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Thursday 22 October, 2015
In this year of commemoration, other significant events in Australia’s military history may be overlooked. Seventy years ago, on 20th September 1945 at Labuan, Major General G. F. Wootten, GOC 9th Division, took the surrender of the Japanese forces in the area. Days earlier, on 9th September, Brigadier T. Eastick with a small group of 9th Division soldiers, had entered the city of Kuching, Sarawak, North Borneo. Kuching was the site of the Batu Lintang Prisoner of War camp, where civilian men, women and children, and Allied soldiers – Australian, British, Dutch and Indian – anxiously awaited the relieving force. By August, the POWs were at their limit with three or four dying each day. Few could get off their bunks to do daily chores.
The POWs had heard on a secret radio of the surrender of the Imperial Japanese Army on 9th August. But it was not until 24th August that camp commandant Colonel Suga announced the surrender. On 8th September, two 2/12 Field Ambulance medical officers entered Batu Lintang camp, marching in ahead of any supporting troops. The POWs thought this particularly bold as the Japanese troops in the area were still unpredictable. Eastick came to the camp on 11th September announcing to much cheering that the POWs were “free”.
The Australian officers and ORs at Batu Lintang had been held at Changi and then, as members of B and E Forces, at Sandakan. The officers had been moved from Sandakan after the discovery in July 1943, of a secret radio and underground network led by Captain Lionel Matthews. Matthews was executed at Kuching in March 1944. Liberation for the Australian officers was bitter sweet as they learned that all but six of the men they had been forced to leave behind at Sandakan had died on the Sandakan – Ranau Death Marches.
Today, on the former POW camp site, now Batu Lintang Teachers College, there is a small museum and a memorial to the POWs. The museum emphasises the hope that can come through learning; reflecting the extraordinary education program which, under extreme conditions and defying their captors, the 144 Australian officers conducted. They used scraps of paper, stubs of pencils and any books available, while the lawyers, university lecturers, accountants, teachers, farmers, doctors and speakers of other languages amongst them delivered a range of subjects, conducted exams and awarded certificates.
This year on 11th September, a service was held to commemorate the historical significance to Sarawak of the liberation day as a day of peace and hope for the future. Local dignitaries and two grandchildren of Wootten and Eastick were present and a message sent by daughters of two of the POW officers, Captain Stan Woods MC (me), and Lt Tom Earley (Dr Michele Cunningham) was offered at the ceremony.
“… we remember those who suffered here, who died here and those who came home, but left a legacy of hope for peace and for the spirit of education as a way to forge a future for the generations to come.”
The Batu Lintang memorial and museum keeps that spirit alive.
Lest we forget.