The Dairyman of Sandakan

contributed by Michael Hall


Dairy Farmers Hill is the peak at the centre of the National Arboretum near Scrivener Dam. It is an unofficial name that came about because local dairymen agisted their dry cows and heifers on the hill. The dairymen were members of the Canberra Dairy Society who leased the land on Dairy Farmers Hill from 1938 onwards. Of the eight dairymen in the Society one would die during the second Sandakan death march.

John Barrie operated the Duntroon Dairy (Dairy Block No.5) most of which is now occupied by Canberra Airport. Born in Scotland in 1889 he spent 5½ years with the 19th Hussars and worked as a steelworker at the Parkhead Forge in Glasgow before migrating to Australia in about 1914 with his family. He began what he described as a ‘pioneer farm’ in Western Australia before moving to Dorrigo in New South Wales to become a dairy farmer. Barrie spent five years at Dorrigo before applying for the lease to Dairy Block No.5 in Canberra in 1928. Described as ‘strictly sober and industrious’, Barrie was a foundation member and one of the first elders of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Forrest and active in the church’s Men’s League.

It was a struggle to establish his business during the Great Depression but by 1937 he had 62 dairy cattle with milking machines and he could afford to tour dairying operations in Canada, the United States, Great Britain and Germany. Besides being a dairy farmer, Barrie also delivered his milk. One Ainslie resident remembered how he “delivered our milk into a billy-can and often left a free pat of dairy butter or a jar of cream".

Barrie tried to enlist in Queanbeyan in 1941 but the recruiters knew that he was over 50 years of age – too old for active service. Instead he enlisted in March 1941 under the pseudonym of John Baird. He described himself as being single, lowered his age by nine years and gave a ‘cousin’ (actually his brother) as his next of kin instead of his wife and children. He served with the 2/3rd Motor Ambulance Company, Australian Army Service Corps and arrived in Singapore in April 1941. Shortly afterwards he signed a Statutory Declaration in Kuala Lumpur admitting to his real name.

He became a prisoner of war in February 1942 with the fall of Singapore and was sent to Changi. In July 1942 Barrie was included in ‘B’ Force and sent to Borneo along with 1400 other men to build an airfield. After a horrendous nine day journey with little water they landed at Sandakan, Borneo and spent the next three years working as little more than slave labour for the Japanese. In early 1945 the Japanese began to send POWs on a series of forced marches inland to Ranau – the Sandakan death marches. Barrie left Sandakan on the second march on 29 May 1945. He died during the march on 15 June 1945 of malaria (according to the Japanese).  

act memorial