A VETERAN'S REMINISCENCE
(Bryan Paul Lai -Malaysian representative)
My father. Peter Raymond Lai, the third son of Augustine Lai Man and Magdalena Yap, was born on July 1st 1925 in Papar, (North Borneo) Sabah.
After the death of his mother, my father and his siblings were brought to Sandakan by his uncle, Lai Pang, and sent to St. Mary's school in Sandakan.
After finishing his education, my father worked as a Dresser at the Sandakan Civil Hospital.
At a tender age of seventeen, he met his soulmate of Spanish-Filipino descendent, Gabriela Remedia Vllalobos. Soon after they were married, the young couple had to face the ugly reality of World War 2, which broke out in many parts of the world.
Dr J.R Taylor, my father's immediate superior, caught wind of the Japanese inpending invasion in South East Asia. He began to access the tribulations of undue human misery and hardship that the local population might have to face.
His intuition became a reality, particularly with the influx of thousands of Allied Forces brought in by the Japanese. Without wavering, he secretly organised a group of trusted friends and began to supply medical needs, food and other necessities. They were called "The Underground".
Dr J.R Taylor had high regards and trust of my father, and had no second thoughts of recruiting him in his humanitarian assistance. My father with a group of his trusted friends, began to organise and discreetly carried out the tasks which Or J.R Taylor had instructed. Together with Dr J.R Taylor, the small band of underground began providing extra food, medicine as well as providing the prisoners of war medical assistance and important news of the day.
The Japanese Kempitai kept a firm grip on the movement of the population, and had recruited some locals for their network of spies. The Underground was operating at great risk, not only to themselves but also to their families and their immediate neighbours. Bearing this in mind, the group were very discreet, even wives were not told of their activities.
My father's secret, however, was not kept long from my mother, when four escaped allied prisoners of war were brought in by my father to their home. My mother was in a state of panic and could not utter a word. She knew the terrible consequences had the Japanese got wind of my father's secret action. Calmly she took hold of her composure and began to give all the help she could. The four escaped prisoners left the house in the wee hours of the morning after having their food and clean clothes, much to the relief of Gabriela. From that day onwards, Gabriela was constantly apprehensive and always expected the worst.
Their clandestine operation did not last for very long. After several months, their plight ended with the betrayal of someone from within their most trusted circle. Someone had given them away. This exposure enabled the Japanese to break the underground. Slowly, one by one were picked up and tortured. My father's arrest, together with the good Dr. J. R Taylor, at their workplace, was ironically made known to my mother, through a Japanese friend, Mr Smuda.
The Europeans and some personnels were sent to Berhala Island, Sandakan, while my father and the locals were held at Mile 2, Jalan Leila.
Meanwhile, my mother and the other wives of the detainees were assigned to a Japanese temporary hospital (present site of Nak Hotel) to assist in helping wounded Japanese soldiers as temporary nurses. It was later bombed by the Allied Forces. Fortunately, my mother, along with several other nurses, managed to make their escape on time. After which, they were then assigned to make camouflage nets to help the Japanese conceal their fighter planes.
Several hundred miles away, my father was sent to Kuching and sentenced to twelve years in prison for his role in the underground. Some of his friends were sentenced to death, others of lesser charges were sentenced from six months to fifteen years imprisoment. To stay alive, my father had on occasion subjected himself to consume rodents and insects.
Apart from the small confinement space, the prisoners had to endure the burning heat of the sun, labouring for the Japanese in the construction of the runway for their airforce at Sibulau. Those who were weak buckled under the hot sun and died. However, the Japanese could not use the airport as it was constantly bombed by the Allied Forces. The prisoners were then assigned to granulate salt in Santubong, Sarawak.
The prisoners' daily routine and conditions became excruciating, and many succumbed to sickness and died. My father, who was only nineteen years of age, had his youthful advantage and managed to keep up his spirit. With a medical background, he treated many of his comrades.
By the end of 1945, he noticed a sudden change of Japanese attitude and wondered what had transpired. To their surprise and relief, a column of Australian soldiers entered the prison's compound and broke the news that the Japanese had surrendered...
My father and the rest of the prisoners of war were brought to Labuan by the Australian military. After a through medical examination and rest, they were sent back to Sandakan by a military Sunderland seaplane. The military gave them proper military uniform and armed them with rifles. This was to protect them from remnants of Japanese foot soldiers who might still be unaware of their predicament. He was later reappointed to his old job and served at one of the local clinic at Mile 8 Sandakan.
On January 21st 1947, my father. Peter Raymond Lai, was awarded the King George VI Medal by the Australian and British Commonwealth of Nation. The Governor of North Borneo presented the award on their behalf.
I would now like to take a few seconds to reflect on those who gave their lives for their country, among them were my father's friends and fellow underground; Alex Azcona, Ernesto Lagan, the Funk brothers, Lamberto Apostol, to name just a few from so many that suffered from the Japanese occupation. May their sacrifices always be remembered and honoured. Lest We All Forget.
God speed Thank you.
BRYAN PAUL LAI
(Bryan, the son of Feter Raymond Lai, was also detained by the Japanese for a couple of hours, when he was just a couple of months old.)