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Looking back: North Borneo war scars
Published on: Saturday, November 08, 2014

I FEEL it appropriate to give some background information on the Japanese invasion of British North Borneo on Jan 1, 1942 for our younger generation, a knowledge on some of the facts of history.

When World War II broke out in 1939, we, in North Borneo, felt that since we were far away, the war in Europe would never reach us. We were, however, asked to achieve self-sufficiency in food production in case of need, for example in the event of a German blockade.

After Pearl Harbour was attacked by 150 Japanese bombers on Dec 7, 1941, we were worried that it was only a matter of time before the Japanese would come to our part of the world. So the government of North Borneo prepared to supplement their defence by using volunteers.

There was no army, only a police force, and it was clear that the police, together with such a small volunteer force would be of negligible effectiveness in defending North Borneo. Just the same, the best possible preparations were made.

When the War Council in Singapore informed the British Government that they could not give any help, the North Borneo Government thought that it would serve no useful purpose to put up any resistance. So on Jan 1, 1942, the Japanese landed on Labuan Island, and continued with their invasion not at Jesselton but at the small port of Weston where no resistance was offered.

The Commandant of the North Borneo Constabulary and the Resident of the West Coast met the Japanese at Beaufort and they were later brought to Brunei under escort to meet the Japanese Commanding Officer there. They were asked to sign a surrender document, and the Japanese took over the military administration of the country for the next three and half years.

Before the Japanese landed in Labuan, the government destroyed all the fuel supplies on the island as part of the war effort to prevent the Japanese having access to the vast fuel stores.

The flames of burning fuel were visible miles away. I was then serving in the Padas Damit area as a Rubber Inspector in the Rubber Restriction Department. Before the Japanese landed in Weston, I left for Tenom and remained there until the end of the war. All foreigners were interned at Kuching, even the nuns and priests, the only exemption being German nationals.

In the camp at Kuching, the prisoners of war grew their own food to supplement the very short rations supplied by the Japanese.

In the early part of 1945, the Australians landed in Labuan as a spearhead and used the island as their headquarters. The Japanese had evacuated the island because of the heavy Allied bombardment. They had earlier transferred their military headquarters from Kuching to Sapong Estate, one of the largest European estates in the interior.

The Australian 9th Infantry Division went up from Beaufort along the railway line to Tenom. The Japanese resisted all along the railway line but surrendered after the bombing of Hiroshima.

The 9th Infantry took the surrender at Labuan island since separate surrenders in different theatres of war were formalised after the general surrender of Japan had been enacted on board a USS Aircraft carrier.

North Borneo was under the Japanese administration for about three and a half years during which period the people suffered a great deal of hardship and privation without medical facilities and with severe food shortages. However, although the people had to work very hard and life was difficult, there was no starvation because we were lucky to be able to grow enough of our food to subsist.

There was one significant uprising towards the early part of October 1943, headed by a Chinese physician, Albert Kok, who was part of a local guerilla movement. He organised an attack on the police station at Jesselton and having seized guns and ammunition, killed some Japanese and burnt rubber stocks that had been stored in warehouses in Jesselton by the Japanese.

Kok’s men had been expecting assistance as promised by a Colonel Suarez who was then commanding the 125th Infantry Regiment in the 10th military district of the US force in the Philippines and planned the uprising, offering to help Kok.

The date of the uprising had been fixed for “double 10” – Oct 10, 1943 – but no assistance eventuated from the Philippines. Those suspected of involvement were executed and buried in a mass grave. A memorial has been erected in their honour at Petagas about five miles from the State capital (now Kota Kinabalu).

I learnt from a reliable source that Kok made several contacts with an Intelligence Officer, who was sent by Lt. Colonel Suarez to Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu) to plan the uprising against the Japanese. Just before the “double 10”, I was visiting Jesselton to obtain some medical supplies. While there I met a Chinese friend who persuaded me to stay longer but I had to return on Oct 8.

On Oct 10, all train services were suspended as a result of the uprising. I realised that my friend had in fact, known of the plans for “double 10”.

