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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15499

Mrs VALE (Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence) (4:59 PM) —Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the honourable member for Solomon for raising this important issue today. Of all the days that we as Australians set aside to remember and to honour the sacrifice of our sons and daughters in the service of our nation, this day stands alone. Today marks an anniversary unlike any other in our wartime history. Throughout the year, Australians gather in the spirit of remembrance on days that mark victories and defeats, significant battles and days of peace. But this day stands alone. On this day in 1945 about 530 Australian and British prisoners of war left Sandakan prisoner-of-war camp in Borneo on a forced march to Ranau. They were the second group of prisoners to be moved—another 455 had marched out in January as the Japanese emptied the camp ahead of the expected allied landing on Borneo.

Weak, malnourished and sick, the prisoners of war were in no shape for the march, but they moved out as ordered, leaving behind more than 200 fellow prisoners who were too weak to walk. History records that most of them did not get very far. Many died of starvation and illness. Others were killed simply because they could not keep up. Prisoners who had stuck together for up to three years after being captured were left with no choice but to leave their mates behind. Of the 530 men who left Sandakan, 142 Australians and 41 British POWs reached Ranau.

But there was worse to come. The survivors of the march found only six men left of the 455 who had been sent to Ranau four months earlier. The POWs were put to work carrying firewood, building huts and hauling water for their captors. They died at the rate of seven a day. Beatings and executions continued daily. Back at Sandakan, the camp was burned to the ground and the remaining prisoners were killed or left to die. The last prisoner at Sandakan was executed on 15 August 1945—the day that Japan surrendered. Evidence to war crimes investigators shows that the last Australians at Ranau were killed 12 days after the war had ended. Only six Australians survived the death marches, all of them by escaping. But more than 2,000 Australian and British prisoners of war held at Sandakan had died.

On this anniversary, on this day, we remember them all. We grieve for the memory of fathers, sons, brothers, husbands and mates—of young men taken from their families to share the darkest chapter of our wartime history. We remember the courage shown by that handful of men who defied their captors, who escaped and who ultimately carried home the news of what had taken place. It has taken many decades for the story of Sandakan to be told. Even now, we can only try to imagine the suffering and the utter inhumanity that they endured, the horrific conditions and the insane cruelty under which they lived and died. However, thanks to those who escaped, we can also find some measure of comfort in the memory of the irrepressible Aussie spirit shown by the prisoners of Sandakan.

Today we remember the tales of selflessness and of the tenacity of Aussie mateship—the endurance of men who put aside their own suffering to try and ease the pain or the passing of a friend. We should remember the courage shown in the face of death, and the deep and powerful emotion of mates who simply shook hands in silent goodbye to wish each other the best, when they each knew what would happen next. Most of all, we make a promise to those fallen Australian servicemen and their families—and, above all, to ourselves—that we will remember the men of Sandakan and try to be the very best Australians we can be. We owe it to them to tell their story, so that new generations will come to understand the courage, the endurance, the mateship and the sacrifice shown by these men in the service of our nation, and the price paid for the freedoms and the democracy that we enjoy because of them every day. This day stands alone. This day is Sandakan day and we must never forget.

The SPEAKER —I cannot recognise the member for Rankin, but I believe that it would be appropriate for me to indicate that the sentiments of the Minister for Veterans' Affairs are embraced by the entire House.