This is the transcript of a speech Bill Young gave at Burwood Sandakan Memorial Service on August 5th 2007.
We live surrounded by the past; as any Mobile Phone will tell you
It’s more than 2000 years since the great Roman Statesman, Cicero, asked this question; “What is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors, by the records of History ?” Here today we are confirming Cicero’s point by our commemorating the sacrifices made by those who are woven into the history of our land, and in particular, those of our Kin, Sons, Brothers, Mates, who lay buried in a mosaic of such torture, brutality, starvation, and sheer bastardry, as to defy description. We shall not forget them, for they are a vital part of our past. They live in our memories, even to this very moment.
They also live in this talk that I have culled from the fabric of my past, and in examining both the thread and the weave, I have once again come to realize how much I owe to those friends I’d left back in Borneo; friends I first met, when on wanting something to eat I joined the army. Yes, it was hunger, and not heroics that first drew me towards the A.I.F; and so it was they fed me, both food for the body and for the mind; a banquette that I’ve never regretted attending, as it not only satisfied my hunger, it enabled me to meet the most wonderful people, Mates who became my teachers in the school of hard knocks, and who supplied me with the where with alls to get on with life, and at the same time, leave me with memories enough, as to light the road ahead in such a way, that on my approaching 82, I let them go hilter skilter, looking for a particular colour, a tone of voice; a distant view, to once again jolt back into life, the seeds from a time, Long ago in Borneo.
It will be 62 years on the 15th of August, since I sat listening as a plane flew above my cell; it bothered me as it went from one side of the Island to the other, for the Japs weren’t paying any attention to it. Not a word of protest was coming from either their machine guns, or their ack-ack. Why, at any other time my cell would’ve been rocking and rolling with the fury of war. Yet here the Yanks were flying fit to bust, and not a murmur of complaint from the Nips. It was the 15th of August 1945; a date, which for me at that time, had no significance at all; it was just another day, the war was still doing quiet well for itself, it could last forever…. Four days later they came and let me out, and told me, that was it, the war was over. Then they sent me off home, aboard the Dutch Hospital Ship, S.S. Orange.
I well remember that marvelous moment, I’d gone off, happy as Larry; fully expecting to meet up, in the very near future, with all those old mates of mine. There was so much that I wanted to tell them, and there was so much for them to tell me; but then of course, as I was to slowly find out; it was not to be.
Memories don’t always come out in their proper order, and so to put the horse back in front of the cart; it’s 64 years last February the 19th, since Old M.P. and I nicked off from the airfield, during the lunch break to visit a nearby kampong. Incidentally, I smile at my saying, Old M.P. but of course he was old, back then; he was at least 28, whereas I was in my prime, having just turned 17 and there wasn’t much about anything at all, that I didn’t already know. We’d only been away about 15 minutes, and so it came as a bit of a shock, on getting back to the edge of the airfield, to see the Nips jumping up and down, and waving their hands about. The airfield was alive with activity, as Two hundred gangs of fifty men in each– stretched on down, the mile long, white granite like strip, which millions of years before had been a Coral Reef. And on which now, the guards were busy counting, and recounting their charges. Ichy, ne, san si go roco, the cadence came loud and clear. Clear enough for us to realize that we were in the cacky poo.
Whoever was looking after naughty boys, that afternoon, was doing a good job. Although at the time, we didn’t think so. Not going on past experiences, for we knew it wasn’t any good our expecting leniency from these blokes; not after having just witnessed the dreadful punishment they’d handed out to our mate Jimmy Darlington; by Jings, that was something; it would have killed me. Besides, I’d already had a couple of goes in their “Punishment Box” and I didn’t fancy any more of that. It was either return to the fold, or be bold, and stay out in the cold; so escape seemed to be the safest way out...
Now I don’t want to leave you with the idea that we weren’t prepared; because we were. I always carried a little bit of a map that showed quiet clearly, that there was only a couple of inches to go across Borneo, right turn, and then, 6 inches down past the coffee stain, and we’d be home free in Australia; a piece of cake? A piece of half baked cake. Incidentally, the initials M.P. stands for Miles Pierce, and not even his Mother dared call him that; so M.P. he was Burwood talk 2 to one and all….. As for our escape, although it ranked among the shortest ever, it did save our lives; and that’s the way the pennies fall; You turn right, and you live; you turn left and you die. On our being recaptured we were dragged over beside the boiler, and beaten so badly that, as it was reported to the War Crimes Commission, “We’d both died, after having had our eyes gouged out. Which I might say, was something of an exaggeration, for to be truthful, we really weren’t killed, and both of us could still see.
