30th Anniversary of the Burwood Sandakan Memorial

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The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP

Assistant Minister for Defence

Assistant Minister for Veterans’ Affairs

Assistant Minister for the Republic

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Ben Leeson on 0404 648 275

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6 August 2023

Sandakan Memorial, Burwood Park

Burwood, Sydney

Thank you for joining me as we commemorate 30 years since this memorial was unveiled, honouring more than 500 men from Sydney who died during the Sandakan death marches in North Borneo.

I want to acknowledge the Wangal Clan of the Eora Nation, the traditional custodians of the land where we meet, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

I would like to extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who join us today.

I also acknowledge the current and ex-serving members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) who are with us today. Thank you for your service.

And I also acknowledge the families of ADF personnel and veterans, thank you for your support.

“He was claimed.”

This was the phrase the Australian Prisoners of Wars (POWs) whispered to each other as they struggled to stay standing on the harsh trail from Sandakan to Ranau.

After three years of imprisonment and forced labour, the men were malnourished, starved, sick with malaria, dysentery and tropical ulcers.

They had been worked to the bone, beaten and tortured and now, as the Japanese looked set to lose the war, they were forced to march 260 kilometres from Sandakan near the coast to Ranau in the mountains.

This was not a transfer of prisoners, it was an execution.

As the exhausted men lost their footing on the mud-slick trail, and failed to stand, their captors would follow, shooting them where they lay.

For those still alive on the track ahead, when the sound of gunshots echoed up the mountain pass, they knew another friend had been killed.

He had been claimed.

In 1942, Australian and British troops who had been captured after the Fall of Singapore were shipped from Changi prison to Sandakan to construct an aerodrome.

Although the work was hard, for the first year conditions were tolerable, at least by Japanese internment standards.

But as rations were cut, punishments became harsher, and the Japanese forces wavered in the Pacific, the men’s conditions deteriorated.

For the Japanese, they saw their prisoners as little more than expendable labour.

To them, soldiers defeated in battle and captured were men without honour, men without dignity, and so they deprived them of their humanity.

Food was denied; illnesses went untreated; beatings were frequent.

Those who broke the rules were placed in ‘the cage’— a wooden structure built too small to either stand up or lie down.

And they were left there, sometimes for weeks on end.

One man, whose name is commemorated here, Private Leonard Annear, who served with the 2/19th Battalion of the Australian Infantry.

He had spent a total of three months in the cage.

Upon falling unconscious he was released, but according to survivor testimony, died within 24 hours.

And his crime – the act that brought about such a cruel, protracted punishment?

He was a starving man who stole food to share with the sick.

Four years prior, Leo had been employed as an ironworker, just down the road at Punchbowl.

He was an ordinary Australian, like any of us, flung into a hellish nightmare, doing what he could to survive and help his mates.

He was just 25 years old when he died.

Leo Annear was just one of the more than 2,400 Australian and British soldiers imprisoned at Sandakan.

By the time the death marches finished only six would remain alive, and only because they escaped into the jungle.

It is the single worst atrocity suffered by Australians during the Second World War.

And yet, the story of Sandakan and what our soldiers endured, is not widely known.

It does not occupy a place in our consciousness as Changi or Hellfire Pass does, for the simple reason that there were so few survivors.

So few people to bear testament and tell the story of what happened in that camp and on that march.

And that is why we are here today.

We are here to remember what they suffered, and to honour the service they rendered to our nation: defending Australia during our darkest hour.

Thirty years ago, then Prime Minister Paul Keating dedicated this memorial to the memory of the sons of Sydney who lost their lives at Sandakan.

Since then it has stood as a visual symbol of what was inflicted upon them.

The relief map atop the memorial marks the trail they were forced to walk: the site of their execution, conducted in the most dehumanising and barbaric way.

Survivor of the march, Dick Braithwaite said, more than the beatings and the exhaustion and the disease, the thing that haunted him the most was seeing men he loved and admired stripped of their humanity.

Seeing mates who had looked out for each other through years of captivity, reduced to fighting over a scrap of food was a horror he could never forget.

When Dick got home, he spent years writing hundreds of letters to the families of the men he’d known at Sandakan.

He knew that for many, there had been no word of what happened to their loved ones and that the unknown would sit like a lead weight on their hearts.

His letters were simple, but they all contained a similar sentiment: your son, your husband, your brother, ‘he was a fine fellow, you have every reason to be proud.’

And every family should feel pride, for in the face of such inhumane cruelty many individual stories emerged of men who resisted.

Men who although starving,  saved food for their mates – who although tired and beaten, still put out a hand to help a stumbling fellow on the march.

Men who stubbornly clung onto their hope and humour, refusing to break – they embodied the finest example of the Anzac spirit.

When Paul Keating dedicated this memorial, he said we had to remember what happened at Sandakan, because it ‘reminds us of what was at stake in the Pacific War and how much we owe all those Australians who fought and finally won.’

It was a war fought against a regime willing to inflict unimaginable suffering.

But we gather today to commemorate, not to condemn.

In 2014 former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe addressed our Parliament.

When speaking of Sandakan and the atrocities of the Second World War, he said there were no words to alleviate the suffering, that we could only ‘stay humble against the evils and horrors of history’, and vow that they never be repeated.

We too must stand humble before the darkness that can stir in every human heart.

And in telling the story of Sandakan we also vow to uphold the values of decency, respect and compassion: the things our soldiers were denied.

Survivor of Sandakan Bill Moxham once said, ‘I cannot sleep anymore, it is all buried somewhere inside me’.

Indeed, the history of what happened at Sandakan will forever remain lodged deep in Australia’s soul.

It is a story of unspeakable brutality, the human will to endure, the love of mate for mate, and of a nation’s willingness to find reconciliation.

Today we remember and honour all those who served Australia and lost their life – who were claimed – at Sandakan, and we vow that their sacrifice will never be forgotten.

Lest we forget. 


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