A Sandakan Christmas, 1943.

Today my kids have decorated our Christmas tree. It’s an exciting occasion, and the room is filled with much discussion about where each decoration should go. There is joy in rediscovering much-loved decorations, exclamation over which angel should be closest to the top of the tree, and games of ‘eye spy’ once every decoration is up. The excitement of an age-old tradition lives on in these kids. December 25 is a special day for Australians, despite the oddness of celebrating a mid-winter festival in the heat of summer. The tradition of the day (even in our non-believing family) involves food, family, gift-giving and, most of all, love.

It is jarring, then, to read the Christmas menu for my blog today. This menu was dug up in 1947 from a mass grave of 23 Australian Prisoners of War (POWs) at Sandakan, North Borneo, and it reflects those same traditions of food and consideration for fellow-humans, but in such different conditions.

Of the almost 2400 Australian and British POWs that were held by Japanese forces at Sandakan between 1942 and 1945, there were only 6 survivors, who managed to escape into the surrounding jungle and were helped by locals. Conditions for the Sandakan POWs were brutal, and they culminated in 1945 with three aptly-named ‘death marches’.

There is no doubt, then, that the young man who owned this Christmas menu died, although we do not know whether it was through sickness, starvation or by more direct means from his captors.

The front of this Christmas menu proclaims 'Greetings'

The front of this Christmas menu proclaims 'Greetings'

The menu is dated Christmas 1943, and the front proclaims ‘Greetings’. It shows a cheery drawing of Australia complete with Christmas bells and holly. Inside the card, it all starts with a toast,

‘ Gentlemen! Your Xmas cheer
No glasses charged with foaming beer,
But friendships forged
in hope’s bright glow,
Makes this Xmas happy
With the spirit you show.’

The menu on the facing page outlines a lunch (poshly called tiffin) complete with chicken soup, roast duck, pork pie, roast potatoes and pumpkin, and finishes off with steamed Xmas pudding and fruit salad.

The Christmas menu for 1943. Did the POWs really eat such a meal?

The Christmas menu for 1943. Did the POWs really eat such a meal?

It is unlikely that this is what they ate, or, if they did, that it would have looked quite what you and I might expect from a menu description like this. A diary that was exhumed from the same mass grave, which is thought to belong to POW Tom Burns (NX72757) outlines what happened in the way of celebrations that day.

‘We are having a concert party to go all around the lines to sing Christmas Carols. The officers are staging a Holy Concert. Most of the units are arranging a get together for a fun hour. Christmas night and we are to have beeno on fritters and coffee and a few singing items. I went to midnight mass.’

Tom Burns’s diary describes his life as a POW at Sandakan, and I read through the diary transcript that’s on this file with quiet horror. Food was described often in his pages. It’s not surprising that it’s on his mind, as he states fairly early on that he is ‘forever hungry’.

‘Our daily menu was the following. Breakfast ground up rice as a porridge, half a slice of bread, one tablespoonful of sugar, a little drop of unsweetened milk and black tea. Lunch consisted of bully beef or tinned meat and mixed with a stew and a few greens such as beans yams mint etc. [and] a cup of black tea. The evening meal was likely to be anything usually a grass stew and rice, perhaps a biscuit or rice pastie or rice rissoles and our rice is very poor being only 10 ozs per day. Food and cigarettes have become a scarcity.’

In this environment, a Christmas lunch would have been a luxury, but perhaps one of those luxuries that were needed to remind you of who you were, of your family back home, of better times in the past, and to also keep alive the hope that your lives might improve in the future.

Included in the menu is part of a sermon, and a group of eleven friends have written their names on it as well. A keepsake of a day which they made special for themselves, a keepsake that very quickly became a memorial instead. Tom Burns’s name is there, 4th down on the list.

The menu is signed by eleven friends, as a keepsake of the day

The menu is signed by eleven friends, as a keepsake of the day

Reading this file, as my children wend their merry around the house, finding their Christmas stockings nearly 3 weeks in advance of when they’re going to need them on Christmas eve, I appreciate how truly privileged we are, here in Australia in 2010.

I also hope. I hope that my children will never have to experience a Christmas like the one described on the file of documents that were found in a mass grave. I hope that no-one else’s children will have to, either.

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