After being buried in the lime pit of time, memories can come out so battered, and tattered, they take some working out. I have a dog eared one that reflects on a section of my own 2nd. 29th. Battalion, squashed together in the stern hold of the Ubi Maru. 800 of us were down in that stinking hole, and with all our gear; there was hardly enough room to swing a cat, and as for the air, it was like living in a Finnish Steam Bath. On this occasion, Keith Gillett, and our old corporal, Bob Shipside, had their heads together, discussing the feasibility of taking over the ship. Can you believe that? My youthful ears were flapping, fit to bust. Incidentally, between the two of them, they carried the broken down parts of a revolver, with the bullets hidden among the gear. Not that any of that would have helped, as none of us had ever tried taking over a ship before, so the possibilities were something else. Rambo wasn’t in it. Fortunately, as it happened, by the time we’d pulled into the Oil Port of Miri, the decision was made to wait and see how things turned out in Sandakan. Which was just as well, for we’d no sooner anchored than a Jap Sub poked its nose up, beside us; it had followed us over from Singapore; those blokes trusted no one. We stayed in that sweltering hot bay, for four days; and let me tell you, without ventilation, it was at least a hundred degrees in the shade, and humid, you could swim in the stuff.
On that first night Harry Longley and I; we’d honestly thought we were on to a good thing as we lay hidden under a canvas cover, on top of this large box that sat out on the stern deck; it was much cooler there, than down below in the hold. Then it was that Cruel Fortunes dirty left, king hit us, a Jap guard came and planted himself, fair bang in front of our box, and stayed the night. Which in its self, wouldn’t have been so bad, except that the box we were on turned out to be an Ice Box, full of ice, and didn’t it get cold under that canvas, we froze; fair on the Equator, and we were freezing to death. Somehow or other, we managed to hold out until the guard left at dawn, and that’s when we crept back on down into the Warm Fudge below, with the guys wondering where the heck we’d been, and why was it that we were both shivering; did we have a touch of Malaria? Those old blokes, it was worse than having a mother.
Ice Box or not; the young never learn; on our last night in the bay, Joey Crome and I hid up on deck, surveying the lay of the land. I remember it was pitch black, with hardly a sound around, and just over, and away, the lights of Miri blazed a line that seemed to be pointing straight on down to Australia. Freedom was so close, you could almost touch it. Then, as if on cue, the galley door opened and the cook came out and threw some sloops over the side. Well! what a difference came over that quiet black water below, a masterpiece of fluorescence was created, as hundreds of fish came swirling and whirling, with their silver paint leaving such shapes, as even Van Gogh would have been proud to put his mark on. Then, up from the deep came this great search-light of fluorescence, gobbling up everything before it. Somehow or other, we lost interest in taking our little swim, and back down into the fold of the hold we rolled. I see us two now, plain and clear;... And to think that towards the end of the war, dear old Joey and Henry Ford, ended up over near those same lights; murdered by the Japanese, and that after having helped build an airfield for them, on the Island of Labuan.
We arrived at Sandakan weary tired and worn, with many of the older men on their last legs, it had been that sort of a trip. In fact, under normal circumstances, much would have been said and written about it all. As it turned out, for the great majority, it became a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire. Yet there again, after the horrors of the Ubi Maru, the place seemed to be on the right side of perfection; and we thought of it, as being, paradise enow. Never for a moment did we think that it would turn into the Judas Camp that it became. British built; the huts ran straight and true, water was on tap and electricity lit each of the 24 huts, holding us 1300 O.Rs. while the 145 officers were housed in the six huts, on the top side of the hill. The new Memorial stands close to where the officers huts, ended, and not far from where the main gate had been, and from where The Big Tree had once Proudly Stood. That great monarch of the jungle, it was our own Eiffel Tower, dominating the area for miles around. In fact, its very size provided a home base for all those old men of ours, who could neither sleep or rest from the effects of Berri Berri, or from the relentless drumming vibrations of Happy Feet, a complaint that forced them to walk the lonely nights in constant pain. That Tree was also used as a depository for the honey the wild bees collected from around and about, and for the things that men would wish to hide, and made safe. Rumor had it, that it held a fortune in diamonds that had been brought across from Malaya, as part of the golden gains, coming from out of the gambling concessions at our peace time Base Camp.
