Friday, August 04, 2017

Pacific Paratrooper: Sandakan POW Camp and Australian Soldiers

It remains the single-worst atrocity against Australians at war. Yet many Australians have probably never heard of Sandakan.

So few men returned from the Japanese prisoner of war camp on the island of Borneo after World War II it has become a neglected chapter in Australia’s wartime history.

In fact 2,000 Australians spent time as POWs at Sandakan. And of the nearly 1,800 still captive there at the end of the war, only six men survived.

All of which makes Sydney man Billy Young rare indeed. He spent three years as a POW under the Japanese.

He is the only surviving rank and file Australian soldier who spent time at Sandakan.  And he is the only POW still alive who was imprisoned at Outram Road Jail in Singapore.

Now aged 90, he has written a book about his inspiring story. “Billy: My Life as a Teenage POW”, co-written with historian Lynette Silver.

Mr Young would never have gone to war if his mother had not abandoned him as a baby.  Adora Shaw walked out on Billy and his father William in Hobart in about 1927 and returned to Sydney with another son Kevin, from an earlier relationship.

Billy never saw her again. One of his earliest memories is of his father taking him to Sydney to search for her, and later showing him her grave.  She had apparently died of tuberculosis.

A decade later his father also died. He had joined the Australian Communist Party and gone to Spain to fight in the civil war, but was caught and shot by forces loyal to dictator General Franco.

“When he was gone, I was like a wild animal,” Mr Young says from his home near Hurstville.  “I was a rebel. I wanted my dad.  He was the only person of authority I could listen to.”

At 15, a fellow student told him he wanted to enlist in the army. It was 1941. Australian troops were fighting overseas. Billy decided to join him. 

“The fella said to us ‘what mob do you want to join?’ And we said the one that goes overseas. He said ‘that’s the AIF’, and I said ‘that’s us’. He said ‘how old are you?’ And we said ‘how old have you gotta be?’ He said 19. We said ‘well, we’re 19’.”

With no parents to give consent, the boys took the enlistment forms and signed each other’s paper. At 15 they were soldiers.

Hoping for a boys’ own adventure, they joined the 100,000 allied troops in Singapore. Mr Young says initially there was no fear of the Japanese. 

“Intelligence officers used to say to us: ‘Those Japanese — they’re nothing. They’re blind. They all wear glasses, they’re short-sighted’,” he says.