VX24597 Captain Lionel Colin Matthews, 8th Division Signals
Executed 2 March 1944
Story delivered 8 June 2013
Today, we remember and pay tribute to Captain Lionel Colin Matthews of the Australian Imperial Force, 8th Division Signals.
Lionel Matthews spent much of his youth in Adelaide before marrying his sweetheart Lorna Lane in 1935. Enlisting in 1939, Matthews quickly gained a reputation as a talented Signalman, and was described as a man who could use Morse code like the mother tongue .
After the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942, nearly 1,500 Australian prisoners, including Matthews, were shipped as part of B Force to Sandakan in British North Borneo to build an airstrip. For many, Sandakan would become a symbol of the best and worst of humanity.
Matthews was determined to save the lives of his fellow prisoners. He made connections with local civilian sympathisers who provided prohibited supplies. Ignoring opportunities for escape, Matthews focus remained on others, at huge personal risk.
In July 1942, he was betrayed by locals under extreme duress, and arrested with several other prisoners and locals. They were taken to the Kempeitai, a notoriously cruel secret police force. Matthews was defiant to the last, and extraordinarily brave. He communicated with his fellow prisoners, tapping Morse code messages on his knees to share information and boost morale. He signalled, If you ever happen to meet my wife or any Australians, tell them that I have died for my country.
Matthews had lost more than half his body weight while in captivity. He was tried in Kuching in February 1944 and charged with espionage; his guilt was taken for granted. He was permitted to write a letter to his wife before being executed. He refused to wear the blindfold offered to him.
Lorna Matthews never received the letter he had so carefully written to her, but she was officially informed of his death in 1944. Matthews was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1947. He is buried in the Labuan War Cemetery in North Borneo, along with more than 2,000 British and Australian servicemen. These men would later take part in the horrific Sandakan Death Marches, in the agonising closing stages of the Second World War.
The name of Captain Lionel Colin Matthews is listed on the Roll of Honour on my left, along with those of close to 9,000 Australian prisoners of war of the Japanese. His photograph is displayed today beside the Pool of Reflection.
This is one of the many stories of courage and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial. We now remember Captain Lionel Colin Matthews and all of those Australians who have given their lives in the service of our nation.