In January 1942 Labuan, a Malaysian island off the coast of Brunei, was invaded by the Japanese. This lead to a campaign to capture Borneo, and the sole Allied Force surrendered in May of the same year. Devastating bombing of the Japanese position in Borneo was carried out over the next 4 years, and the island was finally recaptured by the Allies in June of 1945. In the months prior to this however, the Japanese decided to move thousands of prisoners of war from Sandakan (in Sabah) to Ranau, more than 160 miles inland, in anticipation of the Allied attacks. These became known as the 'Death Marches', and of the 2000 British and Australian servicemen who left Sandakan, only 6 survived. These 6 men owe their survival to local families who took them when they escaped from the marches.
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 from scattered graves throughout Borneo were taken in the first instance to Sandakan, where a large number of prisoners of war were already buried. This flat coastal area, however, was subject to severe flooding and it proved impracticable to construct and maintain a permanent cemetery. The Sandakan graves, numbering 2,700, of which more than half were unnamed, were therefore transferred to Labuan War Cemetery, specially constructed to receive graves from all over Borneo. (Taken from the Australian Dept of Veterans' Affairs website).
Every year a multi-faith ceremony is held at Labuan, and we were privileged to attend this year, along with several other members of the British Loan Service Team from Brunei. It was an incredibly moving service, particularly so when we walked around the cemetery and saw just how many of the 3908 graves are unnamed.
Wreaths were laid by representatives from many organisations, including the Loan Service in Brunei.
The Malaysian Armed Forces did an amazing job on parade in such gruelling temperatures, maintaining the dignity and solemnity of the occasion. It was a humbling and emotional occasion.