Come to re­mem­ber. You’ll never for­get the ex­pe­ri­ence


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.

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.

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.”


Sad­ness haunts the beauty of San­dakan Memo­rial Park; and more than half of the Labuan Is­land 3908 war graves are un­named.


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