A WOMAN's WAR - the exceptional life of WILMA ORAM YOUNG, A.M.
After incredibly surviving the POW camps of Sumatra from 1942 to 1945 Wilma worked for the rest of her life to relieve suffering, especially that of post traumatic stress disorder in war veterans.
A life changing incident:
(Extract from a taped interview given to Barb Angell in 1997).
"I put in an application for the Air Force as well as one for the Army. I had my medical examination for both and fully filled in the application forms. I was standing beside the post box and had one letter in each hand, deciding which I’d post, when Mona Wilton with whom I had trained came along and asked what I was doing. I said, 'Well I don’t know whether to join the Air Force or the Army.' Mona said, 'Well you’d better join the army then because I’ve just joined the army.' So I posted the army application and tore up the Air Force application."
Initially against the wishes of her parents, who felt that nursing as a career was "not quite the thing", Wilma enrolled as a nurse in 1934 and began training at the Warrnambool Base Hospital. After graduating in 1937 she moved to Melbourne and eventually qualified as a midwife. In 1941 she applied to join up, was accepted into the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) and was posted as a member of the 13th AGH to Malaya where she helped to set up a hospital at Johore Bahru.
She was evacuated from Singapore in February 1942 and was aboard the Vyner Brooke when it was sunk in Bangka Strait by Japanese aircraft. After many hours on a life raft she came ashore at Bangka Island and became a prisoner of war until 1945.
The sinking of the Vyner Brooke...
"The Japanese planes came over and bombed us. They bombed us at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. We’d already gone down to take shelter below decks. And the side where Mona (Mona Wilton, the best friend with whom she enlisted in the AANS) and I were, we were lying flat on our faces, and the side was blown out of the ship.
There was broken glass sprayed all over us. I thought my legs had been cut off, but when I had a look they were only just cut by flying glass. But one of our girls was badly wounded. She had a very bad wound in her buttock. We carried her up this ladder onto the deck and put a field dressing on it. Then we had to abandon ship. "It was listing now very badly. So weput the girls with the wounded over the side, down a ladder into a life boat, and they got away. They eventually got to shore but were amongst the group that was shot by the Japanese (the Bangka Island massacre). Then Mona and I climbed over the side and went down a ladder into a life boat. Jean Ashton was in the life boat. But the ship was coming over very fast. The boat was full of women and children. It was sinking. So we just had to jump out of the life boat. We couldn’t get it away from the ship. Not nearly quickly enough. So Mona and I jumped out. It was everybody for themselves at this stage. And Mona said “I can’t swim”. She had a life belt so I said “Just dog paddle.” We were both parallel with the ship and trying to get away from it because it was going to tip over on top of us. So dog paddle is what we did. But it did tip over on top of us, and I said to Mona, “The ship’s coming down. Looks as though we’re sunk this time. We’re not going to get out of this.” I put my hand up and caught the rail of the ship and came through the rails. When I surfaced again there was no sign of Mona. I don’t know what happened to her, I guess the ship came down on top of her and she couldn’t get out from under it. I never saw her again.
"I was still trying to get away from the ship because it was tipping over. And the rafts from the high side of the ship started to fall off. They hadn’t been thrown over, as they should have been, and I saw this raft coming down. I put my head down. I’d taken off my tin hat prior to this and the raft hit me on the head. And as I came up another raft hit me. I think there were six altogether, one after the other, they hit me on the head and kept pushing me under." Wilma struggled to an empty raft and pulled herself onto it. She was joined by another survivor, a civilian woman and together they rowed all night until they eventually reached the shore of Bangka Island, fortunately nowhere near where the massacre had occurred. They were the first two prisoners of war to be held in the local customs house but were soon joined by hundreds and eventually transported to prison camp - the first of a series of horrific experiences. Despite the dreadful conditions in the camps, Wilma was one of the nurses who kept on nursing throughout her internment. Despite her own increasing health problems caused by starvation and the unhygienic (to say the least!) conditions she worked constantly with the Dutch nuns attempting with them to combat disease and death. At one point Wilma was digging the graves of victims, some of whom were her own nursing colleagues. The toilet pits were constantly on the point of overflowing so she became one of a squad detailed to bail them out using the only tool available - half a coconut shell. The squad scooped the mess into a bucket which they then carried out of the camp area into the jungle to empty. Wilma comments, "Such an , experience tends to give a person a perspective on their true importance in the scheme of things!"
After the war Wilma married and settled on a dairy farm at Cardinia in Victoria where she lived for the rest of her life.
She had 4 children and, apart from her work on the farm, she worked from that time with the RSL particularly with War Veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
She worked tirelessly to raise money for the Nurses' Memorial, unveiled in Canberra on October 2, 1999, and was, until her death, Patron of the Vietnam Civilian Nurses group (CN-ASTV) which is campaigning for rights to be recognized as war casualties.