Lying in the Singapore jail he had been thrown into for escaping from Sandakan, Bill Young would lament about missing his mates in North Borneo's infamous POW camp.
Now he thinks he is the last man left. "Missing out on the marches saved my life," Mr Young, 86, said yesterday at a memorial service at Sydney's Sandakan Memorial in Burwood Park.
Only six of 1787 Australian POWs survived in the three years from July 1942, or during the even more infamous Sandakan death marches of early 1945. Twenty-three came from the municipality of Burwood.
About 300 people attended the memorial service. The Homebush Boys High School Drum Corps brought honour guards from the Trinity Grammar School cadet unit and the Australian Armed Forces Re-enactment Heritage Unit to the memorial, and school students read Sandakan reminiscences by those who took part in the marches, including words by one of the six survivors, Private Nelson Short, of Engadine:
"You saw these men every day when you were getting treated for ulcers. The dead were lying there, naked skeletons. They were all ready to be buried. Day after day they were just dying like flies in the camp, malaria, malnutrition; and you thought to yourself, well how could I possibly get out of a place like this? And even after escaping, you'd say to yourself, well, right, we've escaped, now what are our chances, where are we going? Nowhere. We're in the middle of Borneo, we're in the jungle. How could we ever survive? Sydney was a long way from there."
Then local families whose fathers and brothers had died, politicians, local councillors and other dignitaries representing various agencies including emergency and ambulances services, laid wreaths.
Joan Kelly's father, Henry Mortimer, was an ambulance officer when he joined up and was posted to Singapore. He died at Sandakan.
"We never saw him again," Ms Kelly said. "We don't even know where he lies. My daughter Robyn went to Sandakan years back and took photographs, but that is all we have."
Mr Young, a former baker of Allawah, said his communist father, William, had died fighting the fascists in Spain, and as a 15-year-old orphan he had lied about his age to get into the AIF.
"In 1941 a mate and I had ridden our bikes from Sydney to Melbourne and run out of food . . . so we went to the recruitment office and the bloke there said you had to be 19 to serve overseas so I said I was," Mr Young recalled.
When Singapore fell he was transferred to Sandakan. He escaped and, as punishment, was returned to Singapore's notorious Outram Road Gaol, where he remained for 27 months until the war's end.
"The 70th anniversary of the Sandakan marches is looming and its vital that people remember what happened so it won't re-occur," he said.
However, delivering the keynote address, Colonel Michael Miller, said the civil war in Syria was again providing instances of man's inhumanity.
Next week Burwood Council's general manager, Michael McMahon, will fly to Sandakan to sign Australia's only memorandum of understanding with the Sabah Council to help preserve the memory of the war tragedy.