British High Commission Commemorative Service for the 75th anniversary of peace in the Indo-Pacific, Canberra
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal People, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, emerging leaders and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders gathered here today.
Our British and Australian experiences in the War in the Pacific span the dark days of Malaya and Singapore, the success of the Burma Campaign as part of its Defence of India, and operations in support of Nationalist China.
It is little known that large numbers of Royal Australian Air Force members fought in Royal Air Force squadrons in India and Burma while Royal Australian Navy ships served as part of the Eastern Fleet. Although land operations took us on separate paths after Singapore and the fall of the Dutch East Indies, the combined Allied efforts saw the eventual rolling back of the Imperial Japanese forces in the Pacific.
The War in the Pacific, though, is as much a story of the triumph of human will as it is of units, ships, military strategy and operations. It is a story of struggle and eventual success that was conducted in the most brutal terrain and encounters. No wonder the generation that fought that war is so admired by us today.
In 2016, Linda and I attended the launch of the book, Billy, My Life as a Teenage POW by Billy Young, aged 90. The audience listened in tears as Billy, who at 15 years of age had lied about his age to enlist, told the story of rehearsing a song with his mates for the Christmas concert that was to be held at the end of the year in the Sandakan POW camp. At the end of his speech and in a faint voice he sang the song in Malay then English, recalled the names of his fellow singers, and then concluded ‘And I am the only one left.’
Billy had been sent as a reinforcement to the 8th Division in Singapore, just in time for the city’s fall. He was sent to Sandakan but survived because he was convicted by the Japanese for repeated infringements of camp rules and sent as a criminal to Outram Road Gaol in Singapore. Such were the conditions at Outram Road that Billy described Changi POW camp as ‘our holiday camp’ where Outram Road inmates were sent when desperately ill.
And, in the same sense of admiration for that generation, it is not by coincidence that Sir Tom Moore came to attention in the United Kingdom and in other countries this year. With the same spirit that saw eventual victory in Burma, where he served, Sir Tom inspired a nation during a very difficult time at home.
I have been fortunate to meet many outstanding veterans and civilians who served or suffered during the War in the Pacific.
- Billy Young, who I have mentioned
- My former History lecturer at RMC – and, late-in-life, my neighbour – Alex Hill OBE, a veteran of the 9th Division at Tobruk, Alamein and the Brigade Major of the last Australian amphibious assault in Borneo
- The family of FLTLT Bill Newton VC who, as a member of a RAAF squadron in WW2, was posthumously awarded the VC for gallant actions at Salamaua, Papua New Guinea
- And Mrs Jan Ruff O’Herne, author of 50 Years of Silence in which she recounted her experience as a ‘comfort woman’ in the Dutch East Indies.
Each of these meetings has filled me with admiration for that generation.
As does the announcement during the week that Ordinary Seaman Edward (Teddy) Sheean has been posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia. Teddy was a young man from Tasmania who, in the service of his nation in World War 2, chose certain death over the possibility of survival to save his shipmates in the water. His actions aboard HMAS Armidale on 1 December 1942 in firing at Japanese aircraft strafing his shipmates exemplify the characteristics our serving men and women have demonstrated in conflicts throughout history — mateship, endurance, courage and sacrifice. His is a story that fills me with immense admiration and pride.
Tomorrow, it is regrettable that we will be unable to honour their service as we would want to do. Physical distancing requirements imposed on us by COVID-19 prevent large commemorative gatherings. Our tributes, reflections and thanksgiving however are heartfelt. Having stood, on behalf of Australia or the Australian Defence Force, at Hellfire Pass, Kranji, Bomana, Lae and Yokohama war cemeteries, I can only utter my deepest thanks for what they have done for us.
As then Australian Prime Minister Chifley announced over the radio after the Empire of Japan accepted the Allies’ demand for an unconditional surrender, “Let us remember those whose lives were given that we may look forward to a peace which they have won for us."
And, so, ahead of VP Day tomorrow:
- We acknowledge the support of all Allied nations, many of which are represented here today, in helping secure a free world.
- And, we accept that we have been entrusted with a great responsibility to maintain peace and security in the Indo-Pacific.
Our energies, interactions and commitments must be directed towards securing stability and prosperity in the region for future generations. It has been done before. The important contributions made by the Allies in the re-building of war-ravaged Japan helped lay the early foundations of the modern Japan we now know — one of Australia’s closest and most trusted partners in the region.
Little could any of those interred at the Yokohama Commonwealth War Cemetery, where Linda and I laid a wreath on behalf of Australia last October, have imagined the strength of the bond that would one day exist between our two countries. It is a model example of two former foes reconciled and working together as close partners to promote regional security, ultimately aiming to prevent a recurrence of the wartime suffering that they experienced.
Our presence here today indicates that the efforts of those who helped secure victory in the Pacific were not in vain.
Lest we forget.