THOUGHTS OF A SON
My initial reaction to be asked to share my feelings about our tour to the place where my father had died, was no! Why should I? But, as the majority of the members have lost their loved ones in similar circumstances and some have taken the same trip as we did, maybe by sharing this experience we would become more of the “Sandakan Family”.
In Singapore, we started to trace the steps of the prisoners from where they surrendered, then through the streets to Changi, stopping to visit the re-located Changi chapel and then to the wharf where they embarked for Sandakan.
We arrived in Sandakan, saw where they disembarked and where some stayed the night at the padang. Others were sent to St. Michaels church, where permission had been obtained for us to enter, and for the first of many times to come, a feeling difficult to understand, but as though I had been here before. This is a lovely church with a beautiful stained glass section high above the altar and I am sure my father, who early in his life had trained in the ministry, would have appreciated notwithstanding the plight that he and his mates were in.
The day before Anzac Day we visited the Sandakan Memorial Park for a thorough tour, towards the end when we were left to look around, Lynette Silver asked Margaret and I to come with her and we would be taken to the place where my father and 22 others were shot. We followed a path for about 700 metres which took us away from the building sites to a place that was overgrown with jungle, a place where it was very quiet. Lynette had calculated the position from wartime maps, aerial photos and War Graves Commission records. No one else could have done this for me. After being there a little while I had to ask Margaret and Lynette if they wouldn’t mind going back, for the flood of thoughts going through my head was overwhelming. Finally, I sat on the pathway and tried to gain some self control. At first there was anger; why were these men shot, not because they tried to escape but because they had survived over three years of horror. Then, fleetingly, some self pity; why had this happened to our family? After that, the peacefulness of the place become more apparent and in the end I was at peace. I will never forgive but I will try to forget.
The Anzac Day service was a truly memorable experience, very well planned with all the group taking part. I had the honour of laying the group’s wreath. Towards the end of this very moving service, some gum leaves were burnt in a special container and after each of us had placed there own leaves, the beautiful smell that only Aussies can savour filled the air. I have been to many Anzac Day services from the Cenotaph in Sydney to Kings Park in Perth, but for obvious reasons this will be the one that I will always remember.
The road to Ranau crosses the route of the death marches and where possible we got as close as we could to where some our group’s relatives had died and services were held for each of these. At Ranau, another well thought out service was conducted again with all members participating and, of course, the burning of the gum leaves.
At Labuan War Cemetery, another very moving ceremony with all the group participating. A fly past had been arranged by our tour leader which was carried out by a plane called the Eagle that was, coincidentally, originally designed and constructed in Perth. The wonderful ritual of the burning of the gum leaves finished the formal proceedings. Then to find where my father was buried. Because only two of 23 had been identified, we selected one of the remaining “AN AUSTRALIAN SOLDIER of the 1939-1945 WAR. KNOWN ONLY TO GOD” headstones and finally, after over 60 years, said goodbye. My thoughts went back to the last time we had said goodbye, when I was ten, with an expectation that we would be reunited. Even after we had learned he was a POW there was always that expectation. Again, this was a very emotional experience that probably only a son or daughter could feel, emotions that are difficult to describe, maybe we were reunited on at that day, I think so. A tribute must be paid to Mr. Tan and his assistants who have kept the cemetery in such magnificent condition. Our sincere thanks go to Lynette Silver, Sowaran Singh, Willie and Jude Teoh and our fellow travellers who have made this tour so successful.
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