Death March Borneo, Malaysia 

Is visiting war memorials a family travel thing? Absolutely. Visiting the holocaust museum may not be the right thing for young kids but teaching your children the history that shaped your country is absolutely a family activity. Now… How to get the kids involved and engaged?  I have always found history easy to gain one son’s attention when it’s presented in the fashion of Horrible Histories.

In 1945 over 2,345 Allied prisoners of war were forced on a series of marches from Sandakan to Ranau. It’s a 3 hour drive and according to google maps a 4 day trek. Given the prisoners of war were ill and weak from malnourishment I would imagine a great deal slower and at times at a stand still.

Only 6 people survived the March. Their survival was only because they had the bravery to escape into the jungle.  It is the single worst autrocity suffered by Australian servicemen during Wortld War II. Having read stories of servicemen in Burma, Papua New Guinea and just about all of Southeast Asia during the war, I can’t possible imagine how you would even begin to rate one man’s suffering over another.

My grandfather fought in Papua New Guinea. Being one of four girl’s, he never discussed it with us. The most he ever referenced was when we’d ask him to come for a swim, he’d reply with ‘no thanks. I’ve seen what that stuff does to ships’. I can’t fathom loosing my mates, seeing some of the war crimes conducted right in front of you and going on with my life. I have the deepest of respect for all that they suffered for us to have the freedom we have today. It is because of my deep respect and admiration, we visited the Death March Route in Borneo. (I will one day see parts of Papua New Guinea where my own grandfather was, but for now, something a little more accessible.)


After years of fighting by 1942, the Japanese were well on their way to dominating the entirety of South East Asia. After taking Singapore, 2700 Allied servicemen were transferred to Sandakan where they were held captive for 3 years. For the first 12 months conditions were tolerable and the soldiers even had a radio and were in contact with a local resistance group. The Japanese transferred many and tightened security after the discovery of the radio. As the war dragged on conditions deteriorated and by January 1945 the Japanese began moving soldiers to Kota Kinabalu. With increased Allied air activity on the west coast the Prisoners of war were delayed in Ranau.

Some facts for kids

  1. The soldiers marching were fed a bowl of rice a day.
  2. The soldiers at Sandakan were instructed to build an airstrip with their hands!
  3. After three years in the camp most soldiers hadn’t cut their hair and many had lice living in their hair.
  4. Some had wounds so infected their bones were visible.
  5. 2434 prisoners incarcerated at Sandakan, 1787 were Australian. The remaining 641 were British.

Why tell our kids all this horrid information?  Despite the ugly truth it is also a story of the human spirit and determination. Sure, I had to relate the Death route march to Minecraft to gain someone’s attention, but he knows the story. He understands that the prisoners never gave up.

And in the face of appalling conditions, their heroism, their determination and their spirit are testimony to the strength of the human spirit. Does the next generation truely understand suffering and will they be inspired by these inspiration soldiers.  The six Australians who escaped were the sole survivors. Those six soldiers are an example of what it means to be an Aussie. The determination, the never-give-up attitude and their bravery are key characteristics of so many great Australians. We are tough and we are strong. In the face of adversity we show strength and courage. I am proud of my history and it is stories like these that are the foundation of my pride.

It’s hard not to be proud. If you’ve been to jungle area before, the thought of dissapearing in there with leopards and crocodiles in not at all appealing. To gather the energy after all they’d been through is proof that the human mind is capable of many things even after your body thinks you’re done.

Would I go back and do this again? I don’t think so. It has, however, inspired me to visit more places with stories of determination and heroism. This example of the ‘toughness and durability’ of Australians cements just how capable we are of enduring hardship no matter how great. It’s a humble lesson and one that reminds me to be grateful for all the places I’ve been to and seen. I am very fortunate indeed.


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