Remembering ‘Tuan Sandy’ and his military exploits with the Z Special Unit in Bario

An image of Sanderson in his youth.

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By Wilfred Pilo

AN Australian man, the late Sergeant Charles Frederick Sanderson of the Australian ‘Z’ Special Unit was a legend among the people of the Bario Highlands.

Even today, the Bario Highlands community remembers and deeply respects the man fondly known as ‘Tuan Sandy’.

Sanderson’s involvement in the Second World War in Borneo during the Japanese Occupation was reminisced on by his second son David at the State Library in Kuching today (March 30).

David was on his fifth visit to the city to give the talk under the invitation of the Society of Sarawakians Writing in English (SOSWE).

He spoke about the book related to his father entitled ‘Z’ Special Unit’s Secret War – Operation Semut 1, which was compiled by 21 former operatives.

David speaking at the State Library in Kuching

The book described how Z Special Unit trained local tribes of Borneo to engage Japanese soldiers during WWII and became successful in their war campaign.

It also paid tribute to the fallen soldiers of Z Special Unit and the locals fighting with them in one of the successful military operations at that time period.

“My father has a tough character and I believe that the depression period in the 1930s molded and made him the man he was,” David said, adding that his father enlisted in the Australian Army in 1940 and first served in the Middle East.

A retired Charles Frederick Sanderson.

Sanderson, the second of 15 children, was born in Ayuthaya, Thailand in 1910. During his schooling years, he attended St Andrews Boarding School in Singapore until the age of 17.

He continued his studies at Hawkesbury Agriculture College, West of Sydney, Australia.

David said his father chose Australia to further his studies, as he regarded the country as the land of opportunity.

“The depression of the 1930s had caused a lot of hardship for my father, so he sorted work down the inland of Australia at a cattle station for 10 years until the Second World War broke out in 1939.

“During the world war, my father spent considerable time in the Middle East before he was deployed to New Guinea, serving under his army superior Colonel E ‘Weary’ Dunlop, who operated the Mobile Operating Unit.

“My father then volunteered to join the Z Special Unit, where he was immediately made a ‘Contact Man’.”

David at the Z Special Unit Memorial War Pillar

David narrated that as First Class Sargeant, his father went through intensive training in espionage, sabotage and guerrilla warfare. He also trained to use the blow pipe and hand grenades, including various types of ambush tactics and forced hostility.

He also learned several methods of communications such as message by bird carrier, as well as beating on bamboos and gongs.

It was on Feb 19, 1945, that Sanderson and his team were briefed on the operations that made him a legend among the natives in Borneo.

“Before they were sent out for missions, their army superior always asked whether any soldiers would want to remain back but none ever wanted to stay back, such was their courage and fighting spirit,” David said of how many described his father’s unit.

A SOSWE newsletter honouring Charles Federick Sanderson highlighted that under the instruction of Major Tom Harrison of British Army Intelligence, Sanderson was to recruit the local Dayaks as guerrillas to fight the Japanese and kill as many as possible and take no prisoners.

This was considered a tall order, in view of the fact that his unit had only 21 rifles including one shot gun, 1,500 rounds of ammunition and no trained men available for his force. Within a short space of time, Sanderson had recruited some 500 tribal Iban men for the cause.

For the courage, dedication and determination displayed during his service in ‘Semut 1’, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, David said.

Books related to Sanderson during his time in the Australian army during the Second World War against the Japanese in 1945.

“My father was regarded with affection and respect by those with whom he remained closed to even to this day by the indigenous people of Borneo. He became a legend in his own lifetime.

“Tuan Sandy, as they fondly called him, was protective of his local friends and actively sought retribution from the higher command in cases where confidence in the defending force had been occasionally undermined by individuals who had abused this trust,” he described of his father.

The plaque on the rock of Batu Lawi at the Kelabit Highlands to remember the fallen Australian army of the Z Special Unit war heroes fighting in Borneo.

On return to civilian life, Sanderson and his wife Joan settled in Sydney for about a year before they moved to a dairy farm in the midnorth coast of New South Wales in the Bowraville District.

He named the farm “Bario Hills Farm” because it reminded him of the hills in Bario.

Sanderson remained in the district until 1960, before moving to Macksville, where they owned a restaurant and petrol service station. The family remained there until 1962, before deciding to seek a more secure future at Charlestown in the Newcastle area.

“Due to his exceptional work in 1945, my father was called back to Bario in 1965 by Major Tom Harrison to assist the British in intelligence work during the Communist Confrontation in Borneo,” David said.

He added that his father retired in Newcastle and led a very private life with his family. Unfortunately, his health deteriorated due to cancer and he fought it with grim determination until his passing in 1997, at the age of 87. — DayakDaily