In East Malaysia, efforts started early to clean up World War II memorial sites in time for this year’s Anzac Day. The sites on Borneo, liberated from Japanese occupation by Australian troops towards the end of the war, have become increasingly important to annual commemorations.
For retired Australian Air Force Corp. Mick Smith, the sites are his passion. For the past two months, he’s taken the train from the state capital of Kota Kinabalu southwards to Beaufort, where he’s tended the memorial site dedicated to Pvt Leslie Starcevich.
Starcevich was awarded the Victoria Cross—the highest award among Commonwealth countries for valour in the face of the enemy—after Australian-led allied troops invaded what was then North Borneo in June 1945. Over the decades, however, the jungle has encroached on the memorial site.
‘It's not a very good display of saying we will remember them when we don’t look after their memorials,' Smith says. 'It’s a poor way of remembering our fallen blokes.’
Smith has been determined to finish the repairs at the Beaufort site by Anzac Day (April 25) while memorials at Ranau in the Borneo interior dedicated to those who died on the infamous death marches and on the nearby island of Labuan have also been earmarked for future work.
Australia’s history in North Borneo has made Sabah an important destination for annual Anzac Day commemorations—which mark the day in 1915 when Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the beaches of Gallipoli during World War I. Enormous losses were inflicted and the battle was quickly etched into the soul of both nations.
Anzac Day has since been broadened to remember those who lost their lives in all wars, and it has found substantial support among Sabahans who also endured and fought Japanese occupation. Hundreds of Australians make the pilgrimage each year, spawning a cottage industry of books, tours and souvenirs that has also raised more than a few eyebrows among those who fear a little too much commercialization is creeping into a solemn day.
Stella Moo-Tan, head curator for the antiquity and history section of the Sabah Museum, says more needs to be done to remember local heroes like Albert Kwok, who led the local resistance and the 10-10 attacks on the Japanese from Tuaran down to Kota Kinabalu.
The uprisings began on October 10, 1943 and Kwok and his men hid out in the hills. However, they were eventually caught. ‘People were rounded up and tortured and trenches were dug and then they were all executed,’ Moo-Tan says. ‘We in Sabah are reminded there was the war and there was great suffering by the allies and then we remember and then we are grateful for that.’
Starcevich passed away in 1989. However, thanks to the efforts of people like Smith and local Sabahans, the memories of allied troops who fought and died here haven’t been forgotten.