By STEVE MEACHAM / THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
SYDNEY: These three schoolgirls from remote villages in the tree-covered mountains of Sabah (described as wildest Borneo) already know how they want to spend their lives.
In July, Genevia Binti Handry, 17, will begin university in Kuala Lumpur, studying pharmacy.
Suzie Binti Aitor, 18, wants to be a nurse. Meanwhile, Agnes Jackson, 18, hopes to be a teacher.
All three are in Sydney, boarding for three weeks at Barker College, one of Australia’s most historic private schools.
The trio’s presence in Sydney is a bright, shining, living memorial to the Australian Prisoners of War who died in one of the most infamous crimes of World War II: the Sandakan Death Marches.
In 1942/3, 2500 Australian and British POWs captured in the “Fall of Singapore” were transferred by the Japanese to what is now Sabah, Malaysia.
Under gunpoint and starvation rations, they built a new airstrip at Sandakan.
But in January 1945, the Allies bombed the airstrip and the Japanese began moving the POWs on a series of forced marches to a jungle death camp at Ranau.
None of the 1400 Australians and British POWs left in the Sandakan camp survived. And 1047 POWs died on the death, marches.
Just six escapees survived to tell the truth. All were Australians – all were hidden by local Dusun Christian communities.
“The Dusun villagers hid the Australians for up to five weeks,” said historian Lynette Silver, author of Sandakan: A Conspiracy of Silence. “They never gave the POWs away despite the fact the Japanese were offering money and food to starving villagers if they handed over the POWs.
“The risks were enormous. Had the POWs been discovered, the Japanese would have killed everyone in the village.”
This week the girls changed out of their Barker College uniforms and donned native costume for a photograph honouring four Barker “Old Boys” who died in the atrocity. Each girl recited details of an “Old Boy”.
“Corporal James Lillyman was 34 when he enlisted in 1940,” Agnes said. “He was too ill to be sent on the death march and died, at 37, of starvation and malaria on June 17.”
Gunner Isaac Sefton ran a grazing property at Boggabri in north-west NSW,” Suzie continued, adding that in 1940, at 38, he not only got married but enlisted in the artillery.
“In 1945, the Japanese decided to march 455 of the ‘fittest’ POWs to Ranau to make use of their labour,” Suzie said. “Isaac died at Ranau on April 4, 1945, from beriberi and starvation.”
Genevia described Lance-Bombardier Charlie Starky as “a brilliant athlete” whose spring records set in the 1925 Barker College athletics carnival “weren’t broken for another 20 years”, she said. Starky died at Sandakan in January 1945 of starvation and malaria.
All three Barker Old Boys are commemorated in a plaque under the beautiful stained-glass windows at Sandakan’s St Michael’s Church which honour those POWs who died in Borneo. St Michael’s is where the POWs spent their first night on Borneo.
But a fourth Barker Old Boy has only recently been identified as a victim of Sandakan. Staff Sergeant Alan Waters lived most of his life in Darling Point with his wife and children.
Yet on June 25, 1940 – two weeks before his 40th birthday which would have made him ineligible for active military service – Waters quit his job as an executive and became the oldest of all the Barker Old Boys to volunteer. He died in Sandakan on June 9.
The four Old Boys were symbolised in the photo by current members of Barker College Cadets Campbell Jones, James Meek, Vanessa Chen and Lauren Bright.
Barker College will become fully co-ed by 2022, which is why the school has been able to embrace this relationship with the girls of Borneo – via the Sandakan Memorial Scholarship Trust.
The trust, established by Silver and her husband, Neil, sponsors bright girls from the families of subsistence farmers in remote villages to attend high school at St Michael’s in Sandakan.
Normally Dusun girls finish school at 12 because their families are too poor to continue their schooling. Most are married by the time they are 18.
“So far, 37 girls sponsored by the trust have completed their studies,” Silver said. “Eight of those have gone on to tertiary education. This is an amazing result for girls who would otherwise have had no future outside their village.”
Barker decided to host the three girls in honour of the three men whose association with Sandakan they knew about. Waters’s role was discovered after the girls had been chosen.
“Ninety-two of our Old Boys have died in war,” said Tony Gamson, president of the OBA (the initials now stand for “Old Barker Association”) which paid for the girls’ airfares.
“We are proud of all of them, and honour those who didn’t come back each Anzac Day when each of their names are read out.
“But hosting these girls is an opportunity to give back something to those people who put themselves in great danger protecting Australian POWs.”
As for the girls, what do they hope to gain from their visit to Barker?
Agnes answered for all.
“I hope this program will help me be a good person and give me more knowledge and experience. So I can share that with my family and friends, and encourage them to continue their studies – and not lose hope.” – The Sydney Morning Herald