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Historic British Salute
Published on: Sunday, September 04, 2011

AT last, Britain injected a fresh wind into the 1945 Death March saga.

Their Sabah Salute Project last week reversed all assumptions that Britain had all but forgotten their 641 dead.

Top brass presence, such as Major General Wilson, Brigadier and Major ranked Officers, a British High Commissioner, plus a crowd of elites, did a lot to validate the 641 who gave everything to their country, or the cause of freedom at large, dying in what was really a no man's land, at a poignant Memorial Dedication in the English Garden, Kundasang War Memorial on Aug 27 - a climax to a big 12-day 250km cycling-walk by 14 Royal Artillery Regiment over the infamous passage of death.

It "smelled" like fresh bread because over the years of reporting on the Death March since the late 1980's, everything revolved around only the Aussies - their unbelievable large number of 1,787 dead and six daring escapees who were considered heroes!

Even famed Aussie historian, Lynette Silver, considered the Sabah Salute historic.

Hence, this special report is written to document this historic project and the background sequence of events that led to it.

Well, every behaviour, good or otherwise, is the product of a thought or belief.

The Sabah Salute started with a British Major's shock discovery.

That man is Major John Tulloch, a Brunei-based jungle warfare instructor who confessed his ignorance of history, until he first visited Sabah in 1999, with his family.

"We went to Sandakan Memorial Park, I didn't know the history, I was absolutely horrified, " Major John Tulloch recalled his shock, which ignited a scramble to educate himself on the dark secrets perpetrated in this far-away land that had been kept from public awareness.

"I started buying books such as Sandakan - A Conspiracy of Silence ' by Lynette Silver, and various other books by Don Wall, Jack Wong Sue etc."

"Then I started looking at the 641 British names who died, I suddenly sort of gone cold because over 400 of the 641 came from my Regiment (Royal Artillery Regiment)," he recalled that chilling sensation that overwhelmed him.

"That was when I suddenly decided that we got to do something, from the British point of view," Major Tulloch traced the background.

Next, Tulloch contacted Datuk Mike Steel, a jovial British businessman long rooted in Sabah, who directed him to Datuk Irene Charuruks and Tengku Datuk Dr Zainal Adlin, General Manager and Chairman of Sabah Tourism Board respectively. A memorial and a big 250km march "Both asked: What do you want to do? I said: Do a memorial at Kundasang War Memorial in honour of the 400 and ideally a march the same year," Tulloch recalled.

"Both (Tengku and Irene) were fantastic about it," he said.

"Meanwhile, Catherin Chua (personal assistant to the President of Sandakan Municipal Council) came to the UK. We hosted her at the Royal Artillery Center, showed her the Sandakan Memorial at our local garrison church," Tulloch said.

That settled the Sandakan support.

Next, Tulloch knew official endorsement from the brigadier - head of the Royal Artillery, was needed to proceed with Sabah Salute.

"I saw him early last year, a five-minute meeting went into 45 minutes," Tulloch cited the positive mood.

"He asked me the same question: What do you want to do?"

"I said, a memorial, which is the vital and most important and, the second thing, have a group of soldiers walk from Sandakan to Cleary Memorial (Ranau POW Camp) and he (Brigadier) said: Yes!"

Cleary Memorial isn't the last stop, Tulloch found out.

The Death March ended in the Last Camp, Kampung Kenirpir, five miles south of Ranau, into which the 14 Royal Regiment walked into on 25 August, 2011 each carrying a 10-kg sack of rice - something like a reenactment of POWs being made forced rice carrying labor from Ranau to Pagginatan.

Tulloch realised the two-part Sabah Salute was a big undertaking.

He knew he needed an effective helper to organise the big march.

As Sabah Salute's overall co-ordinator, he felt best to concentrate on the memorial dedication ceremony.

But who would to the march?

It fell on an iron lady who flew helicopters during the Gulf War!

"Funny enough, Major Claire Curry and I work 100m from each other and every now and then, we walked our dogs," he said.

"When I started talking to her about the Sabah Salute on one of those dog-walking days, she said : I think I am rather interested in that," recalled Major Tulloch who got her in touch with Tham Yau Kong whom he described as "experienced". Tulloch already knew Tham from late 2009, when Tham took him to Kundasang War Memorial and the Last Camp Site at Kg Kenipir, for inspection during Chinese New Year, through Sabah Tourism Board.

Major General on 'unsung hero' and 'incomparable world class service'.

Recalling that initial Tulloch visit, Tham said:" Major Tulloch mentioned the Sabah Salute, told me he wanted to get the British Army to walk the Sandakan-Ranau Death March track.

It meant to happen in August 2010.

The funds didn't come, apparently, until Major Claire entered the picture in late 2010 and rallied all to raise 38,000 British pounds (about RM190,000).

Major General Wilson apparently approved added funds on top of that.

At the farewell dinner hosted by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Environment attended by its Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun, on August 27, Major General commended Major Claire as "the unsung hero."

Leaving no stones unturned, Major General Wilson also paid tributes to others, citing the Masidi's Ministry, the Malaysia Defence Ministry, Tengku Datuk Adlin, Datuk Irene Charuruks, Major John Tulloch and Tham Yau Kong who got a standing ovation from the14 Royal Artillery Regiment soldiers.

Wilson said Tham's team provided "incomparable world class service and very good care like no other."

Apparently, Major General Wilson debriefed every one of the 14 soldiers (Major Claire Curry, Captain Charles May, WOR Jonathan James, Captain David Appleby, Lt Harry Hyslop, Sgt Neil Cogram, Bdr Michael Fitzgibbon, Cpl John Moffat, Bdr Andrew McKinlay, Bdr Sarah Sanderson, Gnr Aidan Gill, Gnr Michael Taylor, Wor HSR Dempsey, Cpl Jurica Vorster) to tab first hand information from its source what they thought and how they felt about their experience with the march, Sabah and the people.

After Major Claire was drafted to organise the march, Tham said they exchanged frequent e-mails beginning September 2010.

They discussed a lot about the Death March track.

Concerned about risks, Major Claire suggested she might need a helicopter on standby just in case, at one point.

Tham said he assured her of a strong backup service, citing experience with Australian Defence Minister, Foreign Minister and numerous groups. Anyway, seeing was believing.

After the 12-day gruelling 250km trek, Major Claire said:" Tham and the TYK boys (Basil Lung Daou Vun, Maik Miki, Sadib Miki, Duin Limunduk, Peter Simpat, Kesius Shiben, Duhina Limunduk, Joseph Koh and Rosli) were brilliant to us. Anything we needed, they supported us.

Every time some body needed a glass of water, there's a bottle ready to go.

One of his brilliant workers drives a Toyota four-wheel drive and he's there any time we needed something. We couldn't ask for a better support group which had made my life so much easier," said Major Claire who confided with Daily Express she felt the responsibility and challenge not just for herself alone, but of making sure of both the safety and motivation of 13 soldiers under her were protected.

She was glad all 13 turned out "brilliant."

"They all got quite deep, some of them found cycling quite hard work and very emotional.

I had one person who had heat exhaustion and quite unwell for a couple of days but all did it," she said.

Looking back, Major Claire said:" I feel really honoured to have brought all these people (a select 12 out of a short list of 40) here.

Today (Aug 27) culminates with a memorial that will be there forever and so it's worth it."

"Its been a life time trip," she added.

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