Chapter 1 - The Pacific War

Chapter 1

The Pacific War

The Malayan Campaign

The Pacific War was traumatic for both Australians and Malaysians. When the Japanese landed in Malaya on 8 December 1941, it was anticipated that Commonwealth forces, including Australian, would halt their advance. Initially, that appeared possible. In early January 1942, at Gemencheh Bridge near Gemas in Negeri Sembilan, Australians 'inflicted on the Japanese their first and only setback in a dramatic ambush', trapping some 1100 Japanese soldiers making their way over the bridge by bicycle.3 A few weeks later, in what the British Commander, General Percival, called 'one of the epics of the Malayan campaign', Australian troops, having quickly advanced down the Malaya Peninsula to Johor, carried out further ambushes at Jemaluang, Muar and Bakri, inflicting further casualties.4 Australia's losses were heavy. Although they made up only around 14 per cent of the Commonwealth forces protecting Malaya, the Australians suffered 73 per cent of those killed in action.5

Photo of National Monument of Malaysia

National Monument of Malaysia.

Japan's air and artillery bombardment of Singapore in February 1942 saw the Malayan Campaign reach its tragic conclusion. Australian, British, Indian and Malay soldiers were involved in the campaign's final struggle. It was at the Battles of Pasir Panjang and Bukit Chandu on 14 February, the day before the fall of Singapore, though, that the comparatively young Royal Malay Regiment is remembered for inflicting heavy losses on the Japanese while fighting, literally, to the last man.6 Years later, when Britain's Major-General Bruce, who raised the first Malay Regiment in the 1930s, arrived in Malaya for the Merdeka (Independence) celebrations on 31 August 1957, he recalled the exceptional discipline and courage of the Malay officers and, in particular, 'heroic Adnan' (Lieutenant Adnan Saidi of Selangor).7

My Story

Photo of Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai

Excerpt taken with permission from 'Penang's Story, My Story' by Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai, CEO, Star Media Group Berhad.

The Australian air base in Butterworth certainly left an impact on many Penangites because they became very much a part of the local community.

Their story began in 1957 when the Royal Air Force, which was part of the British defence plan, closed the base in Butterworth and transferred ownership to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

The RAAF stationed numerous Australian fighters and bomber squadrons there.

These planes were to play a crucial, but supportive role during the Emergency as well as the Confrontation with Indonesia.

It was reported that in 1964, its Sabre jets responded to Indonesian jet fighters heading towards Malaysian airspace but the latter turned back before crossing the international air space. The RAAF personnel were generally well-behaved, unlike the rowdier American marines, who also dropped by Penang as part of their rest and recreation entitlement back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The Australians, when they were off duty, could be seen in George Town, wearing their trademark shorts and stockings which were pulled up to their knees.

Their favourite eating spot was the Eden Restaurant in Hutton Lane, which served western set meals at reasonable prices, while their watering hole was the Hong Kong Bar in Chulia Street, which was something of an institution in Penang until the RAAF closed its base in 1988. The servicemen would leave pictures, badges, mementoes and plaques as a reminder of their days at the bar.

For Australian families who had just arrived in Penang, the RAAF Club was their oasis. Temporary accommodation would be provided to these new arrivals until they found their homes in Fettes Park, Tanjung Tokong and Tanjung Bungah–these were their three favourite spots although the base was on the other side of the channel.

Their social lives revolved around the RAAF Club–where sporting and social events were held. It was open only to RAAF personnel and Malaysians working with them. These Australians left behind many friends among Penangites.

Lucky for us Penangites, we had Radio RAAF. As a music loving teenager I was introduced to the world of Australian bands such as Little River Band, Sherbet, INXS, Men at Work and of course, John Paul Young. The announcers were mostly family members of the Australian servicemen. To this day I can still recall the call sign for each programme that simply began with, "This is the Radio R, double A, F…" The Radio RAAF played Everytime You Go Away as its farewell song, before signing off for good.

With its thriving port, Penangites had long been exposed to foreign presence, but to have Australians in the neighbourhood emphasised how cosmopolitan the state was in the early years.

Maybe the relationship between Penang and Australia was fated in some ways. After all, Captain Francis Light founded Penang while his son, William Light, founded Adelaide.

Photo of Radio RAAF

Radio RAAF

The Death Marches of Sabah

The Australian War Memorial estimates that 70 per cent of the number of Australians taken prisoner during the Pacific War—15 395—were captured during the Malayan Campaign.8 First held at Singapore's Changi prison, these prisoners of war (POWs) were then deployed around Southeast Asia in working parties. Three of the main camps were at Sandakan, Labuan and Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) in Sabah. In Sandakan, 2434 POWs—1793 Australians and 641 British—were forced to build an airstrip.9 In January 1945, they were sent on the infamous 'death marches' from Sandakan to Ranau, 240 kilometres across Sabah's rugged interior. When the Pacific War officially ended on 14 August 1945, only six of the POWs, all Australian, were still alive.10

During the Sandakan–Ranau ordeal, the Australian POWs were not alone. They were covertly assisted by local Sabahans. Food was left at prison camp fences, letters were smuggled out and items such as radio parts smuggled into the camps. When escapees were encountered, the Sabahans hid them in their homes or found perahus (boats) to take them across to Berhala Island or even, they hoped, as far as the Philippines. This support attracted real danger to the Sabahans' own lives. Their courage, and that of the Australian POWs who suffered so terribly, is kept alive through the efforts of Malaysians and Australians, such as Datuk Irene Charuruks OAM of the Sabah Tourism Board, Catherin Chua AM of the Sandakan Municipal Council, and Australian military historian Lynette Ramsay Silver OAM.

