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The forgotten All Saints Chapel of Sandakan POW Camp

The ruins of huts in the prisoner of war camp, Sandakan, North Borneo, October 1945. Those who were too ill for the march were eventually murdered here. Credits: Public Domain (Copyright expired) Courtesy Australian War Memorial: 120457

Do you know there was an Anglican chapel at Sandakan prisoners of war (POW) Camp? The priest, Padre Albert Thompson who founded the church called it ‘All Saints’.

The Sandakan POW camp was infamously known as the starting point of the notorious Sandakan Death Marches.

The last prisoners of the camp was John Skinner who was beheaded on Aug 15, 1945, five hours before the Japanese Emperor announced his country’s unconditional surrender.

Life on the camp was beyond horrible, especially towards the end of the war. The prisoners were subjected to shock and water torture.

Those who committed ‘crimes’ such as stealing food from the camp kitchen were imprisoned in a small cage similar to a dog cage.

They were placed there up to 30 days with little food.

In the midst of the torture and suffering, a number of the prisoners found hope and faith through the camp’s All Saints Chapel.

The description of All Saints Chapel

Shand’s tribute to Padre Thompson.

The description of the chapel can be found in a letter written by Lieutenant Sergeant H.W. Shand to Gladys Minnie Thompson. She was the wife of Chaplain Thompson.

“Space was at a premium, and all quarters overcrowded in the extreme, so with a few willing helpers, he got to work and dug out an area under one of the huts, which he made into a rather beautiful little chapel.

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“The furnishings, ornaments, etc., were made from odd bits of materials scrounged by working parties, and then carved by various fellows in the camp. The cross and altar of wood were very nicely made. Altar hangings consisted of some cloth he had saved and intended one day to have made into a cassock.”

According to Shand, Thompson called the chapel ‘All Saints’ and calling the Sandakan POW Camp his parish.

The servers of All Saints Chapel

Shand wrote, “Although by no means an ardent churchman myself, and of no practical assistance to him, I am proud to say that I became a friend of his. Apart from ordinary church parades and services for regular churchgoers, he began his work by conducting hymn singing sessions, with a short service each Sunday night. Even song usually followed these.”

As for the layman servers of the chapel, Shand stated “Church wardens and a vestry council were appointed, and one man on light duties acted as verger and cared for the chapel. A Church of England Men’s Society was formed, and many new members were regularly admitted.”

As time went by, All Saints Chapel came to be packed for all services, both on Sundays and midweek evening.

This was despite the fact that most of the men had been out all day doing manual labour building Sandakan airstrip.

Padre Thompson’s sacrifice for his parishioners

Writing to Mrs Thompson about her husband’s life at the camp, Shand stated, “You will understand that many of these things were done in the face of opposition by the Japanese at times, and under difficult and disheartening circumstances. His normal and important work of cheering the sick, etc., went on all the time.”

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Even though there were times Thompson was not required to do manual work, he would go out with the rest in order to give someone badly needed rest.

While Shand was one of the 150 POWs chosen to Batu Lintang Camp, Kuching in October 1943, Thompson was left behind in Sandakan with the rest which included almost 2,000 prisoners.

Flying over the prisoner of war camp (POW) in Batu Lintang at a low height, RAAF Beaufighter pilots reported sighting white POWs, clad in khaki shorts, who excitedly waved as the RAAF aircraft flew over to drop leaflets announcing Japan’s surrender. Credits: Public Domain (Copyright expired). https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C242106

The life of Padre Albert Thompson

The Reverend Albert Henry Thompson was serving in the Australian Army Chaplains Department during World War II (WWII).

He was taken prisoner at Singapore in February 1942. At first, he was sent to Changi Prison as a POW. Then in July that year, he was sent to Sandakan in British North Borneo (Sabah) .

The chaplain was on the second phase of the marches to Ranau, a distance of approximately 260km away through mountainous terrains.

The Japanese decided to move the prisoners as they were anticipating Allied forces landing.

Historian Lynette Silver wrote that his POW column was about two kilometers east of a place called Tampias where Thompson struggling with walking due to a large suppurating ulcer on a foot.

Then, two Japanese officers removed him from the line and ordered him not to go further.

To this day, we might never know whether the Japanese killed him or he was left to die due to his condition.

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Record stated that Thompson died on June 19, 1945 at the age of 42.

In his letter which was published on Advocate on Mar 27, 1946, Shand also paid tribute to the late priest.

“Of one thing I am sure – Albert Thompson died as he lived, steadfast in his faith and his church, and setting an example in fellowship and self-sacrifice to those about him.”

As for Thompson’s little chapel the All Saints, it was burned to the ground along with the rest of the camp sometime in May 1945.

Kundasang War Memorial which was dedicated to those who died during Sandakan Death Marches including Padre Thompson.
Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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