Stanhope / Australia remembers and forgets

“One hundred and thirty four German sailors were killed in the battle. Australia has chosen to neither maintain nor identify the location of the cemetery,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE

I HAVE just returned from Malaysia, including Sabah (Borneo). Robyn and I were keen to experience the diversity, culture and history of Malaysia, see the orangutans, pygmy elephants, sun bears and the other stunning fauna in Borneo.

jon stanhope

Jon Stanhope.

In these troubled times, with so much strife in the world involving relations between Muslim and non-Muslim people, we found it reassuring, as guests in a majority Muslim nation, to be reminded in everything we did and saw each day, and in all our interactions with the people of Malaysia, of how much in common all of humanity has.

However, man’s inhumanity to man, specifically the treatment by the Japanese of Australian and British servicemen in the Sandakan POW Camp in Borneo and the associated death marches is my most enduring and vivid memory of our holiday.

Almost 2500 Australian and British prisoners of war, about 1700 of them Australian, were transferred by the Japanese to Sandakan after the fall of Singapore in 1942. The men were put to work constructing an airstrip. By late 1944 only 1900 prisoners were still alive. In January, 1945, the airstrip was destroyed by the advancing Allies and the Japanese commenced a series of forced marches, the “death marches” of prisoners from Sandakan to Ranau, a distance of 260 kilometres.

When Borneo was reoccupied at the end of the war, only six Australian prisoners of war remained alive.

It is generally accepted, without argument, that these events are the single worst atrocity ever suffered by Australian servicemen.

The site of the Sandakan POW Camp has been preserved. The Australian Government, to its great credit, has built a fitting and evocative memorial inside the camp in the area where the Australian barracks were located.

The road from the camp upon which the men set out on their journey to Ranau, and death, is still there. It is a sacred and unutterably sad place. I said a prayer for the men who died on the road and silently expressed the hope, which I did not feel, that their souls were at peace.

The power and significance of the Sandakan POW memorial is a reminder of how important it is, without distinction, to both not forget and to honour the sacrifice of all those who die in war. By and large, this is something that Australia does well, but there is some inconsistency in our national response and some issues that warrant review.

Instances of this inconsistency, or perhaps more truthfully disinterest, can be found in the Australian territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

For example, North Keeling Island in the Cocos Islands is the site of the only World War I cemetery in Australia.

The cemetery is not marked or recorded. It is completely overgrown by jungle. It is a German War cemetery and it contains the bodies of sailors from the SS Emden, who perished in its battle with HMAS Sydney.

One hundred and thirty four German sailors were killed in the battle. Australia has chosen to neither maintain nor identify the location of the cemetery.

The treatment by the Commonwealth of the remains of the “unknown sailor” from HMAS Sydney, who was washed ashore on Christmas Island and buried there in 1942, after the ship was sunk by a German raider with the loss of all hands, has disturbed many of the residents of the island.

The body was disinterred by the Commonwealth in 2006 for the stated purpose of seeking a viable DNA sample for identification. In what almost all Christmas Island residents regard as a massive breach of faith and a sacrilegious disregard for the soul of the sailor, his body was not returned to Christmas Island but was reburied in 2008 in Geraldton.

I am advised that the grave in the Geraldton cemetery is isolated, poorly identified and forlorn. The people of Christmas Island took seriously their guardianship of the remains of the unknown sailor and of their obligation to honour and respect his memory. They would like the Commonwealth to return the body to the place in which it had rested, for more than 60 years, in the heart of their community.

Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented  Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only chief minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.

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