Not all heroes wear their undies on the outside.


Sunday Telegraph, 25/04/2010

Bruce Kingsbury was a real estate agent from Melbourne. Keith Botterill was a textile worker from Sydney. They never knew each other but they shared a common bond. They were two ordinary blokes who did extraordinary things.

Bruce joined the army in May 1940 and was shipped off to the Middle East. He was 22. Keith enlisted in August 1941 and was sent to defend Singapore. He was just 17. Six months later he was a prisoner of war.

Keith was captured when Singapore fell to the Japanese. The Japanese military machine was sweeping through Asia, taking Thailand, Borneo, Malaysia and modern day Indonesia before landing in New Guinea. It was the time of our greatest peril.

The Prime Minister John Curtin called our troops home to defend Australia. One of them was Bruce Kingsbury and he would meet the Japanese on the Kokoda Track at a place called Isurava.

It is here that one of the most important battles in Australian history was fought. The Japanese outnumbered the Australians five to one. They used their numbers to out flank the Australians. Our command post was about to be overrun when Bruce put up his hand. He grabbed a machine gun and charged alone into the enemy, killing 30 and pushing the rest back into the jungle.

When he ran out of bullets he lent against a rock to reload his weapon. Then bang – he was struck by a sniper’s bullet. In an instant he was gone.

Bruce’s actions earned him the first Victoria Cross on Australian territory. His courage halted the Japanese offensive that day and saved the Australians from being overrun. Some have speculated that his actions saved Australia. We will never really know.

Bruce Kingsbury’s war ended in a single violent flash. Keith Botterill’s would not end so swiftly. For the next three years he was starved and beaten. He was one of more than 2,400 prisoners of war in Sandakan in Borneo. It takes a special kind of hero to survive in a place like this.

In 1945 as the war came to an end they were marched more than 200 kms from Sandakan to Ranau. More than 1,000 began the march. Just over 400 made it to Ranau. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot or bayoneted. Historian Lynette Silver tells how those who couldn’t go on shook hands with their mates, said goodbye, and waited for the killing squad to arrive.

When war ended the killing didn’t. Two weeks after the end of the war the Japanese killed the remaining soldiers. We only know what happened because six Australians escaped. One of those was Keith Botterill.

There are so many stories like these. Stories of courage and sacrifice. They should be as well known as Simpson and his donkey. But they’re not. We have to fix this.

I didn’t hear these stories at school. I learnt about Bruce Kingsbury when I walked the Kokoda Track this time last year. It was the hardest thing I have ever done and the most important.

I went with Liberal MP Scott Morrison and young people from the areas we represent – Bankstown and Cronulla. We wanted to prove that if two politicians from different parties can be mates so can people from different backgrounds and religions.

But what began as an effort to bring two communities together after the Cronulla riots became something much more important. We realised we were walking in the footsteps of Australians whose sacrifices are not as well known as they should be.

Men like Bruce Kingsbury believed they were the only thing that stood between an invincible enemy and Australia. And they fought like it. Sandakan was the worst atrocity in Australian military history.

We need to rekindle these stories and tend to them. That’s what Anzac Day means to me, and that’s why this time next year Scott and I are going to walk in the footsteps of Keith Botterill from Sandakan to Ranau.

When I was a boy my grandfathers were my heroes. They still are. One fought in New Guinea. The other was a prisoner of war. Their names weren’t Bruce or Keith, but they were still heroes.

You dont need to go to the movies to see heroes. They are the old man who lives next door. The bloke at the club with the medals on his chest. The men and women still marching today. Say hello and ask them to tell you their story, lest they are lost to us forever. Lest we forget.