From teenage delinquency to underage soldier: Sandakan Camp’s last surviving POW story
Published on: Sunday, November 06, 2022
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Billy with his father, circa 1928 (left pic). Billy in uniform.
BILLY Young, the last surviving POW to have been imprisoned at the notorious Sandakan Camp, in Borneo, and at the equally notorious Outram Road Gaol in Singapore, run by the Japanese kempei tai or military police, died in Hobart Hospital last May 19 from Covid.

A close friend of historian Lynette Silver, said he travelled to Sabah with her when the POW Memorial Park was officially opened at Sandakan in March 1999. Twenty years later, the pair co-authored ‘Billy: My Life as a Teenage POW’, when Billy decided it was time he told the truth about his early tearaway years, which saw him sent to a boys’ home for teenage delinquents – a fact he had kept hidden all his life.

‘He just came out with it on the phone one day’, Lynette told the Daily Express. ‘It worried him that he had been telling lies for so long, so I suggested that we come clean, and tell the world, in his own words, and that I would take on the role of narrator.’ 

‘We were great mates and made a good team’, she said. ‘I knew so much about Billy’s story and life in the camp and the prison that, for the past 30 years, he talked to me as if I were there, with him. As his co-author, and with all his mates dead, I am privileged to be in a unique position to talk about Billy and his experiences.’ 

‘To start at the beginning, Keith William Young was born on 4 November 1925 at his grandmother’s home in New Town, Hobart, Tasmania. His father, always known as Big Bill because of his height, left Hobart to work in Sydney, returning home after a 10-year absence with a pregnant, unmarried woman named Adora Shaw in tow. This unplanned pregnancy did not please Big Bill’s tyrannical mother, who made Adora’s life a misery. When Billy was just a toddler, she left Tasmania and disappeared.’

‘Big Bill decided to move back to Sydney, taking Billy with him. The country was in the grips of Depression, but Big Bill managed to find work, not all of it on the right side of the law. After a stint at an illegal betting shop, working as a street photographer and in an ironworks, he was arrested for uttering a fraudulent cheque and was jailed. Released when his term was up, he was soon back behind bars for consorting with known criminals. While his father was in ‘the big house’, Billy spent some time in a Catholic children’s home before being taken in by a middle-aged couple, Big Bill’s landlords, who ran a market stall.’

‘On his release, Big Bill saw the error of his ways and became a reformed character. He had a great sense of social justice and, in 1934, joined the Communist Party. He embraced the ideals of communism with enthusiasm, volunteering to join the International Brigade to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He was killed in 1938, but Billy was never given any details, other than he was dead. I discovered only a few years ago that he had been taken prisoner near Barcelona and shot in cold blood, leaving Billy, aged 12, motherless and fatherless.’  

Big Bill had appointed senior members of the Communist Party in Sydney as Billy’s guardians. For the next couple of years the youngster was passed around to various ‘foster’ homes. His schooling suffered and, although very intelligent, he fell far behind. He left school as soon as he could at the age of 14, and took a job as a telegram boy before deciding to cycle around Australia with a mate. They were in Victoria, close to the South Australian border, when they were arrested for stealing a bike, which they saw as a matter of necessity, when the front wheel on Billy’s buckled after hitting a pot hole. Discovering that he was only 15, homeless and an orphan, the magistrate made Billy a ward of the State of Victoria and sent him to the boys’ home.’ 

‘He wasn’t there long when he decided to abscond with a friend. Finding a recruiting depot in Melbourne that turned a blind eye to under age recruits, Billy put his age up to 19, changed his name from Keith William Young to William Young and, armed with a fake letter of permission from an entirely fictitious aunt, enlisted in the army in 1941.’

Lynette and Billy at the overgrown POW camp site, standing on the flattened termite mound, all that was left of the big tree (left pic). Billy Young marching at the 1983 Anzac Day.

‘With his father’s family in far away Hobart, Billy figured that, if nothing else, he would receive three meals a day, as well as good pay, if he were ‘lucky enough’ to go overseas.’

‘A few months later his wish was fulfilled and he was off to Singapore to fight the Japanese. He got more action than he bargained and, in February 1942, he was showered with shrapnel when an enemy shell exploded behind him, wiping out a couple of his mates. Billy was hit in the groin, necessitating his removal to hospital. Two days later Singapore surrendered and he became a POW. It was at about this stage that Billy decided he had had more than enough of war.’

‘However, there was no going home and things were about to become much worse. Heads of Chinese and Malays on spikes throughout the city made it quite clear that their Japanese captors meant business.’

