Exploring Sabah's War Time History

9 January 2014
Read Time: 3.5 mins

Just outside Sandakan, on the east coast of Sabah, there's a manicured park surrounded by modern apartment blocks. The tree canopy provides a welcome respite to the intense Borneo sun and the ornamental pools offer a tranquil setting away from the buzz of the modern city. But while today the site is a peaceful oasis, in past eras, the location wasn't always so serene.

 Sandakan Memorial Park

The history of Sabah and Australia will always be intertwined. This park is where the Japanese established a POW camp for Australian and British diggers who had been stationed at Singapore. The Japanese transferred the soldiers to Borneo so they could build an airfield that would aid their war effort. Of the 2,000 Australians who were held at Sandakan, only six survived the war, primarily because of the three forced marches to Ranau on the west coast.

Lynette Silver has researched this period in Australian history extensively. Her interest in Sabah intensified after she met survivor Keith Botterill in 1993.

"We became quite close over the years and I talked or interviewed him on many occasions. However, it wasn't until January 1995 that I questioned the story that the POW's would have been rescued had General MacArthur not refused to supply the necessary aircraft to transport the paratroopers assigned to this task."

 One of only a few remnants from the period

Lynette investigated the validity of this statement and in doing so discovered that the mission had been cancelled after the intelligence gathering party, inserted into Sabah in 1945, transmitted faulty information that all the POWs had been moved some time before April 1945. On the assumption that this information was correct, the rescue mission was cancelled. By the time it was discovered in June 1945 that the camp had not been abandoned, it was too late.  The story that MacArthur had refused to supply the necessary aircraft was a fabrication, to cover up the bungle.

"To find the paperwork necessary to prove all this resulted in my looking at hundreds of files that no one had ever bothered to examine. As a result, I found documents that allowed me to trace the fate of every single POW. I also traced every set of remains (about 2,200 individuals) from the place of death to the cemetery in Labuan," she said.

One of these soldiers was Private Quailey who has a special memorial at the Sabah Tea Plantation – where today travellers can stay in either a cottage that's named after a war-time hero or in a recreated Longhouse, tour the tea making facilities and appreciate the views across to Mt Kinabalu.

 Sabah Tea Plantation Cottages

"One day Keith Botterill told me the story of the death of his friend Private Quailey. Botterill stated that they were a mile from a resting place at Nalapak when Quailey found he could not go on, and was murdered near a very big tree. The Japanese had then rolled the body down the slope. I checked and found that Quailey's death had been recorded by the Japanese as one mile from Nalapak.  His was the only death recorded at that place," said Lynette.

"I then went through all the body recovery data and discovered that a body had been recovered at a spot one mile from Nalapak and 11 miles from Ranau. The searchers had drawn a small sketch of the place, which included a large tree and showed the position of the body, down the slope - just as Botterill had said. I then went through all the body recoveries and found that no other body had been found at that place."

Lynette had a one-on-one match. She then traced the movement of the remains from the place of recovery, to a holding cemetery and then finally to the grave in Labuan, which was marked as 'known unto god'. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, when presented with the evidence, concluded that the identity of the POW had to be Private Quailey. The 'unknown' headstone was removed and replaced with a new one, inscribed with his details. In 2006, Lynette found the spot when together with trekking expert Tham Yau Kong they identified the route taken by the POWs.

 Garden of Remembrance, Sabah Tea Planation


The Sabah Tea Management named the hill after Quailey and initiated the memorial, which now has the financial support of the Australian Government. A significant upgrade will take place next year, using funds provided under a grants program. It is significant that his memorial is at the Sabah Tea Plantation, a tourist attraction visited by people who have no particular interest in WW2. They see the memorial and commemorative area, read the details of his fate and so the Sandakan story is spread a little wider, and to a different audience.

 Quailey Hill, Sabah Tea Plantation

If the Quailey Memorial is the unofficial site of remembrance, then the official location is the Kundasang War Memorial, which is situated not too far from end of the Death March at Ranau.

Interestingly it was Sevee Charuruks, a Thai national who is responsible for the up-keep of the gardens. The Australian Government awarded Sevee an Order of Australia in 2012 after he had previously been awarded an MBE from Queen Elizabeth.

 Kundasung War Memorial

"I was shocked by the disrepair of KWM when I visited the site in February 2004. So in August 2004, I decided to do something and personally funded the reconstruction myself instead of complaining and doing nothing about it," said Sevee.

"At first I had no idea how important KWM was to Australians, the British and the Malaysians. But when word got out that KWM was being repaired, people just kept coming to pay a visit. And then bus loads of Australian and British came to visit the newly completed KWM. That was when I realised that KWM is indeed a very important historical site to these countries."

 The Australian Garden, Kundasung War Memorial

When asked whether there is one particular spot in the memorial that is special to him, Sevee responds that the whole of KWM is very special. He wants to tell visitors about the Sandakan death marches because he wants to make certain that these crimes committed against humanity are not repeated again in the future.

"In Asia we have a proverb which says, 'Each time when you taste the sweet fruits from your garden, you always remember those who planted them'," said Sevee.

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.