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Our duty to recall the heartbreak and build hope

November 7, 2012

An op-ed I wrote on my visit to Sandakan Memorial Park in North Borneo this week, published in the Daily Telegraph:

Sandakan Memorial Park in North Borneo is today a place of quiet beauty.

It sends a powerful message: Our duty to remember. First we owe the duty of remembrance to the 2000 Australians who perished in atrocious circumstances in the Borneo prisoner of war camps. But it is also our duty to Australians as we build a future in Asia.

The war in the Pacific is so central to our history and so central to everything that has happened in Asia since that we must strive to understand all aspects of that war.

Even amid our well-founded hopes for our future in the region, events as horrific as Sandakan should not be air-brushed from history.

The tragedy of Sandakan began with the fall of Singapore in February 1942. About 20,000 Australians were taken prisoner.

Then in July 1942, about 2700 Australian and British prisoners of war were transferred to Sandakan.

The conditions were appalling. But 120 had died up to September 1944. Then the mass murders began.

In Australia at War 1939-1945 the historian John Robertson writes: “The Australians in Borneo suffered the fate feared by prisoners in the camps – mass killing by Japanese guards as defeat approached. To help kill the Australians, the Japanese withheld medical supplies, and in January 1945 began to force weakened men to make death marches. Many were shot. Of the 2000 Australians, together with 500 British prisoners in the same camps, only six lived through the ordeal.”

Two of these six escaped into the jungle during the second of the three death marches in June 1945. The other four escaped from the Ranaw camp in July. All six survived until the end of the war because they were hidden at extreme risk by villagers.

The inability of the Japanese military, despite their astonishing feats of arms, to win the support and sympathy of the people they purported to liberate was crucial to their defeat. Herein lies one of the enduring lessons of history.

The almost 100 per cent death rate at Sandakan is one of the tragic reasons why it was slow to enter fully into Australian awareness.

We know enough from the survivors of other camps to understand that the POW experience is as much a part of the Australian identity and tradition as Gallipoli, the Western Front, Greece, North Africa, Kokoda, Milne Bay, Korea and Vietnam – and now, Afghanistan. All the records attest that Australian mateship was integral to the survival of thousands.

Other very Australian things, too. The Australian War Memorial treasures the Batu Lingtang “Melbourne Cup”. It is made from a bully-beef tin mounted on an octagonal wooden base, with galvanised-iron handles. The men of the Batu Lingtang Camp in Borneo staged their version of the Melbourne Cup on Cup Day 1942 and 1943.

Lieutenant Tony White from Sydney survived because he had been transferred from Sandakan in 1943. On his way home in 1945, he wrote to his fiance about the comfort he found in the tropical sunsets and night skies: “Above all the Southern Cross reigns supreme for me and often I would stand outside our hut and look at it, thinking of it gleaming over our own Australia … The Japs could lock us up in barbed wire compounds, they could inflict what indignities they wished – but they could never take the sunsets away from us, as they were the bright spots of our existence.”

It was my honour this week to lay a wreath in the park. On your behalf, for all Australians.

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