A Day Worth Remembering

The Punch, 26/01/2011

What do you think happened on Australia Day?


 If you said it’s the day the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour you would be right. But a few other things happened on this day as well.

 In 1808 the Rum Rebellion occurred. In 1950 India became a republic. In 1998   President Clinton denied having “sexual relations with that woman”.

 In 1945 it marked the beginning of the single worst atrocity in Australian military history – the Sandakan Death March.

 It’s a chapter of our history that is not well known and is not often told, but most poignantly captures the spirit of today.

 On Australia Day 66 years ago as war was about to come to an end, Australian and British soldiers at the Sandakan POW camp in Borneo were told to get ready to leave.

 Over the next few months the Japanese marched more than 1,000 sick and starving men to Ranau, 260 km away. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot or bayoneted. Historian Lynette Silver tells the story of men who couldn’t keep going shaking hands with their mates, saying goodbye and sitting on the track waiting for the killing squad to arrive.

 Just over 500 made it to Ranau. By the time war had ended only 15 were left. The rest had died from disease, starvation or at the end of a bayonet.

 When the war ended the killing didn’t. Two weeks after the end of the war the Japanese shot the remaining soldiers. We only know what happened because six managed to escape to safety.

 This isn’t just a story of horrific brutality. It’s a story about us, who we are and what we are capable of.

When it became clear that if they didn’t escape they would die Richie Murray and Keith Botterill stole enough rice for their escape. When the Japanese discovered the theft they paraded everyone in the camp out and lined them up. No one said a word. Richie Murray quietly stepped forward. He knew what he was doing. Stealing rice was a capital offence. He was taken away, tied up, bayoneted and his body thrown into a bomb crater.

Ted Skinner and Owen Campbell and three others escaped on the march to Ranau. After a couple of days Ted got dysentery. Owen stayed behind to look after him while the others pressed on. One day Owen went out looking for food. When he came back he found Ted had cut his own throat. He had taken his own life so as not to hold his mate back.

Only six men made it back to Australia. One was Keith Botterill. Another was Owen Campbell. Keith died the day before Australia Day in 1997. He was 75. Owen only died a few years ago. He was aged 87. Years given to them by men they didn’t even know before the war. .

 The worst of times seem to bring out the best in us.  

The events of the past few weeks are proof of that. Our newspapers have been jam packed with stories of courage and selflessness. Think of Jordan Rice only 13, who told his rescuers to take his younger brother instead. When they returned for him and his mum they were gone. Even now as you read this there is an army of volunteers armed with brooms and shovels helping total strangers in Queensland.

We are good people. Good people in an unforgiving land. And when bad things happen we are capable of amazing things. We become our better selves. The story of Sandakan tells us that.

So as you enjoy today, think about what it meant for the young men of Sandakan 66 years ago. Richie, Keith, Ted, Owen and others like them. They are the story of us. Who we were, who we are and what we are capable of.

We have a lot to be proud of, and a lot to remember.