When the Second World War came to Borneo, Pelabiu Akai’s mother moved the family back to their village in Nalapak, Ranau.
Although the Japanese were known to be ruthless and brutal conquerors, they left the villagers to their own devices and Pelabiu had a largely uneventful life – until she came across gaunt-looking Allied POWs passing through her village.
“I helped my mother to sell food by the roadside. Every day, I saw the Japanese and ‘orang putih’ passing by on foot.
“I think [the Japanese] was losing the war by then,” recalled the 85-year-old Dusun native.
By January 1945, Allied forces had begun their campaign to liberate Borneo.
The Japanese army, realising that the war was lost, decided to force Allied prisoners of war on a series of marches from Sandakan to Ranau – a torturous 260km trek through inhospitable jungles. It would later become known as the Sandakan Death Marches.
“The ‘orang putih’ were so thin because they had nothing to eat. I took pity on them,” said Pelabiu.
“I was supposed to sell the cassava for my mother. But I just gave them away to the ‘orang putih’ without asking for money.
“There was once an ‘orang putih’ gave my mother a silver ring as a gesture of thanks.”
And that was the last time Pelabiu encountered the POWs.
A total of 2,345 men, mostly Australian and British troops, lost their lives as a result of the Sandakan Death Marches and only six Australian soldiers survived, all of whom had escaped.
Several years ago, Pelabiu, now a great grandmother, received a pleasant memento from the past – a photograph of her as a young girl relating her encounter with Sandakan Death March victims to an Allied officer after the war, presented by the Australian War Memorial Museum.
“I was really surprised. I’m so old now, with so many grandchildren and they brought it up again. I don’t even remember what I was doing in the photograph,” she said with a chuckle.