A HIDDEN HERO IN THE FAMILY

Stan Roberts, the quiet hero who brought closure to the many families whose loved ones died in Borneo.

Every family has its secrets . . . But it’s been a shock when no-one in the family ever knew that the quiet retired local butcher, Stan Roberts, (related to our editor) was a war hero.

The first we knew was the full page obituary in the Sydney Morning Herald May 29. 

Uncle Stan was 97, who’d been born and brought up in Wyong, had moved into a nursing home at Lake Macquarie and had been in good health, sending me a note in spidery writing last Christmas. So his passing was not a complete shock. But the headline was –Undertaker of Sandakan war dead . . .
written by respected historian and author, Lynette Silver. 

Lynette Silver writes,  “ Stan was a valuable member of the Australian War Graves Unit from 1944-1947.  Most Australians are probably unaware these units existed. Who pauses to think what happens between the death of a soldier in the field and the erection of a headstone in a beautifully kept war cemetery. 

Roberts became  the undertaker for a high number of Australian and British military personnel who died in Borneo as POWs and many more on the infamous Sandakan-Ranau death marches. All but 6 of the 1000 men perished from starvation, illness or were murdered. Of the 1400 POWs left at the main camp at Sandakan, there were no survivors.

Search For Remains

“After the war the search began for more than 2400 remains scattered along 250 kms of jungle track or buried in makeshift cemeteries. It was a massive undertaking and one for which Stan Roberts willingly volunteered.

“After home leave, in 1946, Stan was redeployed to Jesselton, now Kota Kinabalu in what is now Sabbah…

His task was the soul destroying search for hundreds of Australian and British POWs who’d died along a mountainous 70-km stretch of the death march track.

Leaving his Commanding Officer and one other in the base camp, Stan and 6 men began an arduous trek across the towering Crocker Ranges to Ranau. With them were Dusun tribesmen employed to ferry supplies, and remains to and from Ranau – a nine day trek. 

Stan then began the painstaking task of overseeing the search for the remains of POWs buried in jungle clearings, now overrun with vines and creepers. 

Back in Ranau Stan searched for any clues to the soldiers’ identity with little to help him, as army identity discs, made of cardboard, had rotted.

Then began the search for those who had died, or been murdered, along the track. Most were unburied which Stan recorded that time and the elements had reduced them to a skeletal state.

Because they were unidentifiable, Stan drew small sketches showing the precise location of the bodies giving landmarks and distances from the nearest village.

It was these meticulous records that then allowed Lynette Silver, 60 years later, to match up his data with death records and identify at least 20 POWs who’d been buried as “Known Unto God.”

The impact on relatives being able to visit the place where their POWs died and pay their respects at a named grave in the Labuan War Cemetery cannot be underestimated.

Stan Roberts devotion in searching for hundreds of remains, identifying them wherever possible, walking countless miles over rugged terrain in tropical heat kept him in Borneo until 1947.

He returned home to Hamilton (Newcastle) and his wife Nellie and resumed life as a butcher. 

He never spoke about his war work to anyone. Despite its vital importance the work of the war graves unit is unsung.

Stan Roberts always treated the nation’s war dead with great dignity and for this Australia will always be in his debt. It is due to his untiring efforts that so many were afforded the respect, in death, that they deserved,” concluded Lynette in her eulogy.

My Roberts cousin, Barry (Evenden) in Taree, and I have mulled this over, wishing we’d known all this about Uncle Stan. So I called Lynette Silver in Sydney who told me,

“The only person Stan ever spoke to about his work was me, so it seems. The close family knew very very little and certainly had no details of what his work entailed. 

I located him back in the 1990s, and have been in touch on and off ever since. I last saw him face to face a couple of years ago. 

I was honoured to deliver his ‘war work’ Eulogy at the funeral – the mourners were stunned.  It was good to be able to inform a wider audience of his service  to the nation via the obituaries page. 

I also loaned Neil, his son, the ‘Borneo’  Australian flag to place on his coffin – it has been used at the funeral of two of the Sandakan survivors, the commando who rescued them and another POW who lived, because he was sent out of the Sandakan Camp in 1943.

So it was very significant that we used it for Stan, who was instrumental in laying all their friends to rest.”

Stan and his wife Nellie in 1942

I asked why he had confided in Lynette whom he did not know.

“He only spoke to me freely when he realised I understood his job and knew exactly what he had to do. From then on he spoke to me as if I had been there.

This is not an uncommon reaction for me. Ex-POWs would talk to me, when they would say nothing to their families. It is much easier to speak to someone who has no personal or emotional connection. Of course, some families are quite offended by this, but for the POW it was like talking to someone who was there with them – chatting about the good and the bad.  

SMH journalist Tony Stephens once wrote in an article ‘ex POW Billy Young talks to Lynette Silver as if she had been in the prison camp with him’. 

Billy is still alive, and still does.  He will even ask me during a media interview –  ‘What’s the name of that bloke who was with me when we did such and such?’. Survivor Keith Botterill did the same thing.

Historian Lynette Silver with Stan in 2013 seeing copies of his notes for the first time since 1945.

I asked Stan if he could to go back to Borneo with me and he said no – he wrote a note just before his death that he didn’t want to relive the past but after reading the Epilogue in my Sandakan book he realised why I wanted him to  return with me, and was sorry he had  not gone.

I think it would have been good for him – he had bottled up his thoughts for years. And the trip I planned was very positive – going to places where he had found particular remains and telling him who they were, and then showing him the new name on the grave at the war cemetery, which he never saw completed.  I was hoping that such a trip might jog long forgotten memories.”

I think Barry and I understand Uncle Stan a little better, and why he never spoke of what he did, which we respect.

But it occurs to me, perhaps you should spare the time to ask questions of the “oldies” in your family. They have led full lives, with failures and successes, sadness and joy and a perhaps few funny adventures along the way. Ask them to share their yarns before it’s sadly, too late.

DM

Look for Lynette Silver’s book – 

“Sandakan – A Conspiracy of Silence.”

www.lynettesilver.com 

Stan on Anzac Day 2016

2 Responses to A HIDDEN HERO IN THE FAMILY

  1. Wendy Honey says:

    Stan and my late father were boyhood friends in Wyong and that friendship lasted until my father died in 2000. I wonder if he told Dad about his war service. I agree we must encourage people to tell their stories and support local family history groups who work tirelessly to keep history alive.

  2. Beverley La Cioppa says:

    I was one of Uncle Stan’s Nieces knew nothing of my Uncles amazing service to the Australian people until Lynette’s eulogy at He’s funeral. I remember asking he’s beloved mother, my beloved grandmother what my uncle did during the war and in her words ‘Stanley didn’t share this with me my dear as he believed ladies didn’t need to hear about the horrors of war’ Now I certainly know why.
    My uncle and men like him are definitely Hero’s and deserve to acknowledged as such.
    Thank you for this article and passing on this information to us all.

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