Commemorative address, Sandakan 2022

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The Hon Matt Keogh MP

Minister for Defence Personnel

Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

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Stephanie Mathews on 0407 034 485

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15 August 2022

I would like to acknowledge:

  • The Honourable Datuk Joniston Bangkuai, Assistant Minister of Tourism, Culture and Environment Sabah representing the Chief Minister of Sabah
  • Madam Faridah Giau, Deputy President, Sandakan Municipal Council representing the President, Sandakan Municipal Council
  • His Excellency Mr Charles Hay, MVO, British High Commissioner to Malaysia
  • His Excellency Dr Justin Lee, Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia
  • Relatives, family and friends, ladies and gentlemen.

The story of those who became prisoners of the Japanese during the Second World War is one of enormous sacrifice, courage, endurance, and ultimately one of suffering and loss. 

Across the lands at the end of 1941 and the early part of 1942, those Allied servicemen and women, and many civilians, who went into captivity could not imagine what fate held in store.

Just six men of more than 2,500 who had been in the camp half a year before, emerged from this jungle.

But the prisoners here at Sandakan were not alone in living under Japanese authority. 

The civilians of this area also suffered the hardships of war. Most were not held behind wire, but they were not free, and those whose courage and humanity led them to help the prisoners here were taking great risks. 

Members of the local underground organisation faced severe punishment should they be exposed, as did those who smuggled medicine, supplies or food into the camp.

Such selfless courage earned the gratitude of the prisoners who suffered here, and in the case of the few who reached safety, the bravery and care of local civilians meant the difference between survival and death.

Today, I wish to reflect on those stories.

In his book Sandakan, historian Paul Ham wrote about mateship.

He said, “You found a mate and you clung to them ‘as though they were the last scrap of life on earth. These friendships transcend the idea of mateship.

“Your friend in Japanese captivity is something much more: a nurse, guide, priest, and grave digger…your friend will feed, clean and bury you…trust in one another is felt in the full consciousness of imminent death’.”

The six Aussies who escaped Sandakan in 1945 witnessed some unimaginable atrocities.

But their story is one of mateship.

During the early stages of the second march, Dick Braithwaite was so ill with malaria that his mates fooled guards, holding him up at roll call when he was too weak to stand alone.

For him it was a question of escape or die – and escape he did, slipping behind a fallen tree and escaping down to the river with the help of an elderly local man.

There was Owen Campbell and four of his mates who spent days delirious in the jungle, determined not to leave a man behind. Sadly one by one they lost their young lives until it was just Campbell left.

He was rescued by the people of Munand and nursed to good enough health that they were able to take him down river to an Aussie Camp, where they evacuated him to an aircraft carrier.

There was Keith Botterill, and his mates Nelson Short, William Moxham and Andy Anderson who made a run for it – hiding in caves and abandoned huts, relying on the charity of locals as they suffered terrible ailments.

Andy Anderson never left that jungle… but his mates, helped by their new local friends eventually began their last difficult trek. Collapsing with exhaustion they heard men coming through the jungle. Those men were “all in greens” – with stretchers and tea and biscuits, there to rescue them from their living nightmare.

The final escape was that of Bill Sticpewich and Herman Reither.

Conscious of their looming fate, Sticpewich and Reither slipped out of camp, hiding in the jungle until the hunt for them died down. Eventually they were taken in by a local despite the risks. Unfortunately Reither didn’t survive.

We are here today to commemorate and remember the single greatest atrocity committed against Australians in war.

But through this atrocity there is friendship; mateship. It’s only through that mateship that we saw any survivors of this atrocity.

I’m proud to join with you today, our mates, to remember the tragedy that befell Allied prisoners here, to honour the many who died and the civilians who risked everything to help them. 

The end of the Second World War is increasingly remote to us now, well into the 21st Century. 

In places like Sandakan we are reminded of how great was the conflict’s reach, how far from home Australians served and died, and through all of us here today how the memory of Sandakan lives on across oceans and generations. 

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