Remembering Valley victims of WWII


MORE than 150 relatives and friends of Prisoners Of War (POWs) will travel to Sandakan in Borneo for the dedication of memorial windows in St Michael's Anglican Church on Anzac Day.

Lynette Silver OAM, author of many books including Sandakan -? A Conspiracy of Silence, will accompany the group.

Lynette was responsible for raising more than $100,000 to complete the important memorial.

The reason St Michael's Church was chosen was that some prisoners stayed overnight there in July 1942 on their way to the compound some 16km away.

The POWs were brought by ship from Singapore to build an air strip for the Imperial Japanese Army.

This sad saga of Australian military history had a great bearing on the families of the Clarence Valley.

The Valley was well represented among the prisoners -? John Barnier, Gerald Commerford, Johnny O'Donohue, John Jackson and my cousin John Corbett.

The saddest aspect of this tragic event was that some families were never officially told what had befallen their loved ones. My aunty died believing her son had died in Changi.

It wasn't until I was browsing through some records in the Grafton Library that I discovered that J.W.F. Corbett of the 2/19 battalion had died at Sandakan in March 1945.

In 1945, the Japanese realising the war was not going well for them, decided to march the prisoners who were able to walk, to Ranau, 260km away up in the mountains.

Carrying bags of rice weighing 23kg and fed on only a handful of rice a day, many did not survive this 'death' march.

This was one of the worst atrocities committed against Australians, and the least known.

Johnny O'Donohue endured all of this on the road to Ranau and was still alive on August 15, 1945 when peace was declared. He was murdered, along with 14 other survivors on August 27, 1945.

Ranau was the end of the road for all except the six who were able to escape into the jungle. Located in the shadow of Mt Kinabalu, Ranau, the scene of many dreadful deeds, has an eerie feeling about it, and I felt uncomfortable there.

There was a futile attempt to rescue the prisoners. The exercise was called 'Operation Kingfisher'.

Troops were trained in Cairns to take people off with landing craft. General Sir Thomas Blamey asked General Douglas Macarthur for 53 aircraft which were available. The operation never got off the ground, due to poor intelligence about conditions at the camp.

Macarthur had, however, used the Kingfisher plan to rescue 2000 prisoners at Los Banios in the Philippines, without the loss of one prisoner.

Macarthur used nine planes, not anything like the 53 Blamey wanted. I know at first hand of these events because my cousin, Brother Placid C.S.S.R. (Frank Best) was one of those rescued.

Frank told me in detail of these events on many occasions. One cousin is rescued and not far away in Borneo the other cousin and his mates died.

Those that died at Sandakan and Ranau are buried in the island paradise at Labuan in beautifully tended graves. The majority of the graves are marked only with 'Known to God', as the soldiers could not be identified because their dog tags, which were made of compressed cardboard, had rotted in the jungle.

They are buried alongside two Victoria Cross winners and many other brave soldiers, but perhaps none as brave as young Gunner Cleary, Richie Murray, Johnny O'Donohue and many more.

We must forgive after 60 long years because hatred destroys, but we will never forget those young Australians from Sandakan and the road to Ranau.

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