Anzac Day Dawn Service, Sandakan Memorial Park

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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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25 April 2024

As the sun pierces the horizon a new day dawns.

But for Australians April 25 is no ordinary day.

Across Australia and the world, Australians gather at dawn in solemnity to pay our respects to and to thank those who have served our nation, particularly those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. 

The dawn represents ANZAC.

The moment our diggers landed on the beach at Gallipoli.

The first light bearing a legend of service and sacrifice, born of blood, suffering and defeat that could not break the Australian spirit and determination to fight on to victory. 

A legend hardened through subsequent wars and conflicts, through more courage, suffering and sacrifice.

None more so than here at Sandakan.  

On this solemn day, our thoughts are also with our Malaysian friends mourning the loss of ten military personnel in the tragic helicopter accident that occurred just days ago.

Too often the lives of those who selflessly dedicate themselves in the service of our nation are taken from us far too early. 

Australia shares your pain in this time of grief and the Australian Government extends its deepest condolences to those affected by this accident.

When the light breaks through the vegetation around us, its rays will illuminate the more than 2,400 Australian and British servicemen killed at Sandakan and on the death marches to Ranau.

Each Australian commemorated here served our nation during our darkest hour.

Each Australian commemorated here died after being beaten, tortured, starved and stripped of their humanity.

One of those men was Private Eric Abbott.

Before the war, he’d worked as a pastry chef in Randwick.

He was a young man making a start in life, like any other.  

When war was declared, Eric enlisted early.

In October 1941, he was posted to Singapore, and was there when the city fell four months later.

Originally held at Changi, Eric volunteered to transfer to Sandakan, lured by the promise of better food and conditions.

And at first, Sandakan was tolerable, at least by Japanese prisoner of war camp standards.

But as rations were cut and punishments became harsher, the men’s conditions deteriorated. 

Food was denied, illness went untreated, beatings were frequent. 

As punishment, the men were placed in ‘the cage’, a wooden structure too low to stand up, too narrow to lie down, and they’d be left for days or weeks on end.

For six months, the Japanese set Eric and the other prisoners to work building an aerodrome.

But as the weeks passed and conditions worsened, he grew progressively weaker. 

When he contracted cerebritis, inflammation of the brain, medical treatment wasn’t available.

He died on 21 January 1943, aged just 24.

But we know from the few survivor testimonies that his mates would have done what they could to support him – splitting their rations, swapping stories, trading jokes to lift his spirits.

It would be more than two years before news of his passing reached home. 

When it did it hit Eric’s mother and sisters hard.

For many years, on the anniversary, they placed an in memoriam in the local paper, their small way of never forgetting.

And it reminds us of the long-lasting impact war has on families.

For even after the last gunshot sounds, wars never truly end; pain echoes on, often for the rest of their lives. 

But for Eric’s mates who remained at Sandakan, a harsher ordeal awaited.

As Japan’s military fortunes flagged, senior Japanese officers decided to move the prisoners from Sandakan to Ranau, 260 kilometres inland via a harsh jungle trail.

After three and a half years of forced labour and starvation, the prisoners were ill and enfeebled, in no state to make the journey.

This was no transfer of prisoners, it was an execution.

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

For those who made it to Ranau, they found no shelter, no supplies, and were left to slowly starve and die.

The event stands as one of the worst atrocities ever inflicted on Australians in war. 

Of the more than 2,400 prisoners alive at the beginning of 1945, only six survived, and only because they escaped into the jungle. 

And as we remember those who lost their life, we must also remember the local people of Malaysia, who likewise suffered under a cruel occupation.

Some took great risks to help prisoners, and those few Australians who escaped only did so because of local civilians. 

Their selfless courage to feed and shelter escaped prisoners from the enemy meant the difference between life and death.

Today we thank and honour them.

Former Prime Minister, Paul Keating once said it is important to remember what happened at Sandakan: ‘it reminds us of what was at stake in the Pacific War and how much we owe to all Australians who fought and finally won.’

On this day, we remember all Australians who served our nation in this war and in others.

We thank them for defending our nation, our sovereignty and our unique way of life.

A spirit reflected in the character and actions of the Australians imprisoned at Sandakan.

Men who although starving, still saved food for their mates.

Soldiers though tired and beaten, still put out a hand to help a stumbling fellow on the march.

Brave men who stubbornly clung onto their hope and humour.

Not even the brutality of the war and this place could break the Australian belief in egalitarianism and a hand for a mate in need, qualities that define the Anzac spirit.

Today, we commemorate every person, past and present, who has worn the Australian Defence Force uniform. 

Here at Sandakan, we remember and honour the prisoners that suffered such brutality, the locals who supported them and the families who mourn them.

As this day ages and the sun sets let this memorial remind us that the freedom and liberty we enjoy every day is a debt we owe to their courage, their suffering, their sacrifice, and we declare that they will never be forgotten.

Lest we forget.

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