‘To make use of their unexpected labour force, he Japanese began transferring prisoners overseas to work on various projects. As a very young soldier, and one inclined to mischief, his superiors placed Billy, now aged 16, on a draft to Sandakan, to build an airstrip. He was not too bothered. At least he would be away from the sword-swinging Japanese in Singapore.’

‘However, Sandakan was not the “rest camp” the Japanese had promised. Billy spent his 17th birthday slaving on the strip during a particularly brutal time known as “the speedo”, working long hours to meet the Japanese deadline for the completion of stage 1.’

‘In February 1943, Billy and a mate decided to try to escape. Naïve when it came to geography, and with no idea of the actual distance involved, they had seen a map of S E Asia that showed that Australia was only about 6 inches (15cm) from Borneo. The pair figured they could steal a boat and island-hop home.’

‘They had only been outside the wire for a short time when their absence was noticed. Hunted down like animals, they were beaten so severely that fellow POWs, passing by their lifeless forms as they returned from the airstrip, thought that, when the ‘bodies’ disappeared overnight, both were dead.’

‘Amazingly still alive, they were interrogated at length by the kempei tai and sent to trial at Kuching. Billy, because of his youth, had his 8-year sentence reduced to four, to be served in the forbidding Outram Road Prison, Singapore. The pair was lucky. At that time, Japanese in other areas were executing recaptured escapees.’

‘Although he believed he was the most unfortunate boy in the world, it was a stroke of luck that Billy was sent to Singapore. At the end of the war, after enduring months of solitary confinement, sitting at attention on a concrete floor with legs crossed during daylight hours, and witnessing all manner of horror, torture and murder, he was liberated to discover that, of the 2,434 POWs who had remained at Sandakan, just six were still alive.’

Billy in his solitary confinement cell. 

Group punishment, Sandakan airstrip. 

‘Repatriated to Hobart on a hospital ship, Billy slowly recovered and learned cabinet making, only to suffer a breakdown with what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. He recovered and became an accomplished carpenter, marrying a local lady in 1951. The couple had two daughters and two sons, but the psychological effects of his imprisonment ran deep and the marriage did not last.’

The break up was amicable, however. Leaving his family behind, Billy bought a caravan and set off on a journey round Australia, stopping wherever he liked and working at odd jobs. In spare moments, over the following years, he began to jot down some of his wartime experiences. He also discovered that writing poetry helped him overcome the deep-seated grief at losing his mates.’

‘Returning to Sydney, he eventually settled into a more normal way of life, meeting up with two of the Sandakan survivors in the 1980s and being embraced by the wider “Sandakan Family” who, in many ways became his own family. He then took up painting. His subjects initially were about camp and prison life, and death, and are only visual record we have.’

‘Always mindful of his fortunate escape from death, Billy visited schools and other institutions to tell the story of Sandakan, which he felt must never be forgotten. In 2004 he received an Order of Australia for his efforts in keeping the Sandakan story alive.’

‘After Billy and I finished our book, which features his poetry and artwork, he suffered couple of falls that saw him hospitalised. He was also becoming very hard of hearing. Realising that he could no longer live alone, in 2019 he decided to move back to his place of birth, Hobart, where he could be cared for by his daughter.’

He now took up painting with a vengeance, filling walls of the house with a great variety of subjects. He was enjoying his new life when he began to experience severe back pain. His spinal column, damaged by the beating he received at Sandakan, was crumbling. However, always upbeat in his attitude to life, he refused to complain. After a period in hospital he was looking forward to taking up painting again when his daughter became critically ill. She was flown to Melbourne for treatment, where she was hospitalised for five weeks before returning to Hobart for extensive rehabilitation.’

‘Billy, who could not cope on his own, went into respite care and it was there that he contracted Covid-19. He was placed in isolation in the Covid ward and seemed to be recovering, giving cheek to the nurses, in his usual style. However, for many years Billy had suffered from chronic asthma and bronchitis, leaving his lungs too weak to cope with the ravages of Covid. He died peacefully in the early morning of 19 May.’

‘He left four children, one of whom is married to a woman from Sarawak, and three grandchildren, as well as a host of loyal and loving friends.’ 

‘There will be no funeral service. Typically, Billy didn’t want one, although we used to joke that if he made it to 100 he would certainly be the last POW left – being so young when he enlisted – and would surely be given a state funeral, with all the pomp and ceremony. A big honour, he said, for an orphan who left school at 14!’ 

‘Always a larrikin, Billy was irrepressible, even in captivity. His will to survive carried him through torture and interrogation, enabling him to endure months of solitary confinement in Outram Road Prison. Billy was always aware of how lucky he was to survive, and from the day of his liberation lived life to the fullest. He remained indomitable to the end, a remarkable man and an outstanding Australian.’ – Lynette Silver, for the Daily Express


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December 20, 2014