NOT STOPPING: WW2 researcher and memorial advocate Pialba's Malcolm Smith, 81, with a picture of a Borneo POW camp memorial he helped transform into a tourist attraction and site of remembrance.
NOT STOPPING: WW2 researcher and memorial advocate Pialba's Malcolm Smith, 81, with a picture of a Borneo POW camp memorial he helped transform into a tourist attraction and site of remembrance. Alistair Brightman

The story of Malcolm Smith: POW researcher and advocate

MALCOM Smith has stood on the same soil which soaked up the blood of Australian and British prisoners of war in Borneo 65 years ago.

As he stood on that fateful spot almost 15 years ago, the Pialba man looked at the dilapidated Ranau memorial and decided the men who paid for freedom with their lives deserved something better.

Since 2006, the now 81-year-old's journey has seen him trek through untamed jungles all the way to Canberra's doorstep.

He is on a mission to preserve the sacrifice of the more than 1000 Australian and British prisoners of war who died on the death march from Sandakan to Ranau, Malaysia during World War II.

Only six men, all Australian, survived the 260km trek through the North Borneo jungle.

Sandakan - Ranau Death March memorials Hervey Bay grandfather Malcolm Smith has spent the last 15 years building in Borneo
Sandakan to Ranau Death March memorial, which Hervey Bay grandfather Malcolm Smith has spent the last 15 years helping to build in Borneo. Malcolm Smith

"When I sat there and thought about what those poor bastards went through... it was a 99 per cent death rate... For what it represents, something had to be done,” Mr Smith said.

Returning from a holiday which included a historical tour of the area, he resolved to return with a mate from Darwin, where he was living at the time, to clean up the memorial.

However, no amount of tender loving care could restore the monument.

After a few dead ends with the local church and museum Mr Smith found himself applying for a grant through the Department Of Veterans' Affairs to build a more fitting memorial.

Working with the Sabah State Museum and almost $100,000 in separate grants from the Department of Veterans' Affairs across the years a roof, floor and flag display have been built around the memorial.

Next, a museum building was erected with a gallery and information about the camp next to the memorial.

Many of the memorial's features, including the men's names on honour rolls and the flags were paid for out of Mr Smith's own pocket.

"Everything I do is for the kids because the younger generation are the ones who are going to carry the torch,” Mr Smith said.

Sandakan - Ranau Death March memorials Hervey Bay grandfather Malcolm Smith has spent the last 15 years building in Borneo
Inside the Ranau No.1 POW Camp Museum and gallery with war relics retrieved from the jungle. Malcolm Smith

The father-of-four, grandfather of 11 and great-grandfather of three's story is intertwined with the Australian soldiers' stories, his extensive research uncovered.

Men like Albert Cleary, whose last resting place is signified by the memorial.

Mr Cleary was a gunner who tried to escape into the jungle with fellow Australian Wally Cleese.

The men were captured and Mr Cleary died after 11 days chained by the neck naked to a log.

He was starved, beaten and urinated on.

Mr Cleese was shot in the back during his second escape attempt.

Mr Smith heard many other heart-wrenching stories of survival and bravery of locals.

One which will always stay with him is the story of Domima Akoi, also known as The Ring Lady, who risked her life as a young girl to hide parcels of food for the prisoners as they walked by her home.

"The soldiers left their wedding rings for her in return as a thank you,” Mr Smith explained.

Malcolm Smith - WW2 researcher from Pialba.
Malcolm Smith - WW2 researcher from Pialba. Alistair Brightman

"Her family would have been punished and even killed if the Japanese had found out.

"She sold five of the rings to keep her family alive during the war and kept one for herself.”

The memorial's legacy has attracted various dignitaries from around the world including current Australian prime minister Scott Morrison in 2011, as well as the soldiers' surviving families.

Maryborough solider Rex Edward Cosgrove-Hodges is remembered in the memorial as well.

Mr Smith came to Hervey Bay with his wife Lyn three years ago for the medical facilities as they were both battling cancer.

But he isn't stopping any time soon.

Mr Smith will return to Borneo in August and take his family next April in the hopes of continuing the legacy by refurbishing other forgotten memorials.