Photo of routes of the death marches

Photo of Sir Peter Cosgrove

Australian Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove at the Sandakan Memorial Park, 15 August 2015.

My Story

Photo of Catherin Chua

Catherin Chua, AM Senior Personal Assistant to the President Sandakan Municipal Council

Sandakan Day Memorial is a special day commemorating and honouring more than 2400 Australian and British POWs who suffered, and made the ultimate sacrifice, on the infamous Sandakan-Ranau Death Marches during World War II. Only six Australians escaped and lived to tell of the atrocities they went through. Sandakan Day is also a tribute to local civilians and a group of 19 Chinese community leaders who were beheaded and buried in a mass grave on 27 May 1945.

On 27 May 2003 the first Sandakan Day Memorial was held on the actual camp site of the POWs. In 2004, it was decided that the memorial would be held every August 15, the day the war ended, and also the day the last POW in Sandakan died.

I assisted in the preparations for the first Sandakan Day Memorial in 2003 and since 2005 have organised the event. Over that time I have been privileged to meet many Sandakan POWs' relatives, Australian war veterans, and the families of the local heroes who attend each year. I also met four Sandakan POWs who survived because they were sent to the Kuching POW Camp. They were Bill Young, Robert Ellice Flint, Russ Ewin and Leslie Bunny Glover, all of whom have attended the Sandakan Day Memorial Service.

In April 2007, the Office of Australian War Graves organised the first ANZAC Day Dawn Service in Sandakan and I was privileged to assist in bringing this about. To date, the highest turnout for the Sandakan Day Memorial service was 700 in 2010, and at the Sandakan ANZAC Day Dawn Service in 2015, more than 600 attended.

Throughout these services, and my attendance at ten Sandakan Memorials throughout Australia, I have not only made many friends, I have acquired an 'Australian family', and I am proud whenever I am fondly referred to as their 'Borneo sister'. I have felt the grief and sadness of Australians visiting Sandakan and will always treasure these unforgettable experiences with them. I hope the Sandakan story will always be preserved through both the annual Sandakan Day Memorial and Sandakan ANZAC Day Dawn Services.

Photo of Sir Peter Cosgrove and Lady Cosgrove

Australian Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove and Lady Cosgrove with recipients of the Order of Australia based in Malaysia, August 2015.

Photo of Sir Peter Cosgrove and Datuk Andrew Sim Men Kin

Datuk Andrew Sim Men Kin, JP AM Honorary Consul of Australia in Kota Kinabalu
Australian Governor General Sir Peter Cosgrove with Honarary Consul to Sabah, Datuk Andrew Sim at Sandakan, 2015.

The close relationship between Sabah and Australia goes beyond the 60th Anniversary of the Australian High Commission in Malaysia. Many Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen lost their lives fighting the Japanese in North Borneo (as Sabah was then known) during World War II. Records say that up to 1700 servicemen perished on the infamous Sandakan Death March alone, the single worst atrocity suffered by Australians throughout the war. It happened in January 1945, when the Japanese army decided to move 1900 Australian Prisoners of War (POWs) captured following the fall of Singapore in 1942. Following the bombing of the Sandakan airstrip, an Allied landing was expected and the Australian POWs were marched from Sandakan to Ranau. Only six soldiers survived to tell their bitter tale of suffering at the hands of the Japanese.

A War Memorial was built in Kundasang, Ranau in 1962 to commemorate the fallen Australian soldiers in Sabah and every year, ANZAC Day is commemorated in Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan on April 24 and 25–the biggest ANZAC Memorial in Malaysia. A few hundred people come for the memorials every year. Ever since my appointment as Honorary Consul in 2004, I have maintained this yearly tradition in Kota Kinabalu to symbolise the friendship between Sabah and Australia. I want to create awareness among the people of Sabah about the contribution of the Australians there.

In addition to the ANZAC Day memorials, the Sandakan Memorial Day on August 15 each year also commemorates Australian soldiers who served and died in Sabah. The current servicemen from the Australian military also participate in the yearly memorials. The current Governor General of Australia Sir Peter Cosgrove attended the memorial services in Sandakan in August 2015 and the former Governor General of Australia, Quentin Bryce, visited Sandakan in 2010. There is now a direct flight twice a week connecting Kota Kinabalu and Perth, and many Sabahans are Australian graduates. We have a special relationship which I hope more people will come to share.