Had I been informed of the impending guerilla plans, I would probably have stayed on. As it turned out I knew nothing and fate willed it that I was not involved in these resistance activities.

There were many incidents that occurred as part of the local resistance to the Japanese. The Australian Force had infiltrated into North Borneo at Sipitang. They sent two local policemen to contact Kemabong Station.

These police contacted a former Chief Inspector, Dualis and told him to cause as much disruption as possible to the Japanese administration in Kemabong which was about 20 miles from District Headquarters in Tenom.

Dualis organised a feast and invited many high-ranking Japanese officers to the longhouse and prepared food and strong tapioca wine.

Many Japanese became drunk and were killed. The Muruts destroyed everything including their own plantations so that the Japanese would have no food. All the kampong natives, including women and children, fled to Sipitang, a 10-day journey, through mountain ranges but all survived.

After the war, Chief Inspector Dualis was made a Paramount Chief.

In early 1944, the Allied bombed most of the airfields in North Borneo. 50-60 planes (B-29’s) would come over in formation and the airfield at Keningau was made inoperable.

The Japanese had used forced labour to build Keningau airfield and also the Sandakan airfield.

When Singapore surrendered, a few thousand Australians were brought by the Japanese to Jesselton and these Australians provided forced labour for the airfield construction at Jesselton. They suffered badly, being forced to work in the raging hot sun on very small rations.

Later on, these Australian prisoners were transferred to Sandakan where a POW camp was built at Mile 8, Labuk Road. In the latter part of the war they were moved overland on foot.

They were moved from Sandakan because General Macarthur’s forces were close (in the Philippines), the Japanese were afraid a rescue might be mounted. A memorial has been erected in Kundasang to remember those who died on this notorious “Death March”.

The terrible march was conducted over jungle tracks in mountainous terrain. The POW’s were already weakened by their long imprisonment and poor conditions. There were limited medical supplies and very little food. Only six men survived this death march out of the original 2,400.

I have a sad and frightening story to tell. Monsignor A. Wachter, who was the Head of the Prefecture Apostolic of North Borneo and a few other priests of German nationals were later interned by the Japanese and were brought to Tenom from Penampang after the fall of Germany in 1945.

Monsignor Wachter and the other priests, while being interned in Tenom, tried to contact us (my two brothers, Henry Edward, Jack Harry Maurice and myself) but they were refused permission by the Japanese to see us. We only learnt after the war, they were brought to Tenom from Penampang.

Had we known they were in Tenom, we would have done something to rescue them from the Japanese. It was indeed sad to hear that Monsignor Wachter and the other priests were believed shot and killed by the Japanese.

After the war, while I was serving in the District Office, Tenom, I tried my level best to locate the grave or graves of the late Monsignor Wachter and the other priests but to no avail.

The world has changed since those sad days and although we were so grateful to the Australian people for liberating us, today Malaysia has formed bonds of friendship with Japan who has helped us so much with our modernisation and industrialisation. Old enmities are now forgotten, a sad chapter in our history has passed.

We of the older generation remember the suffering and hardship. The American bombed all the shophouses and government buildings in the towns to drive the Japanese soldiers into the jungles.

All communication systems, railways, bridges, were totally destroyed. The country was devastated, the aim of the Allies being to destroy the Japanese by privation and disease. Because of the Allied blockade, nothing could be imported. Sanitation was primitive and malaria rampant.

The Allies claimed that they had no choice in their strategy to defeat the Japanese although the people also suffered such hardship in this destruction.

I would venture a suggestion to mark our gratitude to the Australian armed forces who eventually liberated us. It might be an appropriate gesture for the State Government of Sabah to invite Australian ex-servicemen to attend our annual celebration of independence.

We used to incorporate the symbol of the sailing boat of the Australian 9th Infantry Division in our coat of arms immediately after the war.

This has now been changed, but some gesture might seem warranted to recognise our debt of gratitude to those Australian men still alive who took part in our liberation so long ago.

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