Dilapidated and neglected those were the words used by Australian Malcolm (Mick) Smith to describe the condition of Ranau No. 1 Prisoner of War (POW) camp before it was refurbished recently.
The original head and helmet that was once placed atop the Cleary Memorial had been missing for some time and up until recently, no effort was made to replace it. The floor was slippery, particularly during wet seasons, and dead leaves and branches were scattered all over the area.
Hence, it was no surprise that Mick, who hails from Darwin, Australia, felt saddened by what he saw when he visited the memorial years ago and from what he heard.
“On subsequent visits, a friend and I, with the help of some local people, made attempts to restore the memorial’s dignity and make it more presentable and safer for visitors,”he said.
Together with the Sabah Museum and the Australian government, the memorial site is now fully restored, and with the expert knowledge, input and assistance from the Sabah State Museum, a museum which pays homage to the prisoners of war who suffered there was also constructed.
“The place tells its story – of how they, the prisoners of war, through no fault of their own, suffered and died of the most inhumane and horrendous atrocities at the hands of others,”he said.
The site is now suitably sheltered from the elements and from falling tree branches, with ample seating for visitors. The original head and helmet have also been replaced, thanks to EBay, the online store.
I had a chance to visit the memorial, which is now termed as Ranau’s No.1 POW Camp Museum recently. It is located adjacent to the Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) church, just after Ranau town and the district’s ‘badi’ (weekend market).
When I saw Mick, he was busy fixing a miniature replica of a war plane, which I was informed was used during the 1941–1945 Japanese occupation of Sabah, then known as North Borneo.
He explained that he had the small replica air planes made in Australia to make it easier for people, particularly school children, to absorb the information they get from the museum.
“This is a‘spitfire’and a replica of the plane used by flying officer, Fred Inger, before it crashed into the jungle of Borneo,”said Mick.
It was during my visit that I learned about the fall of Singapore into Japanese hands in February 1942, and of the Australians and British POWs being sent to Sandakan to construct a military airfield. And that on January 1945, more than 1,000 members of the POWs were sent to walk some 250 kilometres from Sandakan to Ranau by the Japanese. Many of the POWs died or were killed during the journey. Two of the POWs who died in Ranau were gunners, Albert Cleary, and Wally Crease, after their failed attempt to escape. Crease was killed in the jungle after his second failed escape attempt, while Cleary died after being tied to a post and tortured for 11 days without any food or water.
The photos of the POWs are also featured at the museum along with the stories shared by locals who witnessed the atrocities inflicted on the POWs. The locals who shared their stories were the late Sairah binti Mardi from Sandakan and Kaingal, a Kadazandusun man from Ranau.
Mick shared that it was the stories of the POWs that saddened him. Among the story that was particularly saddening was one concerning the plight of three brothers, two of whom died in Sandakan and one who died in Paginatan, Ranau.
Of the more than 1,000 POWs that made the journey, only six survived. A total of 161 POWs were believed to have died at the camp.