Like the old A Model Ford I once had, memories can be hard to start and just as hard to stop; Our hut was at the end of the line, down next to the swamp, which was handy, as it gave us an easy doorway into the spoils of the jungle; and by us, I mean the group known as the Dead End Kids. The old blokes in giving us the name had chosen an apt nom de plume, seeing as how we did live in the last hut on a dead end, and we were all youngsters. As for the camp itself, other than the loose system set up to warn us of any surprise visits, by the guards; you could say that once inside, you only had Dr. Jeckel to handle, while the outside was a different kettle of fish, where a demented Mr. Hyde, turned life into a balancing act, of walking a tight rope over a canyon of evil. I really do think that the life that we had lived in Australia, with its give and take, and where mates are mates, had helped us in adapting to the unusually harsh conditions that prevailed there. We held concerts, Barber Shop Quartets, the fights at the Boxing Ring, and hidden under his hut, Gunboats Simpson’s Casino played to full houses (ten or twelve people) almost every night. No matter how hard the day had been out at the airfield; once back in camp, we tried our best to live as Australians.
Pain burns into us deeper than almost anything else, leaving scars deep in our memory, like that of a bush fire on the growth rings of a tree. I remember feeling those scars when on returning to the camp site, I wandered among the few bits that were still there. The old boiler; the trench digger, still waiting to be fixed. I remember listening, and hearing the whisper of the wind as it rustled the leaves in the trees; and so I wrote of that moment; The boiler’s dry / The fire’s out / The years have laid the ghosts about / With only now and then a sigh / A whisper from the past; Of Why?
I looked down the hill to where the huts had been, and all I could see was the houses that covered the ground where once the Dead End Kids had roamed. Even the swamp was gone; it had marked the crossroad, a turn in life, for me. There were so many changes to take in, and as I went reminiscing, I listed the points that emanated from that crossroad... It was dark, and we were wading through the swamp with our bags full of coconuts and yams. I was more mindful of the crocs than of anything else, when of all things, a snake bit me on the ankle. The last thing I remember was hearing Doctor Picone saying, ‘If he’s still alive in the morning, then he should be right.
Well obviously I survived, and during the days of my convalescence, my path veered to join in with an intellectual, old M.P. himself, who, even at his great age, was still quiet a clever fellow, speaking several languages, including the local one. The Dead End Kids, had badly wanted him on their escape committee, so I added him to the list, along with the snake bite, and a bout of Malaria that caused me to become a member of B Force, together with witnessing the bashing of Jimmy Darlington, and then being caught outside the wire, and spending weeks locked up in the local kempei tai headquarters; interrogated, for all things, our being involved in some underground spying business, of which, neither of us had the slightest clue, and for which we spent the rest of the war, locked up on Singapore Island. It was while I was in one of those cells, that I found this part of a poem, scratched among many others; there were just a few scrawled lines, yet for all that, they have remained with me.... Not understood, we move along asunder. Our paths grow wider as the seasons creep along to years. We marvel and we wonder, why life is life, and thus we rise and full and live and die, Not understood….
The world needs some understanding; and in that understanding, we need to be able to except the truth. For if we are not careful, our past may well become a thing of the past, and our memories go washing down the drain of lost opportunities. We spend so much time worrying about the future, while neglecting our past, which holds the seeds of our future. Many years have gone by since I last saw those men of steel, many years in which our poor old world has gone through upheaval, after upheaval. I have watched the countries all around us, pitching and tossing; becoming more like the oceans around them, than the land itself. And I find we have come no closer to an understanding of each other, than we had all through the second world war. We all have but the one life– it’s what we put it through, that matters. Life has any number of rounds / How many, we don’t get to choose / The thing is, we do get to take part / So remember that, win or lose………
Just a few days ago while waiting here beside this memorial, I met Peter and his grandson Angus; who incidentally, had been named after St. Angus, and who, as Peter went on to tell me, was converted from paganism to Christianity, by none other than St Patrick himself. In continuing the story, Peter told of how, during the baptismal service, St Patrick, in stressing a point, had inadvertently plunged the point of his staff through young Angus’s foot. And it wasn’t until the end of the service, that on looking down, he’d realized just what he’d done, and exclaimed, Oh! Angus, Angus, why didn’t you cry out and let me know. To which Angus replied, Oh Father, I daren’t, for I thought it was part of the ceremony….
A story to warm the cockles of the heart and take the chill from out of the winter breeze…...