Tag Archives: Sandakan

The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

We would make a detour to Wagga Wagga, where Heidi had attended Charles Sturt University.

“Wagga Wagga,” she said, “So nice they named it twice.”

We mosied around a riverside park.  Of course it had public barbeque stations, and the landscaping was lovely, with the wisteria and forsythia and other trellises in full spring bloom.  It was lovely until I got to the Sandakan Prisoner of War Memorial.

In 1942, 1,800 Australian soldiers were defending Malaya and Singapore from the Japanese.  When the Japanese took Singapore, they transported the Aussies to Sandakan, an island which is part of what is now Borneo. Borneo, a place I would love to go on vacation.

Half of Aussies died of “ill treatment” in the first year.  But wait, it gets worse! As the allies closed in, the Japanese marched the prisoners through the jungle toward the center, executing anyone who fell, then massacred all that survived except for six men who escaped.

There was a second memorial, this one for the Wagga Wagga Kangaroo March during World War I.  It details the way recruits were rounded up and marched from town to town, with stirring speeches and music—as if they were going off to a festival, not a war.  The plaque didn’t mention how many of the recruits survived.

We drove on, subdued, and Heidi and Danielle played a mix of patriotic Australian music.  There was the beloved “I am Australian,” written and popularized by The Seekers.  Here’s one version, and here are the lyrics.

It acknowledges everyone who has contributed to making Australia Australia, including Aboriginals, convicts, and farmer’s wives.  The refrain is:

We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We’ll share a dream and sing with one voice
I am, you are, we are Australian

Even the lyrics to the official anthem, “Advance Australia Fair,” are quite mild, extolling the beauty and bounty of the land—sort of like “America the Beautiful.”

Why does our American anthem have to be the very-difficult-to-sing, self-congratulatory ode to war, the “Star Spangled Banner” (rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air)?

“This one is about the kangaroo marches,” Heidi DJ’d as the next tune began.  “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” by The Pogues, has to be the most depressing song of all time.  These are the first two verses; there are three more that get progressively darker.

When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murrays green basin to the dusty outback
I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in nineteen fifteen my country said Son
It’s time to stop rambling ’cause there’s work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we sailed away from the quay
And amidst all the tears and the shouts and the cheers
We sailed off to Gallipoli

How well I remember that terrible day
How the blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk he was ready, he primed himself well
He chased us with bullets, he rained us with shells
And in five minutes flat he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia
But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As we stopped to bury our slain
We buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then we started all over again

“Whoa!” cried Heidi, “Let’s switch gears!” and she popped on the actual old folksong, “Waltzing Matilda,” followed by “Down Under” by Men at Work, then a really stupid rendition of the Twelve Days of Christmas, Australian style.

It was dark now.  We stopped in central Wagga, got a pizza, and were eating it off the trunk of the car when all the power went out.

On the way to Albury, Heidi managed to find and book a motel on her phone, and at 10pm we pulled up in front of the Paddlesteamer Motel for the night.