74th Anniversary of the Fall of Singapore

Across the ages—through peace and war—the flame of freedom and liberty has shone in the world. In the darkest of times, when it seems that there is only turmoil and sorrow, that flame endures and burns its brightest—its light a beacon calling to men and women of honour, who seek the good and the right. That flame—like the Eternal Flame of Remembrance—is the essence of the human spirit: the birthright of all to seek a better life for themselves, their families and their country.

On Sunday 14 February, at the Shrine of Remembrance in Brisbane, it was my honour to deliver the address at a memorial service organised by the 2/10th Field Regiment Association to remember the 74th anniversary of the fall of Singapore. Along with friends and family who came to pay their respects, there were representatives from the Army, Navy and Air Force, the nurses, the widows, the prisoners of war, the government of Singapore, the Returned and Services League and the Department of Veterans' Affairs. We gathered to remember those members of the 8th Division Australian Imperial Force, the Royal Australian Navy, the Royal Australian Air Force, the royal Australian nurses and associated services who fought and gave their lives for freedom and liberty during the Malayan Campaign, as Singapore fell, those who were Japanese prisoners of war and those who have passed on since 1945.

Beside that sacred shrine, in the shadow of towers and monuments, it was hard not to feel dwarfed by the unseen shadows of the brave who defended the freedoms and liberties that generations of Australians have enjoyed and too often taken for granted. As old friends and families reunited, we gazed upon the fraying photos from a time before the war to see boys and men—sons, brothers, fathers and uncles—with hope, happiness, and the twinkle of youth in their eyes—black and white photos but full of Australian colour. We remembered those sons and daughters of Queensland—those sons and daughters of Australia—whose valour and service fought back the tide of tyranny in Asia, Europe and the Pacific that imperilled our young commonwealth and the principles upon which it was built: democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech and the liberty of the individual

In late 1939, Australia was a nation at the edge of the British Empire—a vibrant democracy, founded upon the common law and the long-held freedoms inherited from the mother country. The outbreak of war in Europe led to rapid changes in the Australian forces and over a few short years the drama, hardship and loss of war would forever change our perspective on Australia's place in the world. Days after the Nazis invaded Poland, a 'special force' of 20,000 Australians was raised for service 'at home or abroad as circumstances permit'. This force—which became known as the Second Australian Imperial Force—eventually expanded to five divisions: the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th infantry divisions and the 1st Armoured Division.

It was within the 8th Division 2nd AIF that an artillery regiment composed almost entirely of Queenslanders was raised—the 2/10th Field Regiment. The 2/10th formed and trained at Redbank in Queensland in mid-July 1940, as tensions grew about a foreign threat to the nation. Young men volunteered from all walks of life and all parts of our great state—from the farmers of the far north and the graziers of the west, to city kids from Brisbane and even an entire surf lifesaving club on the Gold Coast. The average age on enlistment was 21 years and four months. In Sydney, they boarded the Queen Mary at Circular Quay and embarked for Malaya on 4 February 1941. They disembarked at Malacca on 19 February 1941. A year later, many would be dead. The rest would be guests of the emperor.

On 8 December 1941, Japanese troops landed on the north-east coast of Malaya—a mere 40 minutes before the attack on Pearl Harbour. By the end of January 1942, in a brutal jungle campaign, the Japanese had repelled the Allied forces from Malaya and forced them to retreat onto Singapore. The battle for Singapore was short and brutal. The 2/10th was located in the north-west of the island along the Straits of Johor. The Japanese crossed the Straits on barges on the night of 8 February. By 12 February, Allied troops were forced into a small, defensive perimeter around Singapore city in the island's south-east. At 10:30pm on 14 February, the guns fell silent. At 8.30 pm the following night, over 130,000 troops on Singapore Island—including 15,000 Australians—were surrendered to the Japanese.

The next 3½ years were brutal and traumatic for the prisoners of war. As Singapore fell, so did a tsunami of barbarism fall upon POWs from their captors. The 2/10th and other 8th Division forces were transferred to the infamous Changi jail. Before long, almost all Australian prisoners of war had been scattered across Japan and Southeast Asia. However, the common thread was the cruelty and inhuman conditions inflicted upon the prisoners—military and civilian, soldier and nurse, foreign or local. Starvation, physical brutality, death marches and forced labour were the daily torment of Australian POWs. Work groups were organised and sent to Japanese occupied territories for labour for roads, machinery, chemicals and infrastructure—including the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway, where 2,646 Australians died. Men ended up in Borneo, known for its death marches, where only six Australians survived. Of the 22,376 Australian prisoners of war captured by the Japanese including those from Singapore, 8,031 died while in captivity. Of the 846 officers and men of the 2/10th regiment who became prisoners, 286 died. In those dark times, the Australians fought on in spirit, forging bonds that were often closer than blood, thinking of home, surviving to be free. Truly, there are no words, no dancing poetry or solemn words of prose, that can tell us what really happened.

Like so many other Australians who have fought for freedom and liberty—before, during and after the Second World War—the story of every gunner and every nurse must be told, for theirs is the story of us all. My own great uncle, Uncle Gray Schneider, is one small story. A son of Australia, who grew up in a house where German accents were within living memory, he and his brother joined up to fight German Nazis. My grandfather was left behind to manage the family farm. Uncle Gray, by now a major, was being shipped to the Middle East to advise on tank warfare. He was captured when Singapore fell and spent his war years in camps. Gray returned home, but part of him was left behind in the camps. He died too young, haunted by ghosts and demons. He never really left Changi. A photo of Gray and my grandfather hanging in my parents' home shows two young Australian men—testament to what once was and what was lost.

Following victory in the Pacific, the surviving prisoners of war began returning to Australia almost immediately. Tribulations did not end upon the return home. Disease followed the men and women, physical and mental—tuberculosis, liver disease and suicide were amongst the leading causes of death—but they were tough. Those who returned went on to make lives for themselves, have families and build successful careers in politics, medicine, law, sport, and business. Today, the youngest of these gunners is 94, with only eight of the 2/10th still with us. I commend Libby Parkinson, Wendy Drysdale and their families and the rest of the 2/10th Field Regiment Association for organising the annual remembrance service for all members of all units lost in battle or as prisoners of war in connection with the Malayan campaign and the fall of Singapore.

As the greatest generation slowly slips from the realm of memory to the pages of history, their lives become our story to share. As the flame of remembering the fall of Singapore passes to the next generation, so it is for all of us to hold and defend the flame of liberty and freedom. For those who returned, we give thanks and honour. We will never forget those who gave their all so that we might live in peace. We will never forget those who gave their tomorrow so that we might have our today. Lest we forget.