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Speech at the Sandakan Remembrance Day service, Australian War Memorial.



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The Hon. Danna Vale MP Minister for Veterans' Affairs Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence

Speech

29 May 2003

The Hon Danna Vale MP Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence, at the

Sandakan Remembrance Day service, Australian War Memorial

-To the men of Sandakan. I call on you and ask you to join with us today, to be in the hearts of your families, of your friends, of your comrades, and know that you are remembered and honoured as the heroes that you are.

Of all the days that we, as Australians, set aside to remember and 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 the Sandakan PoW 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 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 Prisoners of War 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 out to Ranau four months earlier. The Prisoners of War 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 the 15th of 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. More than 2000 Australian and British Prisoners of War held at Sandakan had died.

On this anniversary, on this day, we remember and honour them all.

We grieve for the memory of fathers, sons and brothers, husbands and mates - of young men taken from their families to share the darkest chapter in our wartime history.

We remember the courage shown by that handful of men who defied their captors to escape and ultimately carry home news of what took place.

It has taken many decades for the story of Sandakan to be told. Even now, we can only try to imagine the suffering, 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, 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 sick and dying friend.

We 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, even though they knew what was to happen next.

But most of all, we make a promise - to these fallen Australian servicemen, to their families and above all, to ourselves - that we remember the men of Sandakan.

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 men such as these in the service of our nation - and the price paid for the freedoms that we, because of them, enjoy today.

This day stands alone. This day is Sandakan Day. We must never forget.