Speech by Senator Anne McEwen to the Australian Senate

Wednesday 15 August 2007


Senator McEWEN (South Australia) (7.26 p.m.)—Today marks the 62nd anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific and the end of World War II. On this day in 1945, the Japanese emperor announced his nation’s unconditional surrender. It was the end of a six-year war that had claimed the lives of 39, 366 Australian soldiers and during which a devastating 72 million persons in total were killed.

We are all aware of the many atrocities that occurred around the globe during World War II. But one that is particularly tragic, and not often referred to, is the story of what happened to Australian prisoners of war in Borneo. During 1942 and 1943, more than 2,400 Australian and British prisoners of war were transferred by the Japanese army to Sandakan following the fall of Singapore. Of the 2,400, nearly 1,800 were Australians. Sandakan is a coastal town in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.

The POWs were sent there to construct a military airfield and were held in prison camps. Their living conditions began tolerably but deteriorated rapidly. Soon they were trying to survive on approximately 85 grams of rice a day. With little or no medical attention, our soldiers suffered from beriberi, tropical ulcers, malaria, scabies and countless other diseases as they worked all day, every day before falling asleep on their lice-infested bedding.

In early 1945, the Japanese began moving the fittest prisoners to Ranau, another small settlement inland from the coast. The intention was to take the prisoners to Jesselton, now called Kota Kinabalu, to work as labourers, but allied air activity on that side of Borneo meant they were stopped at Ranau. The prisoners were forced to walk the 250-kilometre track from Sandakan to Ranau through dense jungle and extremely difficult terrain with hardly any food. Three groups of prisoners—approximately 1,000 men—all of them starving and sick, embarked on the trek from Sandakan to Ranau. Those who could not keep up were killed by their guards.

Around half the prisoners survived the march only to die at Ranau of illness, malnutrition and abuse from their captors. Of the 2,434 Australian and British prisoners of war who were originally interred at Sandakan, all but six either died in the camps or on the so-called death marches. It was the highest death rate in any prisoner of war camp. The survival rate was only one per cent. Of the six who did survive—all of whom were Australians—two escaped along the route to Ranau and the others escaped into the jungle there.

The survival of these men despite such awful circumstances is astounding. Their survival was made possible by their own courage and strength, by the support of their mates and with assistance from villagers. The first two Australians escaped with the help of locals and the last four, who had endured the entire 250-kilometre walk, were cared for by them. The local people were also suffering extreme deprivation and brutality because of the war, yet they reached out to our soldiers and helped them.

Sixty years on, the track walked by Australian and British soldiers had become completely overgrown or built over by roads and development. The original path was difficult to find; however, a number of people in both Sabah and Australia were determined to recreate the death march route and to use it as a living memorial to the story of the Australian and British POWs and to the people of Malaysia who helped them. Two people who have done much to bring this part of Australia’s history to life are Mr Tham Yau Kong and Lynette Silver. Mr Tham is a Malaysian, a Sabahan, whose family helped the Australian POWs in the 1940s. Mr Tham is a successful, award-winning tourism operator with a passion for preservation of the remaining beautiful jungles of Sabah. He has a love of trekking and an unwavering determination to bring attention to the story of the death marches. Lynette Silver is an Australian historian and investigative writer who has published a considerable amount of her research, including her well-known book Sandakan—a conspiracy of silence.

Lynette and Mr Tham worked diligently and in 2006 opened up the path the soldiers had followed. Their work made it possible for others to walk in the footsteps of our POWs. In July this year I took the opportunity to walk 100 kilometres of the POWs route from Sandakan to Ranau. There were 20 people in my group, 19 South Australians and one Victorian. Many of us had already successfully completed the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, but that did not prepare us for the death march. The walk was tough for 20 reasonably fit, healthy, well-rested and extremely well fed Australians who did not have to worry about being shot or bayoneted if they fell behind the rest of the group. It is almost impossible to imagine what it must have been like for a starving, tired and terrified soldier watching his mates being killed because they could not keep up.

Along the trek, we met some local Sabahans who were children during the time of the death marches. We met an old man who told us that he was about 14 years old when the Japanese made him ferry POWs across a river on the way to Ranau. He told us the prisoners ‘looked like skeletons’. He said that he did not know how they managed to still be alive. While the trek was, for us, physically challenging because of the terrain and the heat, it was emotionally challenging because, as you plodded along, you were always aware of the incredible waste of young life that occurred on that path and in the camps at either end of it. As you walk along you cannot help but ask why it was that 1,787 young Australians had to die there. Was there more that the Australian authorities could have done to save those Australian soldiers? The answer to that is, yes, we could have done more. We now know that a plan to rescue the remaining prisoners of war in April 1945 failed because the intelligence that came out of Borneo to the Australia military command was wrong and not enough effort was made to check that intelligence. The plan of rescue was shelved. Our soldiers were basically abandoned and left to die. To make things worse, the families of those who died in Borneo had to fight for many years to find out what had happened to their brothers, fathers and husbands, and why it happened. There was indeed a ‘conspiracy of silence’. Silence about military and government mistakes during wars does no-one any good. Learning from mistakes is a maxim that is never more important than when we are talking in the context of war.

There are now a number of memorials in Malaysia and Australia that acknowledge the story of the POWs in Borneo. Today there would have been services held at many of those memorials. For example, there was a memorial service at the Sandakan Memorial Park, a beautiful place funded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on the site of the old POW camp in Sandakan. Whilst in Sabah in July, I had the honour of joining Datuk Masidi Manjun, the Sabah tourism, culture and environment minister in unveiling a commemorative plaque for one of the Australian POWs who died on the death march, Private Allan Quailey. Private Quailey was a tough young man from Redfern in Sydney. He tried hard to survive, but on 16 February 1945, at just 24 years of age, he was killed on route to Ranau. Quailey was starving and, despite the best efforts of his mates to help him, he just could not go on.

The spot where he was murdered was identified by Lynette Silver and Tham Yau Kong and is located within the privately owned Sabah Tea Garden, a working tea plantation. The extraordinary efforts of the management and staff of the Sabah Tea Garden to create a memorial on their property to an Australian POW who died 62 years ago was very much appreciated by my group and particularly by Private Quailey’s family. My group was privileged indeed to be included in the ceremony of dedication and I urge any senator who has the good fortune to travel to Sabah to visit Private Quailey’s memorial. I thank my 19 fellow trekkers, Lynette Silver and Mr Tham Yau Kong and his team for their respect for our prisoners of war. I thank all the people I met in Sabah who never forgot what happened to our POWs during World War II and who are helping the rest of us to remember. Finally, I quote the words of Jenny Sandercock, a South Australian who organises a small ceremony in Adelaide each year to remember the POWs of Sandakan. Jenny said to me:

It is hard to live with the fact that our men were deserted in their darkest hours and such a half hearted effort by our military and government


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