Labuan War Cemetery and Memorial. Picture: CEphoto/Uwe Aranas Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Labuan_Malaysia_War-Cemetery-03.jpg
Labuan War Cemetery and Memorial. Picture: CEphoto/Uwe Aranas Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Labuan_Malaysia_War-Cemetery-03.jpg

This trip to Borneo is life-changing

The sky is pitch black as we gingerly make our way along the dimly lit path that weaves between the towering trees. We've come to the Malaysian state of Sabah with high hopes of spotting a "wild man of Borneo" - an elusive orang-utan - but that is not what brings us out pre-dawn today.

It's 4.30am on April 25 and we are here to mark Anzac Day and honour the 2000-odd Allied prisoners of war who died on the forced marches across North Borneo from Sandakan to Ranau in the final months of WWII.

For our group - on a Scott McGregor's Railway Adventures tour - this trip is less rail and more remembrance, and for host Scott McGregor himself it's a very personal pilgrimage.

Scott's uncle, John "Jack" Archibald McGregor, gave up the life he knew as a storekeeper and station agent in northern NSW to enlist in the army and, following training, his 2/18th Australian Infantry Battalion sailed from Sydney to Southeast Asia on February 4, 1941.

Just over a year later, as they tried in vain to save Singapore from Japanese invasion, Jack McGregor and his battalion were taken prisoner by Imperial Japanese Army forces and incarcerated at Changi. In mid-1943 he was transferred to the prisoner of war camp in Sandakan.

The dawn service is being held at the austere yet imposing black stele Sandakan Memorial, flanked by the flags of Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Sabah. On one side it is inscribed in Malay and on the other, English. It reads: "In remembrance of all those who suffered and died here, on the death marches and at Ranau."

Underneath intertwining flowers are carved into the polished granite - waratah for Australia, roses for Britain and hibiscus for Malaysia. Later, as shafts of sunlight pierce the dark sky, we see the beauty of the Sandakan Memorial Park, built on the grounds of the former PoW camp. It's hard to reconcile the atrocities that occurred in this verdant setting as atop a peaceful lake hundreds of water lilies unfurl their petals.

The Sandakan Commemorative Pavilion, opened in 1999, houses a permanent exhibition with detailed information about the war in the South Pacific and the death marches. There is also a 3D model of the PoW camp based on aerial photos, and stained-glass windows featuring the same floral emblems used on the stele, here in vibrant pinks, greens and reds.

But tragedy lurks amid the colour as shadowy figures of skeletal men march across the glass towards their deaths. More than 2500 Australian and British prisoners of war were imprisoned on this site and used as labour to build an airstrip.

 

Commonwealth War Grave on Labuan, Borneo. Picture: Istock
Commonwealth War Grave on Labuan, Borneo. Picture: Istock

 

In 1945, after Allied bombing destroyed the strip, Japanese forces decided to transfer the already feeble men 260km west in a series of marches to the small settlement of Ranau.

Between January and June about 500 died - of malnutrition, mistreatment and malaria and other tropical diseases. Hundreds more perished at Sandakan and Ranau camps.

By war's end, of all the men who had been alive in January 1945, only six survived. They were all Australian escapees from the camps. Lance Corporal Jack McGregor died, aged 36, on May 3, 1945.

A few days after the dawn service - following successful orang-utan spotting in Sepilok, a hike in Kinabalu National Park watched over by Borneo's highest peak, Mount Kinabalu, plus some obligatory rail travel - we fly to Labuan Island to visit the WWII cemetery established and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

It's the largest war memorial in Malaysia and home to a staggering 3908 graves.

More staggering is the realisation, as we walk among the headstones in the blazing afternoon sun, that more than half are unnamed, marked only with identical bronze plaques reading, "A Soldier of the 1939-1945 War - Known Unto God".

Despite the heat, we wear silence like a heavy cape as we stroll, heads bowed, knowing that beneath these perfectly manicured grounds lie both Victoria Cross recipients and the unidentified remains of those who received no military honours but who were equally regarded as heroes by family and friends back home and whose deaths scarred a generation.

Most are Australian and British, but there are also some troops from New Zealand and India, as well as locals who died trying to liberate Borneo.

 

Royal Navy Sea Cadet standing guard at the war memorial during the remembrance day at Veteran Memorial Park in Labuan.
Royal Navy Sea Cadet standing guard at the war memorial during the remembrance day at Veteran Memorial Park in Labuan.

A huge, white stone cross stands majestically in a central grassed clearing, casting a dramatic shadow on a lawn still dotted with red poppies from this site's Anzac Day service.

Our local guide takes us to a memorial walkway where the names of the Commonwealth servicemen who died in North Borneo are recorded on bronze plaques. On one, just above head height, he locates NX41005 McGregor J.A. Polishing the name to a high shine, he reminds us of Jack's service to "king and country".

Seventy-five years after Jack McGregor's arrival in North Borneo, we again ponder the unimaginable suffering of his incarceration.

As his nephew Scott said, delivering the Call to Remembrance as the April 25, 2018, dawn began to break in Sandakan just days earlier: "Here this morning in this quiet place, surrounded by those who like me have come to remember, I can speak aloud the words that my grandparents likely thought way back then: I hope that Jack was not alone when he passed, that he was surrounded by his mates who watched him go and who mourned him, as we did.

For my grandparents, Jack's parents, for Jack himself and for all those who have died in war, we feel your absence through the generations. We will remember you always. Lest we forget."

 

Cindy MacDonald travelled as a guest of Scott McGregor's Railway Adventures.


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