Captain Lionel Matthews’ George Cross medal donated to Memorial

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Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, was today honoured to accept the donation of the rare George Cross posthumously awarded to Captain Lionel Colin Matthews for extreme and selfless courage while a prisoner of war.

On this day 71 years ago, Captain Matthews, known as “The Duke”, was executed by the Japanese in the Kuching prisoner-of-war camp on the island of Borneo.

During his time in captivity between August 1942 and March 1944, Matthews directed an underground intelligence organisation in Sandakan and arranged for the delivery of badly needed supplies.

In July 1943, the organisation was betrayed to the camp captors, and though Matthews had devised an escape and could have fled he remained with his men and was arrested. Brutally tortured, Matthews refused to divulge the names of his cohorts and “even at the time of his execution defied the Japanese”.

The commander of the Japanese troops on Borneo, Lieutenant Colonel Suga Tatsuji, told a group of Australian officers after the funeral, “I have just executed the bravest man I ever met.”

Captain Matthews’ son, David, surrounded by family and friends, formally presented the medals to Dr Nelson, who was touched by their generosity.

“It is the most humbling and honourable of gestures that the Matthews family has allowed the Australian War Memorial to preserve this award in its display,” Dr Nelson said.

“My pledge to Captain Matthews and his family is that these medals will be kept safe and preserved for posterity.

“They will be proudly displayed here in the Hall of Valour so that generations to come can acknowledge the courage and sacrifice made by Lionel and his mates in service of our nation.”

The event was also attended by Lieutenant Russ Ewin, the last surviving member of Matthews’ underground movement, who risked his own life on many occasions working closely alongside Matthews and acting as a link to the outside sympathisers.

The George Cross is ranked just behind the Victoria Cross and is awarded for acts of extreme bravery. It is no longer awarded to Australians, being superseded in 1975 by the Australian Cross of Valour. There are currently no military recipients of the Cross of Valour.

The medal group donated also includes Captain Matthews’ Military Cross and campaign service medals. 

Photos from the handover are available on the Memorial’s Flickr page:

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