As the untold story of Sandakan now becomes the told, many of the unknown soldiers of Sandakan also become the known.
Finally, we now know their names. We now know their rank and battalion. We now know where they were born, and how and when they died.
We now know where in Australia they made their home, and when they left for the battlefields of the Asia-Pacific.
We now know their age and their circumstances – whether from the city or the bush. We know their occupation when they left to become a soldier, and we know their religion, if they had one.
We know whether they were married or single, and we now have a direct link between those who loved them and those whom they loved. We know their children, and grandchildren, and their families are now known to us, as they were lost to them.
As historians like Paul Ham move many unknown soldiers to the known, we do know, finally, who this Australian is.
The Sandakan death marches have been, as rightly identified in the title of Paul Ham’s work, an untold story for too long.
This book, and other recent works, now takes them from the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and, finally, introduces a Known Soldier to Australia.
Alongside several other important books of the past decade, it is only now that we can say that the Sandakan death marches is an event in our history that has finally been told, and it is only now that we fully comprehend the courage, the bravery and the sacrifice of soldiers now known.
Fifty years of a conspiracy of silence is now replaced with the spoken.
Fifty years of incorrect information is now finally being corrected.
And after fifty years of Australian families trying their very best to pay tribute to an unknown soldier within their own family, we finally now have the opportunity to know the truth.
This meticulous work by Paul Ham confirms Australia now knows what happened in the horrific events of the Sandakan death marches, and we now know of the conspiracy of silence for many years that followed.
And as just one example of many, as my father outlined in his personal story, it is only now, 67 years later, that our family both grieves for and celebrates a known soldier.
We now know my grandfather – Captain John Bernard Oakeshott – died on the 27th August 1945, murdered two weeks after what is known as Victory in the Pacific Day, two weeks after what is now commemorated as Sandakan Day, because he demonstrated an extraordinary selflessness and chose to stay with the men under his care to the end.
It is therefore a rare honour to stand alongside my father to help launch this book, and I thank Paul Ham and Random House for inviting our family to be involved.
This book, alongside works such as Hiroshima Nagasaki, helps record the truth. These works matter to many people, as they do to our family.
And while I suspect my invitation to speak tonight may have something to do with the letters “MP” after my name, my choice to accept the invitation is because I am a son, a brother, and a cousin, in a family who has a growing appreciation and awareness of the selfless acts of our family member, and a collective sorrow that man’s inhumanity to man allowed many of these events to occur at all.
I also suspect we are not alone as a family who feels a deep frustration that it has taken so long for the truth to finally be told, and a similar frustration that the updating and correcting of many of these now undisputed facts seems to challenge so many within Government ranks.
Like my father, as proud of the true story of the Oakeshott name as we are, we are equally aware that we are members of just one family, and that there are thousands of Australian families who carry stories, memories and scars of various types and depths that we equally honour tonight.
And like all these families, nothing can change history – like introducing me to a grandfather I never met.
But as individuals, families and as a nation, we now have choices.
Armed with the knowledge of what really happened, we have now removed the convenience of distance of the untold story and the unknown soldier.
How we as people, and how our Governments, react and respond to the now-told truth is important.
It is in this context that Paul Ham has written a letter to the Imperial Emperor of Japan at the very start of the book. I am not sure where this call for an apology will land.
But I did receive an email during the week from Tokyo from a Japanese man – a teacher of Australian studies at various Japanese universities – that I would like to share with you:
“I’m composing this mail because I watched last night’s 7.30 Report via online. I was aware of what happened in Sandakan, having visited the Australian War Memorial and read Cameron Forbes’ Hellfire. I vividly remember the chilling effect of the Sandakan display at the AWM. Still, it is (a) shocking, horrifying story to be told.
“How can I, as a Japanese, respond to the fact that your grandfather and 14 others were murdered on 27 August 1945? I’m deeply sorry for what my parents’ and grandparents’ generations of Japanese have done to those POW’s. I firmly believe that an official apology should be made by the Japanese parliament and government on behalf of the Japanese people. I think, just like the apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the apology by the parliament is absolutely vital.
“As an educator, one thing I can do is tell the stories of Sandakan, the Thai-Burma Railway, Banka Island and other brutality to the next generation of Japanese people. For many younger generation Japanese, these stories have never been told. I’m pleased to tell you that most of the students are deeply shocked and very sincere in digesting the stories.
“That kind of attitude is encouraging. I will do my best effort to tell them what happened throughout East and SouthEast Asia during World War 2.”
By this email, by Paul Ham’s book, and by the growing awareness of the truth, I say there is hope. If not led by Government-to-Government, it will be led by people-to-people of two great civil societies.
This weekend in Sydney, across town, Australia and Japan are celebrating the 50th anniversary of business partnerships. Australia has a trade surplus of over $32 billion annually, and Japan is the third largest investor in Australia behind the US and UK. Japan and Australia are important to each other, and this is not in doubt.
But In 2012, I am one who believes our relationship is now strong enough to tell, and deal with, the truth of Pacific War Crimes generally, and the Sandakan death marches in particular.
And it is because our relationship is so strong that we can do it, not despite the relationship.
The more people who buy this book, and read and reflect on the depravities done and the sacrifices made, sacrifices by known soldiers with known families, then the greater the chance the ties between Japan and Australia will be unbreakable in the future, and the greater the chance such events will never, ever happen again.
It is all any of us can ultimately ask.
Paul, good luck with sales, and on behalf of many, we thank you for your work.