Remember, remember, the 11th of November.

Also guest blogging at Backseat Radio: So, who’s gonna watch you die?


We had just landed in Labuan on the first day, and I was still sulky over the jetlag when the van stopped in front of the WWII Memorial along Jalan Tanjung Batu. Inside the cemetery the air was still. The tooting motorcycles and zooming cars that pass by indifferently sounded so distant in the vicinity, like there was an invisible bubble keeping the noises out from the yard so the weary ones could sleep another eternity.

Surrounding me were 3,908 soldiers in perfectly squared platoons, much like how they would stand in salutation when they were alive. The Cross of Sacrifice gravitating them around it like the sun holding the solar system together. These soldiers were from all over: Australia, Great Britain, India, New Zealand and even Malaysia.

The island of Labuan, strategically located in the South China Sea and bloated with oil supplies, quickly became a must-have location to the Japanese during World War II. With immediate effect, the Imperial Japanese Army set out to conquer the island, obtaining it on January 1, 1942.

During the Japanese ruling, a POW camp (Prisoner-of-War camp) in Sandakan, Sabah, some 2,500 captives made up of Indonesian civilians and Australian and British war prisoners shipped in from Java, Indonesia, were forced to construct an airstrip at gunpoint. They were often beaten out of spite and left with little food and medical treatment.

When the Allied Forces advanced in 1945, the Japanese Army were forced to flee. Thus, began the Sandakan Death March. The remaining 1,900 prisoners were moved – in sickness or in health – towards the mountains of Ranau some 260KM from the Sandakan POW camp. 300 who were in bad health were left behind in the camp to perish, while the others either died on the way because of starvation and serious illness, or shot dead for slowing down the March.

The Dead Marches occurred from January to June 1945, the population of each March getting lesser and lesser. By the time they reached Ranau, less than 40 POWs survived, all of which were too weak to work for the Japanese Army and were shot dead anyway. Out of the 2,500 POWs, only six managed to escape the iron fist of the Imperial Army. They were helped by local people, who fed them, nursed them and hid then from the Japanese Army, before eventually being saved by the Allied Forces.

On June 10, 1945, Operation Oboe Six commenced with amphibious landings of the Australian 9th Division. Their objectives were to secure the Brunei Bay for the Allied naval base, and to re-capture the oilfields and rubber plantations from the enemies. A fierce battle began in a swampy area in the jungle known by the Australians as ‘The Pocket’, where the Japanese ambushed the Australian army. The fight went on till the end of World War II on August 15, 1945. 114 of the Australian 9th Division perished, while more than half of the supposed 2,000-strong Japanese Imperial Army died in battle.

Today, the POWs of Sandakan, the perished war heroes of the Australian 7th and 9th Divisions, as well as those of the Punjab Signal Corp and a few locals were all buried here today at the WWII Memorial in Labuan. Most of the bodies were shipped in from Sabah, some with their military tags still glimmering around their mangled necks.

They were all given a white headstone each with their names, military positions and death ages engraved on it. Poignant messages from their family members still resonate today with heavy heartaches that would dwell tears in the eyes. Of the 3,908, 2,000 of them were unidentified, and they were merely given a similar engrave of ‘Known unto God’ – while their bravery may not be known of on earth, it is not forgotten in the eyes of God.

When I strolled through the Memorial, my heart twisted at the messages their family members wrote for the fallen. While some seemed to have made peace of their loss, others seemed to be holding onto a grudge that echoed in every engraved letter on the tombstone: Sgt Isherwood: “In this foreign grave his body was lain, He died for us but was it in vain”; Driver Cheesman: “Memories are treasures none can steal, deaths are heartaches none can heal”; Cpl Lavender: “Thinking of you over there, far away, wondering why it must be”.

When I came upon Gunner Wicks’ tombstone, it got to me. The epitaph his wife wrote, I did not know why, but it got to me. Somehow, the thought of a foreigner fighting for the love of a land that was not even his, seemed as heroic and heartbreaking as ever. And especially the ones who were unknown. They gave their lives for a foreign land, but yet they could not be remembered on their own tombstones. Just like that, their heroic names ceased to exist forever in this earth.

But these are all decades ago. Like another lifetime. As I knelt down in front of a stranger’s grave, I paid a silent moment to the 3,908-strong bravery around me, taking in the comfort that at least the loved ones who had wept at their graves and written such gripping epitaphs are with them now. Nothing is lost.

On the first Sunday of November every year is Remembrance Day, or ‘Poppy Day’. War veterans from Australia as well as locals and visitors from all over would gather in the WWII Memorial to pay tribute to the brave souls of yesteryear.

They would wear a red poppy on their chest, a universal symbol for Remembrance Day that is in reference to the famous poem written during World War I, In Flanders Field, where the red poppies grow abundantly, and where war casualties were buried in France. It was written by a Lieutenant Colonel named John McCrae in 1915, after witnessing the death of his 22-year-old friend during war.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
– Lt-Col John McCrae (1872 – 1918)

Make peace, not war.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response to “Remember, remember, the 11th of November.”

  1. Ariel Chew Says:

    KL to Labuan got jet lag meh? Same time zone wat 😛

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: