image
2/4 Casualty Clearing Station nurses in Malaya. Back row, from left: E. Dorsch (drowned 1942), B.Wilmott (murdered Banka Isand 1942), W. Raymont (died as POW 1945), E. Balfour-Ogilvy (murdered Banka Island 1942), P.Farmener (murdered Banka Island 1942).
Front row from left: D.Gardam (died as POW 1945), Matron I.Drummond (murdered Banka Island 1942), E. Hannah (POW).
Absent: K.Kinsella (drowned 1942)
The two Tasmanians in this group are Dora Gardam and Wilhelmina Raymont.

Some Tasmanian nurses – An Anzac Story

MORE THAN 67 years ago, as Singapore was collapsing to the onslaught of the Japanese invasion, a last-minute decision evacuated Australian nursing staff. 

On February 12th, 1942, 131 nurses of the 2/10 and 2/13 Australian General Hospitals (AGH) and the 2/4 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) left Singapore on board three ships, the Wah Sui, the Empire Star and the Vyner Brooke, in the last more or less organized group of ships to escape.  Three days later Singapore capitulated.

Tasmanian nurses Harley Brewer, Mollie Gunton, Hilda Hildyard, Maisie Rayner and Jessie Simons were working at Saint Patrick’s School, the site of the 2/13 Australian General Hospital (AGH), when on February 11th all the nurses were assembled.  Matron Irene Drummond called for volunteers for immediate evacuation.  No nurses stepped forward.

The same thing happened when the Matron of the 2/10 AGH, Olive Paschke, the senior Australian nurse in Malaya, addressed her staff, and when Sister Kathleen Kinsella spoke with the members of the 2/4 CCS.  All the nurses knew that there were not enough ships available for use as hospitals for the increasingly numerous battle casualties. There were more than a thousand casualties in the hospitals, and the only ship which evacuated some wounded men was the Wah Sui.  The last thing the nurses wanted to do was leave the wounded.  Sister Jessie Simons later wrote that “there was a good deal of sulphurous protest against the distasteful order to evacuate”.

With no volunteers forthcoming, the matrons then drew up lists of nurses who were to be evacuated within two hours.  The rest were to be evacuated the next day.  Mollie Gunton recalled that “at the time we left we felt ghastly.  It was like giving up all our nursing principles.  There were so many wounded that stretcher cases were lying outside the hospital”.  Hilda Hildyard remembered the emotional wrench.  “When we were told to leave a number of us were crying”. 

But, unknown to the nurses at the time it was only through the determined efforts of one of the senior Australian medical officers of the 8th AIF Division, Colonel Derham, that all were not captured by the Japanese when Singapore fell.

On at least three occasions during the last weeks and days before the fall of Singapore Derham recommended officially to General Gordon Bennett, the commander of Australian forces in Malaya, that the nurses be evacuated before their safety was threatened.

The requests were refused on the grounds that civilian morale would be undermined.  It was only when Derham ordered six nurses of the 2/10 AGH to embark with 120 wounded Australian soldiers on the Wah Sui on February 10th, without seeking permission, two days after the Japanese had landed on Singapore Island, that General Bennett agreed to the evacuation of all the nurses. 

The next day the nurses chosen to go on the Empire Star left Saint Patrick’s School first, and Matron Drummond “kissed every sister goodbye with the tears running down her cheeks”.  She would never see any of them again. 

The nurses had no time to sort through their possessions.  Most of the things they had collected in their months in Malaya and Singapore had to stay in storage.  They left the hospital with essentials only, throwing “a few belongings into a hand case, iron rations into a gas mask bag”, and carrying the obligatory tin hat.

Some hastily wrote the names and addresses of their wounded army patients to pass on news to their families in Australia.  Then they were driven into the chaos of the Singapore wharves.

“The situation we met when we arrived at the wharves was just like a nightmare, and we were living it”.  Sister Gunton always vividly remembered the scene of destruction and disorder that was Singapore harbour.  “Storage tanks were going up in flames all around us.  The whole sky was illuminated and there were thick plumes of smoke”.

The 60 nurses assigned to the Empire Star (including Tasmanians Brewer, Gunton, Hildyard and Rayner) were unable to board for several hours as Japanese planes bombed and strafed the area..  “There was a big crate of Christmas toys on the wharf.  While we were taking shelter from the bombing, troops broke open the crate and threw teddy bears to us.”

By this time there were many troops in the docks who had become separated from their units and were trying to escape.  This added to the confusion and the captains of the last available ships were wary about who they allowed on board.  The captain of the Empire Star was reluctant to permit the nurses on board. “Thereafter followed a heated argument for some time”, which was resolved when the senior escort officer with the nurses “drew his revolver – and on we went”.

Things were so hectic that only some of the nurses were aware of this development.  Hilda Hildyard was so tired, having just come off night duty, that she had little recollection of events at the wharves.  She did remember, however, watching in anguish as a valued possession she’d managed to salvage at the last minute was dropped in deep water as the nurses’ bags were loaded on the ship.

Controversy surrounds an incident in which more than 200 Australian soldiers forced their way on board the ship just before it was due to move from its docking berth.  They were arrested when the ship reached Java several days later, but were subsequently released and attached to Australian military units in Java.  They were captured by the Japanese when Java fell a few weeks later, in March.

These troops and the nurses were only a small proportion of the human cargo on the Empire Star when she finally left Singapore early on February 12th.  An estimated 2,154 passengers, including civilian women and children and air force personnel, who were being evacuated in the hope of taking an active role in the war on Java, were crammed on board the old cargo ship which had accommodation facilities for 16 people.

They were forced to anchor until daylight near the entrance to the harbour in order to negotiate the mines surrounding the approaches to Singapore.  “During the night we were brought on deck in case we had to abandon ship quickly.  I have a vivid memory of the flames silhouetting Singapore against the dark sky”, said Mollie Gunton.

The delay exposed the Empire Star and other ships in the convoy to attack by air.  “The Japanese had a habit of attacking Singapore at eight o’clock sharp in the morning.  They came in from all directions, bombing and strafing.  You could set your watches by them”.  The same routine occurred on February 12th, with the evacuating ships still in sight of Singapore.

The Empire Star took three direct hits during the day which killed 17 and wounded 32.  Two Australian nurses tending the wounded on deck used their bodies to shield their patients from air attacks.  Margaret Anderson was awarded the George Medal and Veronica Torney the MBE for bravery and devotion to duty under fire.

The nurses were full of praise for the ship’s captain, who watched the Japanese attacks from the deck, ordering changes in direction as the bombs fell.  Troops on board used what weapons they had to fight back.  One Japanese aircraft was shot down by small-arms fire, creating some jubilation.

Friday, February 13th, passed without incident for the Empire Star.  “I’ll never believe the superstition about Friday the 13th being unlucky”, said Harley Brewer to the press after arriving in Australia.  Mollie Gunton speculated that the ship was ultimately saved because it caught fire.  “It is possible they thought we were sinking.  They didn’t attack again”.

Harley Brewer was right.  They were lucky.  The Japanese attacked and sank two other ships in the convoy from the air and another fell victim to a torpedo from a submarine.  The Empire Star hugged the coast of Sumatra, and on February 14th limped into Batavia, another port in turmoil and disorder. 

On this day, unknown to the nurses on the Empire Star, their 65 colleagues aboard the Vyner Brooke, which had left Singapore harbour some hours in their wake, were caught in the open sea by a squadron of Japanese dive-bombers.  Until then they had largely escaped the attention of Japanese planes, although most of their lifeboats had been wrecked by a lone strafing run by a Japanese fighter the day before.

The whole squadron dived on the ship in succession.  Jessie Simons counted 27 shuddering explosions of near misses before two bombs hit the ship, one exploding in the engine room.  The Vyner Brooke sank quickly.  “Within fifteen minutes of the first hit, no sign remained of the Vyner Brooke but a pair of leaking boats, a few rafts, scattered wreckage and scores of human heads bobbing on the oily sea”.

In the ensuing hours and days 12 of the Australian nurses drowned or were killed in the sea, including Matron Paschke and Kathleen Kinsella, the senior nurse of the 2/4 CCS.

One group of about 75 people, including 22 of the Australian nurses, managed to get to a beach on Banka Island, just off the coast of Sumatra.  Sister Vivian Bullwinkel of the 2/13 AGH described, after the end of the war, what happened next.  The Japanese “took half the men away down the beach behind a bluff, came back and took the other half away…  After the second party they came back and cleaned their rifles and bayonets in front of us, and then lined us up and signed to us to march into the sea.  Then they started machine gunning from behind.  Matron Drummond, Sister Casson and Sister Wight were killed before they reached the water’s edge…”

Bullwinkel feigned death and was the sole survivor of the 22 nurses.  She hid in the jungle briefly, and after finding and helping a seriously wounded English soldier, was finally captured.  She was reunited in captivity with 31 other Australian nurses who had survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke (including Tasmanians Jessie Simons, Dora Gardam and Wilhelmina Raymont), and they spent the rest of the war trying to survive in prison camps in Sumatra.

