The Last Post Ceremony commemorating the service of (VX52128) Gunner Albert Neil Cleary, 2/15th Field Regiment, Second World War.

Accession Number AWM2018.1.1.150
Collection type Film
Object type Last Post film
Physical description 16:9
Maker Australian War Memorial
Place made Australia: Australian Capital Territory, Canberra, Campbell
Date made 30 May 2018
Access Open
Conflict Second World War, 1939-1945
Copyright Item copyright: © Australian War Memorial
Creative Commons License This item is licensed under CC BY-NC
Copying Provisions Copy provided for personal non-commercial use

The Last Post Ceremony is presented in the Commemorative area of the Australian War Memorial each day. The ceremony commemorates more than 102,000 Australians who have given their lives in war and other operations and whose names are recorded on the Roll of Honour. At each ceremony the story behind one of the names on the Roll of Honour is told. Hosted by Troy Clayton, the story for this day was on (VX52128) Gunner Albert Neil Cleary, 2/15th Field Regiment, Second World War.

Speech transcript

VX52128 Gunner Albert Neil Cleary, 2/15th Field Regiment
Executed 20 March 1945
Story delivered 30 May 2018

Today we remember and pay tribute to Gunner Albert Neil Cleary.

Albert Cleary was born on 16 June 1922, the son of James and Iris Cleary of East Geelong.

Known by his second name, “Neil”, Cleary joined the Citizen Military Force on the 11th of June 1940. After serving for just under a year, he was discharged to join the Second Australian Imperial Force in April 1941. On joining the Militia, Cleary gave his year of birth as 1919; while enlisting with the Second AIF he gave it as 1920, possibly to avoid having to provide proof of parental consent. Whatever the reason, Albert Cleary clearly had a larrikin spirit.

During his service in the Militia, he was found absent without leave on a number of occasions. For being absent without leave on New Year’s Eve, he was awarded seven days’ confinement to barracks. In February he was fined for being “beyond limits fixed by regimental orders”, and in April he was punished with five days’ detention after being absent for a week.

While serving with the 2/2nd Field Regiment he was absent without leave in June. In August, en route to Singapore as a reinforcement for the 2/4th Anti-Tank Regiment, he was absent for four days from a transport ship docked at Fremantle. He was given 28 days’ detention, which he served in Western Australia. Around this time he was also admonished for “conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline”, and fined for insubordinate language.

As Cleary and his unit moved into Singapore, the end of 1941 saw the spread of Japanese forces throughout south-east Asia. Two British warships were sunk by a Japanese air attack off Malaya, and the government of Thailand formally allied itself with Japan. The invasion of Hong Kong occurred in early December, culminating in surrender late in the month. January would see the invasion of Burma and the Dutch East Indies, and the capture of Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

On 17 January 1942, Cleary was transferred to the 2/15th Field Regiment. The regiment had gone into action a few days earlier, and Cleary was probably sent as a replacement for casualties. The regiment's gunners were in almost constant action, providing artillery support for the infantry withdrawal along the Malayan Peninsula towards Singapore. By the end of the month, the last of the Allied troops had crossed the causeway and reached Singapore. Among some of the last to cross were the 2/15th’s B and D troops, the last Allied artillery units in action on the peninsula.

The remaining men of the 2/15th Field Regiment were captured when Singapore surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942. Cleary and his comrades were initially imprisoned at Selerang Barracks, Changi, but from May onwards the Japanese began sending groups of prisoners of war for labouring work elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific. In July, a detachment of over 100 members of the 2/15th, including Cleary, was sent to Sandakan in Borneo. Consigned to B Force, which consisted of almost 1,500 prisoners, the group were transported from Changi on 7 July 1942 on board the so-called hellship Ubi Maru, arriving in Sandakan Harbour in July 1942. Here, alongside about 2,500 British and Australian prisoners, they constructed an airfield.

From the beginning, conditions were harsh. Men were confined to a cage for periods for minor infringements, and subjected to repeated brutal bashings and starvation. Rations rapidly dwindled in 1944, and health deteriorated.

After Allied bombing raids in late 1944 there were further reductions in the men's daily rice ration. Believing that an invasion in the area was imminent, the Japanese planned to move prisoners inland to Ranau, 250 kilometres to the west.

Urged on by their guards, on the march many collapsed and died within the first few days out of Sandakan. If they lagged behind they were bayoneted or shot. Only half of the men on this first death march reached Ranau, where they were put to work carrying rice to a Japanese food dump.

Cleary survived and in early March, he and a mate, Gunner Wally Crease, escaped from the camp at Ranau.

Cleary was recaptured over a week later by some natives who handed him over for a reward. He was brought back to the camp, and thrown into an empty area known as the “Guard House”. Already suffering from dysentery and acute enteritis which had plagued the camp, he was tied to a tree outside the Guard House and beaten with rifle butts, sticks, and anything else to hand.

The beatings continued the next day and when Crease was recaptured he received the same treatment. The next morning Crease was released to get a drink of water and, while the guards’ attention was diverted, managed to stumble away from the Guard House. After shooting the would-be escapee, the guards vented their anger and frustration on Cleary using fists and rifles.

Prisoners who asked to tend to him were refused, and those who tried to help, talk to, or feed him were severely beaten.

Covered in blood and bruises and dirtied by dysentery, he remained tied up until his friends were allowed to tend to him 11 or 12 days after the beginning of his ordeal. At a nearby creek they tenderly washed him, before carrying him back to the hut where he died in their arms.

He was 22 years old.

Initially buried at Ranau No. 1 Camp, his body was recovered after the war and reburied in Labuan War Cemetery.

A memorial was later erected on the spot where Cleary died: the Ranau Memorial commemorates the Australian and British soldiers who died on the death marches from Sandakan to Ranau, and those prisoners who died at Ranau.

In 2011, Cleary was awarded a posthumous Commendation for Gallantry.

His name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my left, among almost 40,000 Australians who died while serving in the Second World War.

This is but one of the many stories of service and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Gunner Albert Neil Cleary, who gave his life for us, for our freedoms, and in the hope of a better world.

Duncan Beard
Historian, Military History Section

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