The Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial, Ballarat
9th Anniversary Service, Sunday 10 February 2013
Speech by Anthony Hill
It is a privilege for me to be speaking to you today at this 9th Anniversary Service of The Australian Ex-Prisoners of War Memorial here in the lovely Ballarat Botanical Gardens. I do thank you for the kind words of introduction both for myself and most especially on behalf of Billy Young, one of more than 36,000 ex POWs honoured at this memorial, and the subject of my most recent book.
Billy was present at the opening service, I believe. I was talking to him the other day, and he asked me to pass on his warmest good wishes to the directors … to his old comrades in arms from the 8th Division … to all who may remember him.
Billy was only 16 when he was captured at the fall of Singapore in 1942 and interned at Changi. He’d told the great lie at 15 and said he was 19. He gave the name of a fictitious aunt on the consent form. She still appears as his next of kin on the official records. Martha Young. He says it was the only female name he knew how to spell.
He was still a kid. ‘Billy the Kid’ as he was known to the older men who looked after him. But he was still sent to Sandakan in Borneo with B Force, from which he escaped with his mate MP Brown, eight months later.
They were free for only a couple of hours before they were betrayed and caught … beaten senseless by the prison camp thugs … kept in the cages at Sandakan … interrogated by the dreaded Kenpeitai with their tortures and knotted ropes … sent to Kuching … and sentenced to four years solitary confinement in the notorious Outram Road prison in Singapore.
Outram Road, where the stench of death and human misery seeped through the very stones. Forced to sit cross-legged all day – silent, thirsty, starving – in a cell all of six feet wide. You could touch the walls. Feel them closing in. And all the time the dominant thought was “If only we’d stayed at Sandakan, we’d have been all right.” When of course they would have been dead.
For as Bill Young was to write in his own verse 40 years later:
From Sandakan they came away
Stumbling on until they fell,
There along the track they lay
Leaving only six to tell.
Six. Only six of nearly 2300 Australian and British prisoners of war who were alive at Sandakan at the beginning of 1945 actually survived and came home. Six Australians. A thousand died or were murdered at Ranau, or on the three death marches by Japanese guards; the rest died of disease, starvation, by the sword and bullet at Sandakan itself, left to forage in the open like penned up animals after their huts were burnt down.
Where foul black swamp and deadliness abound,
There, falling leaf and twig became their shroud.
Indeed. It was one of the greatest atrocities of the Second World War, which God knows was a conflict redolent with man’s inhumanity.
We Australians think of those POWs forced to labour on the Burma-Thai railway, of whom about a third died. Of the prison camps in Japan and the islands. But for nearly half a century Sandakan largely faded from the public mind. After all, just six had lived to tell. Only in the last 20 years or so have historians begun to uncover the truth.
And today of all days at the national memorial, we remember and we salute them as equals among the 8500 men and women whose names are recorded here as having died in captivity.
“If only we’d stayed at Sandakan we’d have been all right.”
Scratch beneath the layers of those years.
Seek to find the reasons for our tears.
Unearth the splinted bones and rotting gear.
Uncovered the horror of massacres appears.
Billy wasn’t quite 20 when he got home to his grandmother at Hobart in October 1945. And after the first few difficult years of readjustment and coming to terms with the paradox that many ex-POWs face namely, that freedom is at once more than it seems and less than it promises … once you take account of other people’s expectations … Billy settled into post-War life. Thinking that the experience of war and imprisonment had left him pretty much untouched.
He prospered as a young builder about town. He was rarely troubled by nightmares – for right to the end Billy the Kid saw prison as something of a game. A serious one. But a game to outwit the Kenpeitai, nonetheless.
He didn’t suffer a sense of guilt or shame for having been a POW – unlike his great mate, Paddy O’Toole, also of the 2/29th Battalion, for whom the fact that his own commanders had surrendered him into captivity was – and remained – the worst thing that had happened in his life.
Billy even became a counsellor at one stage, trying to help returned men faced with what we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder. And not always being able to save them from themselves.
He married. Had a family. But ultimately – like many others – his marriage failed. In his mid-50s he left – went to Sydney – and sought to re-establish a life that seemed to be headed for ruins.
And he has done so. To an extraordinary extent. Billy is one of the most admirable, generous and courageous people I’ve met.
For Billy the Kid, of course, was not untouched by his life as a POW. As he wrote:
Passing years did not erase
Scars from horrendous days
He just thought they had. For the remarkable thing about Bill is that when the ghosts of the past returned – as you know they will – he confronted them. Honestly. Bravely. And he sought to express them.
For many people when this happens, the response is often to turn inward and silent. Sometimes bitter. For a few, even violent. Billy didn’t. He turned outward.
He taught himself to paint and to depict some of the worst of it. As well as the best. He taught himself to write his poems … and to tell his own story in his book Return to a Dark Age. He began to speak at RSL Clubs and meetings. To visit schools.
He’s returned to Singapore and Borneo several times. And I know when I went to Borneo for Anzac Day three years ago, and read some of his verse at the services we held, the words lit up the jungle with remembrance for those prisoners of war who once suffered there.
Yet time’s layered swirl
Flowed to encurl
Such bitter memories
Within a priceless pearl.
The point I make is a simple one, but no less valuable I hope for the veterans and their families who are with us today. By seeking to express his own experience as a POW … the horror of it, and also the humour by which people survived … Bill not only helped ease his own burden. He has in many ways come to speak for those who, for all kinds of understandable reasons, have chosen to remain silent.
Most especially he has helped give voice not just to his dearest mates who did not come home, but indeed to them all:
Hardened in the fires of war
Prison Camps from Singapore
A jewel shaped; it shines
For men who are no more.
By doing so, of course, he has done his best to ensure they are not forgotten. That the shame men like Paddy O’Toole felt for having been surrendered as a POW was in fact misplaced. That the fortitude, loyalty and mateship he showed on the Burma-Thai railway, for example, was in the finest traditions of our soldiering. Replicated many thousands of times over. As was Corporal Bob Shipsides, who was kicked and bashed for having poured a little water onto the lips of Billy the Kid, left beaten and broken outside the guardhouse at Sandakan camp, after his attempt at escape. Billy never saw him again. Yet such deeds do shine like jewels, and must always be remembered in our nation’s story.
Ladies and gentlemen, let us remember them all today at this national memorial … every one of Australia’s ex-prisoners of war. Let us honour them … and pay tribute to the ‘priceless pearl’ of that courage and sacrifice with which they also served their country.
Poems from My War in Pictures and Verse, by Bill Young.