Dora Gardam and Wilhelmina Raymont died in captivity, in April and February 1945 respectively, as did six other Australian nurses.

Only 24 of the 65 nurses who left Singapore on the Vyner Brooke survived the war.  Two of them, including Jessie Simons, wrote books of their experiences as prisoners of war.  Simons’ book, While History Passed, was published in 1954, dedicated “To the memory of the girls who did not return.

At the time that disaster struck the Vyner Brooke in mid-February 1942, the Empire Star underwent some rapid emergency maintenance work in Batavia, then left for Australia with one other ship, carrying between them 3,000 people.  After clearing the Sunda Strait the Empire Star sailed independently for Fremantle, the other ship making for Colombo.  On the way out they passed the Orcades with its ill-fated passenger cargo of Australian troops bound for Java.  The Orcades was the advance ship bringing Australian troops home from the Middle East to meet the Japanese threat, but was diverted to Java.

They were all captured in early March.  But the Orcades escaped, leaving Batavia on February 21st, carrying to safety the nurses who had been evacuate from Singapore on the Wah Sui.

The Empire Star arrived safely in Australia, but although the nurses were glad to have escaped, “it didn’t mean a lot because we were all too worried about what might have happened to the other girls”.  They were not to learn about the fate of their colleagues on the Vyner Brooke until September and October 1945.

Some of the returned nurses wrote to relatives of soldiers they had nursed in Singapore, either forwarding letters from wounded men or informing their parents and wives of their welfare just before the fall of Singapore.  Many of the relatives responded, expressing their gratitude for the correspondence, as well as their anxieties and their deep anguish and overwhelming helplessness in the face of the wall of silence that had descended since the Japanese victory.

The letters demonstrate, in microcosm, the innermost feelings of a nation at war in the months of 1942 after more than 10,000 of its people had been killed, wounded or captured in the south-west Pacific area from Malaya in the west to Rabaul in the north east.

Mollie Gunton kept letters written to her from all parts of Australia in the months that followed her return.  One mother wrote from Sydney:  “Words fail to express my appreciation of the very kind thoughts in reporting the whereabouts of my dear son (one and only).  Naturally I have been unable to rest with the continual thought of him on my mind.  Now you set me at rest…”

A father wrote from Brisbane in late August, 1942:  “Your letter was not answered due to the very serious illness of my wife who has since passed away.  You were very good in giving what information you could about my son.  We had a letter written by him on February 8th but we have not heard anything since.  When I do I hope the news will be good.  I wrote to him through the Red Cross Bureau in Melbourne and I will not know anything until the names appear in the papers.  I do hope for his return as I am left entirely on my own.  He is our only son and it will be a problem for me to let him know his mother has passed on.  He will take it very badly as his mother was all to him and he to her.”

A wife wrote from Bundaberg:  “Sister, you can imagine my joy on opening your letter.  It was the first news of any kind I had regarding my husband since the fall of Singapore.  I am indeed grateful to hear you say in your letter that he was not badly wounded.”

Another wife wrote from Bondi in New South Wales:  “It is so much better to know that my husband is probably a prisoner of war than not to know anything at all.  It is the suspense and waiting that gets one down…  I wish to thank you and say I am just as proud of you and your nurses as I am of the AIF boys.  I’m sure everyone else is too.”

One of the burdens borne by the nurses who returned on the Empire Star was the ignorant hostility by some sections of the Australian civilian population.  Sisters Gunton and Rayner were presented with white feathers in a Hobart street soon after their return to Tasmania in March 1942.  Their reaction was one of “stupefied shock and disbelief”.  But they were not the only ones to receive such treatment.  Nurses in other states were welcomed by the white feather brigade.

The nurses were assigned to other army hospital units for the rest of the war, being moved around Australia as circumstances demanded.  Then, in September 1945, some of them, including Harley Brewer and Mollie Gunton, returned to Singapore as part of the 2/14 AGH, to tend to the large numbers of sick and injured prisoners of war as they were released from camps across south-east Asia.

