In 1945, Borneo was freed from the Japanese forces by Australian forces. The commander of the 9th Division, Australian Imperial Force, received the unconditional surrender of the 32nd Japanese Southern Army in North Borneo and Sarawak on a spot in Labuan which is now marked by a plaque. The recapture of Borneo virtually completed the tactical control of the South Pacific.
After the fall of Singapore, several thousand British and Australian prisoners of war were sent to camps in Borneo, mainly in the Sandakan area on the eastern coast of North Borneo, where they were employed on aerodrome construction. The Australians belonged to the 8th Australian Division ('B' force, numbering 1,494 and 'E' force, 500). In October 1943, most of the officers were separated from their men and sent to Kuching. Thereafter, conditions at Sandakan greatly worsened. The men were starved, beaten and overworked by their captors.
Death March to Ranau
In February 1945, the Japanese forces, anticipating Allied landings in North Borneo, decided to move the prisoners of war to Ranau, more than 257 km inland from Sandakan. Although many had already been transferred to other centres, more than 2,000 British and Australian servicemen remained to take part in the 'Death March to Ranau'. Those who fell, sick or exhausted, on the journey were killed; the survivors who reached Ranau were made to perform superhuman work on starvation rations. Only six survived Sandakan and the death marches. Two escaped on the second death march in June 1945 and four others escaped in July at Ranau.
Establishment of Labuan War Cemetery
When the Australian Army Graves Service entered Borneo, they followed the route from Sandakan to Ranau and found many unidentifiable victims of these infamous marches. These and other casualties from battlefield burial grounds and scattered graves throughout Borneo were taken in the first instance to Sandakan, where a large number of prisoners of war were already buried. This area, however, was subject to severe flooding and proved impracticable to construct and maintain a permanent cemetery. The Sandakan graves, numbering 2,700, of which more than half were unnamed, were transferred to Labuan War Cemetery, specially constructed to receive graves from all over Borneo.
About the cemetery
Labuan War Cemetery is about 3.2 km from Victoria, on high ground overlooking the harbour. It is the only war cemetery in North Borneo and contains, as well as the graves from Sandakan, about 500 from Kuching where there was another large prisoner of war camp. The total number of burials is 3,908. The large number of unidentified graves is due to the destruction of all the records of the camps by Lieutenant Colonel Suga, the Japanese commandant, before the Australians reached Kuching, his headquarters. When apprehended, Suga committed suicide rather than face questioning on his conduct of the Borneo camps.
In this cemetery, forming a forecourt immediately inside the main entrance gate, stands the Labuan Memorial, commemorating 2,225 officers and men of the Australian Army, the Royal Australian Air Force and the local forces of North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei. These men died while prisoners of war in Borneo and the Philippines from 1942 to 1945, and during the operations for the recovery of Borneo, and have no known graves. Beyond the forecourt, in an open grassed space in the centre of the cemetery, stands the Cross of Sacrifice. The graves are in level mown turf, each marked by a bronze plaque on a sloping concrete stool. Throughout the cemetery grow flowering trees and shrubs, adding colour and beauty to the peaceful scene.
To the extreme right of the main entrance, by the Club Road entrance and the rest room, is the Indian Section, in front of which is a memorial to the men of the Indian Army, mostly men of the 2/15th Punjab Regiment, who died while prisoners of war and were buried at Sandakan. They have since been accorded the last rites required by their religion – committal to fire.