Remembering Sandakan

25 April 2013
Read Time: 2.1 mins

Today we remember the Australians who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the freedom we hold so precious. While names such as Gallipoli and Kokoda resonate strongly on ANZAC Day, there is a Malaysian destination that, under a Government-decreed shroud of secrecy, was kept from the Australian public for 50 years.

 Sandakan Memorial

"What happened at Sandakan holds a special place in Australian history; it ranks with Gallipoli and Kokoda because of the huge loss of life. I was one of fortunate ones - I was moved to Kuching, which saved mine and other people's lives," said 96 year old Sandakan veteran, Russ Ewin.

"The story of Sandakan was withheld by the Government because they believed the truth would cause too much distress to relatives if they learnt how the Australians died on the three death marches. Out of around 2,400 prisoners, only six survived the march."

In 1942, a significant proportion of Australian soldiers captured by the Japanese offensive in south-east Asia were sent to the POW Camp at Sandakan, Sabah, to construct a military airstrip the Japanese believed would assist the war effort. After the allies bombed the completed airfield in 1945, the Japanese commander chose to relocate the surviving prisoners 260 kilometres to Ranau in three separate marches.

Now that the veil of secrecy has been lifted, the events of Malaysia Borneo are remembered on-site at Sandakan on both ANZAC day and at a special service held annually on August 15, the day when the atrocities officially ended in the region. In 2010, Governor-General Quentin Bryce attended the service.

"These services are very important to me, but they become more important now because there are so few of us left," said Russ.

 Pay Your Respects

"This year for ANZAC day, I'm going back to Borneo with a tour group from Western Australia. These trips are always emotional and so nostalgic, but it's important to keep the news of the awful events before the Australian people. I'm going to be attending a service on Labuan Island and then we're going to have our own private service at Sandakan. At age 96 I had to think whether I could do the trip, but I'm taking my daughter to show her where I served. We're going to the key places where significant events happened concerning Australian prisoners. It's a mixture of the remembrance of old mates, to give thanks to the people of Sabah and to do some touring."

When Russ returns to Malaysia it will be his fourth visit since the end of World War II. He first returned in 1984 and, while much had changed in the region, at that time there were still many people alive who were associated with the war. Russ informs Flight Centre that the locals were very helpful to the Australians and that he is very grateful to the people of Sabah.

"The second time I went back, I travelled as a member of the official party from Australia for the ANZAC service commemorating 50 years since the war. I gave the address on that occasion," he said.

"In Sydney, I've only ever missed one ANZAC Day march. I march with the 8 Division Signals and then we have a reunion lunch."

Pay Your Respects in August

For parties who would like to pay their respects to the fallen diggers of Sandakan, Flight Centre has organised a nine-night tour of the region. Apart from attending the Memorial Service, travellers will also visit the Sabah Tea Cottages, which were on the death march route, explore the Kundassng War Memorial, admire the native animals at the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary and the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary and enjoy a Sandakan City Tour.

For more information on the Sandakan Memorial Day Tour, contact Kate Dickson on 02 8121 2832 or email

Lyndon Barnett

Guided by curiosity and a sense of adventure, Lyndon travelled independently to 69 countries on six continents. As such, travel is Lyndon's only addiction. He enjoys with equal measure - scaling the peaks of a South American mountain at altitude, attending opera in a European Opera House or hunting for a bargain in an Asian market.