They re-established their hospital in the same location they had left in 1942, in the buildings of Saint Patrick’s School, and experienced a “terrible shock” when first confronted with the physical condition of the emaciated ex-prisoners.  On one occasion some of the nurses were invited to visit a group of Australians at Changi. “They served us what they’d been eating during the war.  It consisted of things they could scrounge, bits of grass, leaves and weeds, which was then boiled.  It was nauseating.”

The highlight, and at the same time the saddest moment for nurses who had escaped Singapore in 1942, occurred with the arrival of their colleagues who had survived the prison camps on Sumatra. “We were overjoyed to see them, but they were almost unrecognizable, and so many of them had died.”

The sight of the starved and ill women outraged many of the patients, all former prisoners, and the hospital staff were kept busy controlling those most upset.  The news spread, prompting a decision to post extra guards where Japanese troops were being detained.

Jessie Simons, the one surviving Tasmanian nurse of those who had been on the Vyner Brooke, wrote later:  “Wonder of wonders!  The hospital was our old stamping ground…  Past the admitting officers we went and wearily climbed the stairs.  What a welcome we got at the top from the nursing staff.  Quite a number of the girls had been in Malaya with us before the fall of Singapore.  Tongues wagged a welcome, and these girls opened their wardrobes and showered gifts on us…  I’ll never forget their love and kindness to us – something too wonderful to describe.”

The nurses left Singapore for the second and last time, in October, 1945, aboard the hospital ship Manunda.  “On this trip we had three happy, care-free weeks of peace”, said Jessie Simons. “But what a thrill at last to step on Australian soil again.  It had taken us three years and ten months to get there.”  By now they knew they were no longer “staff nurses” or “sisters”, but Lieutenants and Captains. Their new uniforms were amazingly different (“what on earth had happened to everything, fancy sisters in pants!”).  But they were home.

The work and service of all the nurses who served in Singapore is summed up in the citation for an award to Mollie Gunton.  Australia’s senior military officer, General Thomas Blamey, wrote: “Your devotion to duty and keen sympathetic interest have been an outstanding example to those working with you and have been well in keeping with the reputation enjoyed by the Australian Army Nursing Service”.

During World War II 71 Australian nurses died on active service.  137 received decorations.  Forty years after the war, in 1985, a study revealed that nearly a third of Australian women who had served overseas during World War II were “in difficult financial circumstances”, and that 80% of them were recognized as needing help for war-related injuries and illnesses.  It was acknowledged that they had been disadvantaged by discriminatory rates of pay, and discriminatory application of repatriation benefits on the basis of gender, including ineligibility to receive nursing-home care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Peter Henning

Postscript:  The Japanese officer in charge of the unit which massacred people on the beach on Banka Island in 1942 committed suicide in custody in 1948.  The Japanese commander of the prison camp in Sumatra where nurses had died through ill-treatment was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment in 1948.

Sources:
Jessie Simons, While History Passed, 1954.
Mollie Gunton, photos, letters from relatives of POWs, interviews with author.
Hilda Hildyard, interview with author.
Newspaper reports, 1942 and 1945.
Jan Bassett, Guns and Brooches, 1992.
Rupert Goodman, Our War Nurses, 1988.
Stephen Garton, The Cost of War: Australians Return, 1996.
Peter Henning, “Against All Odds”, Leatherwood, No. 8.
 

 

 


 

 

Peter Henning

One group of about 75 people, including 22 of the Australian nurses, managed to get to a beach on Banka Island, just off the coast of Sumatra.  Sister Vivian Bullwinkel of the 2/13 AGH described, after the end of the war, what happened next.  The Japanese “took half the men away down the beach behind a bluff, came back and took the other half away…  After the second party they came back and cleaned their rifles and bayonets in front of us, and then lined us up and signed to us to march into the sea.  Then they started machine gunning from behind.  Matron Drummond, Sister Casson and Sister Wight were killed before they reached the water’s edge…”

Bullwinkel feigned death and was the sole survivor of the 22 nurses.  She hid in the jungle briefly, and after finding and helping a seriously wounded English soldier, was finally captured.  She was reunited in captivity with 31 other Australian nurses who had survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke (including Tasmanians Jessie Simons, Dora Gardam and Wilhelmina Raymont), and they spent the rest of the war trying to survive in prison camps in Sumatra.