From the Archbishop

Memorial service offered 'hope of healing'

By Philip Freier

November 13 2019 

Only a few weeks ago I was present in a very moving place, Kundasang, in North Borneo. This is the place where the 2428 prisoners who died on the Sandakan death marches (only six survived) in World War II are remembered. Of this group 1787 were Australian soldiers. These men became prisoners of the Japanese Army when Singapore fell to the advancing Japanese forces. Shipped across to North Borneo during 1942 and 1943, they were used as forced labour to build a prisoner of war camp and airstrip at Sandakan.

In conditions similarly horrific to those on the Burma Railway, the men were forced to work at gunpoint and subjected to cruel physical abuse, beatings and starvation. The situation deteriorated even further when the officer prisoners were removed from the main body of the men at Sandakan and relocated to Jesselton (modern day Kota Kinabalu). With the allied officers out of the way, food was reduced even more and the weak and sick forced to work on the Sandakan airstrip.

With the momentum of the war turning against the Japanese in early 1945, the camp commandant decided to march the prisoners to the inland town of Ranau, 260 kilometres west and inland from Sandakan. This was to prevent them linking up with a feared Allied invasion force. The three death marches saw the weak and sick shot or left to die and, by the time of the third march, all the final group of 75 men were dead before they had travelled 50 kilometres. Of the 2434 soldiers at Sandakan there were only six survivors who managed to escape and find protection amongst the local people.

The Kundasang memorial lists the names of the men who died and details including their age and the place they had enlisted from. It is a very weighty experience to stand in that place and contemplate the horror of their experience, the cruelty of their captors and what a contrast their time and experience is to the tranquility and peace of the place so many years later.

In the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby we gathered for a memorial service. We were from the nations of East Asia and Australia. Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Malaysians, people from Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Australia and Hong Kong all reconciled with each other in Christ despite the complex and traumatic histories our nations shared.

This was the great gift of that time in Kundasang, the hope of healing in a fractured world. Unsurprisingly, we found common hope in our shared Christian faith and longed together for our Anglican Communion to be such a sign of reconciled unity for our world, today. It is important not to diminish the particular circumstances and ideologies that made Japan in the Meiji era transition from being an isolated feudal state to a hegemonic world power. It is important to learn from that experience and to recognise the risks of the concentration of religious ideology and state power in such a way that no alternative voices could be heard. In the words of Bill Young, a survivor of Sandakan, “Yesterday is not dead and gone, it’s just resting.” Lest we forget.

See videos of reflections on the memorial service by Archbishop Freier and Archbishop Welby at