Sandakan wreath laying ceremony 2017

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The Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson AO
brendan nelson

Dr Brendan Nelson gives the welcome address at the Sandaken Wreath Laying Ceremony, 26 May 2017. See all official photographs.

I particularly would like to welcome a number of people who are where, who are special not only in their own right, but special in the sense of reflecting the importance of this event. Not only of course to the Australian War Memorial, but to our nation.

I welcome Gordon Ramsay the ACT minister for veterans.

I also welcome Jeremy Hanson CSC.

John King the president of the ACT Branch of the RSL, also representing his National President Mr Robert Dick.

Richard Moxham, from whom we will hear very shortly the commemorative address.

I welcome the representatives of Chief of the Royal Australian Navy, Royal Australian Air Force and of the Chief of the Australian Army.

Mrs Meg Green, the President of the War Widows Guild of Australia and Mrs Shirley Percival, the ACT President of the War Widows Guild.

MAJGEN Jim Molan, one of our distinguished retired generals with a lifetime of service to Australia.

Mr Eric Macdonald, Chair of the Sandakan Organising Committee.

MAJGEN Dave Chalmers, First Assistant Secretary Commemorations and the Office of Australian War Graves.

Arthur den Hartog, representing the Ambassador of the Netherlands.

Group Captain Carol Abraham, Defence Attaché for New Zealand.

Brigadier Andrew Harrison, representing the British High Commission.

Colonel Pei Sien Lam, Defence Attaché, Singapore High Commission

Most importantly I welcome the families of those who suffered and died, and of t small number men who survived, the Sandakan Death Marches.

I welcome and thank again the Australian Rugby Choir who will support us in singing today and of course the members of the RMC Band.

We pause here today, on this beautiful day, on the grounds of the Australian War Memorial in the shadows of very recent atrocity, in this case in Manchester, England. One of a series of atrocities inflicted upon our generation by those who have embraced a new form of totalitarianism.

We are here today to commemorate and remember the worst atrocity committee against Australians during the period of the Second World War. This was a generation, the finest generation the nation has ever produced; that was fighting totalitarianism in the form of fascism, militarist expansionist Japan in our part of the world.

The 19th century German philosopher Nietzsche wrote:

Whoever fights monsters should be careful to see he does not become a monster. If you gaze into the abyss long enough, the abyss will gaze into you.

We are Australians. We are reminded by this institution, not the building, the grounds or the sculptures, but by the stories of two million Australian men and women that are told here, the good and the bad, the great and the small, that we commemorate service, we commemorate sacrifice. That we admire courage and in particular we admire character. But this place, amongst many things reminds us that in the process of fighting monsters we do not become them.

The events that bring us here today really occurred in four phases.

In 1942 and ’43 - ’42 being the darkest year in our history and the most important after 1788 - determined resistance.

And then our men went through a period of determined endurance, and then the collapse of everything that was civilised.

Then decades of personal lived traumas and torment of those six who survived.

The impact on their families, the gradual assimilation of their story and then the commemoration of families, enjoined and supported by us and the rest of the nation.

The Greek dramatist, Aeschylus, in Armageddon wrote:

‘In our sleep,  pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
and in our despair, against our will
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’

Wisdom being the capacity to penetrate the character of people, circumstances and events with understanding.

Two thousand, five hundred of them. 

One thousand seven hundred and eighty seven Australians.

Their small black and white passport photos are up there in the Sandakan Room.

Six hundred and forty one British.

And then the torments and tortures of those who survived.

We do remember them. We will always remember them.

Their sacrifice, the circumstances under which they died, having suffered so brutally. And importantly the totalitarianism that they, and that generation, was fighting will continue to inspire us and give us the resolve to ensure the universal human values to which we aspire will prevail as we face our new and emerging challenges.

Welcome to all of you.

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