Death Marches.
I also learn in 1942 and 1943, Australian and British POWs, captured by Japan during the Battle of Singapore in 1942 were shipped to North Borneo to build a military airstrip and their own prisoner-of-war camps at Sandakan. As on the well-known Burma Death Railway, prisoners were forced to work, were often beaten and got very little food or medical attention. By the end of the war only five Australians, and one British soldiers survived, all of whom had escaped. It’s widely considered to be the single worst atrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during the Second World War and many Australians attend this emotional day and follow ‘in the footsteps of heroes.’
The War Memorial and Gardens of Remembrance were built at Kundasang, Sabah in 1962 to commemorate those who had died in what seems to be a forgotten chapter of history. Local people, who also suffered or died, were remembered and thanked for their support to the prisoner and escapees. The Australian High Commissioner said ‘This debt can never be repaid. Thank you from a grateful nation.’
The British High Commissioner said he was here to pay respects to the bravery of the 641 Brits who had died. That it was a reminder of the ‘brutal story of man’s inhumanity to man’ .