Unearthed: a final message from Sandakan's doomed soldiers

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HERE, as the dirt was scraped away, lay the last, sad unspoken message from the soldiers who died on the Sandakan death marches: the brass buckles from their long-perished uniforms, the adjusters from their haversacks, neatly stacked together in the soil of Borneo.

Then there was the globular shape resting on top of the buckles, in pride of place. Lynette Silver rubbed away the dirt, spat on it and rubbed again. Now she could see an outline map of Australia and, now, a crown on top, and then the words "Australian Military Forces". It was a brass tunic button from an Australian uniform.

"The button was most likely a treasured possession," Ms Silver, the historian, said last week, "with the map of Australia a reminder of home. Its placement, on top of the buckles, appears to be an attempt to identify the nationality of those imprisoned there."

By the time the button and other relics were buried 63 years ago, the burial party would have harboured no hopes of survival, or rescue, or of anyone in the outside world knowing where they were. They knew that people who came to this remote place were doomed to die. This place was the last camp.

So the dying soldiers buried these artefacts, the only non-perishable things they owned, in the hope that someone, one day, would know that Australians had been there, eight kilometres south of Ranau.

A few months earlier in 1945, the Japanese high command had ordered that no prisoners survive the war. With Allied forces nearing Sandakan, the Japanese ordered prisoners to march 265 kilometres to Ranau. Of 2434 Australian and British prisoners in Sandakan, only six survived - 1787 Australians and 641 British perished in the camp, along the track or at Ranau. The last were executed on August 27, 12 days after World War II ended.

Now the owner of the land on which the relics were discovered, with the help of Ms Silver, the foremost authority on the Sandakan tragedy, is planning to preserve the site. He will build a community facility with the artefacts in special pavilions.

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