Nurses War Stories
Stories of heroism, suffering, loss, sacrifice and resilience.
The ANMC was founded by Australian War Nurses who survived unimaginable adversity during the WWII – here are some of their stories.
65 nurses leave Singapore…
At the fall of Singapore, 65 nurses would leave on the SS Vyner Brooke. The ship was bombed on 14th Feb 1942. 12 nurses would be lost at sea. 22 nurses would make it to Radji Beach. 21 were massacred. Vivian Bullwinkel survived. Vivian joined the remaining 31 nurses, who eventually made it to Bangka Island, to be taken prisoners of war.
Eight nurses would not survive captivity. Only 24 would return home to Australia.
Vivian Bullwinkel - VFX61330
Sole Survivor of a Massacre
After a bullet from a Japanese machine gun tore through her body, Australian nurse Vivian Bullwinkel floated face down in the sea and feigned death. She was the sole survivor of the 1942 Bangka Island Massacre, in which 21 nurses were forced to wade into the ocean at gunpoint and then shot in the back.
Vivian was born on the 18/12/1915 at Kapunda, South Australia. She trained as a nurse at Broken Hill Hospital then continued her career in Victoria. She volunteered for service in 1941.
“I felt if my friends were willing to go and fight for their country, then they deserved the best care we could give them,” she said in a later interview.
Vivian set sail for Singapore on the AHS Wanganella, travelling to Johore Baharu to join the 2/13, where she remained until the Japanese began to work their way down the Malayan peninsula, then she was moved to the relative safety of Singapore. As it became likely that Singapore would fall into Japanese hands the nurses would be ordered to leave Singapore. Vivian was in the last group of 65 Australian nurses to leave Singapore bound for Australia on the SS Vyner Brooke.
Evacuation from Singapore
The SS Vyner Brooke was a small ship designed to carry only 12 passengers; however, 265 passengers were packed onto the ship. The Vyner Brooke travelled along, hugging the coast of the islands. On the 14th of February 1942 Japanese aircraft bombed the ship. It began to sink. The nurses assisted passengers to evacuate. Over the next three days, some would drown, some would drift ashore on life rafts and others would make it to shore in various locations on Bangka Island. Vivian joined the group on Radji Beach. There were men, women and children on the beach. The nurses cared for the sick and injured and remained with them. A decision was made to give themselves up so a group of men walked into Muntok to do just that.
When the men returned with the Japanese they could not have know what would happen next. All the men were ordered around a bluff where they were bayoneted and shot. The Japanese soldiers returned and ordered the nurses to walk into the water whereupon they were machine gunned. As they marched into the sea, Irene Drummond called to her sisters “Chin up girls, I am proud of you I love you all.” All of them fell but one would not die. Vivian Bullwinkel would survive the massacre. She recalled that being shot was like being kicked by a mule and that she thought that being shot meant that you were dead. Floating in the water amidst the bodies of her friends she discovered that she was still alive. She feigned death until the Japanese had left the beach, then dragged herself up the beach, tendered the gunshot wound as best she could, then took shelter in the jungle near a stream, where she fell asleep. Vivian was woken by a voice. It was Private Kinsley, a severely injured British soldier.
Twelve Days in the Jungle
Vivian found a water canteen, filled it with water from the stream for Kinsley. She dressed his wounds with what she could find. Finally she decided to seek help from the nearby villagers. The men of the village declined to assist her for fear of recrimination. The women of the village were more helpful and left her food on more than one occasion. Several days passed and they both decided to give themselves up to the Japanese. Kinsley requested one more day of freedom. When asked why, he told Vivian that it was his birthday and he wanted to spend the day in freedom. She agreed to his wishes. Vivian and Private Kinsley spent 12 days in the jungle.
Vivian used the water canteen, slung over her shoulder to hide the bloodstained bullet hole in her uniform. They were walking towards Muntok, they were met by a car carrying a Japanese Naval officer, who drove them into Muntok where Vivian was reunited with 31 of her fellow nurses. Private Kinsley would die from his wounds a few days later.
Prisoner of War
Initially Vivian and the nurses were held in the Coolie Lines near the prison in Muntok. They then travelled to Palembang under horrendous conditions. After eighteen months in Irenelaan they would be sent by boat again back to Camp Menjelang in Muntok. The nurses lived under awful conditions. They had little food to eat and coupled with Beri-Beri, malaria, TB and Bangka fever, four more nurses would die in Muntok. The nurses were then sent back to Sumatra to Loebok Lingau to a camp called Belalau. A boat journey followed by a long train journey. Four more nurses would succumb to disease during their time in this camp.
On the 16th of September 1945 the nurses would be liberated. On hearing this news, Matron Annie Sage and Sister Jean Floyd flew to Lahat, to greet the surviving Australian nurses, at the camp that was hidden in the jungle. Matron Annie Sage had lipsticks for all of the girls as she expected to find 65 nurses. Instead she was confronted with 24 painfully thin and unwell nurses. 24 women whose suffering had been unimaginable.
Return to Singapore and Home
The nurses returned to Singapore where they were treated for illnesses, and given time to recuperate from their malnutrition.
Having put on some weight, they were ready to be seen by the Australian public. They left Singapore on the 5th October 1945 on the AHS MANUNDA.
On their arrival back in Australia, they were greeted by many well-wishers offering fruit and bouquets. They still had so much to recover from though.
Vivian and the other prisoner of war nurses were at home at last. What would the next chapter of their lives be like?
For Vivian it was letters and visits to the family of the murdered girls on Bangka Island. This was an amazing testimony to the woman that she was. She was discharged from the Army in 1947, and was awarded the Royal Red Cross Medal. She took some time to recover from the ordeal through which she had been as a prisoner of war. Vivian then commenced work at the Repatriation Hospital in Melbourne for a time. In 1947, Vivian travelled to Tokyo for the War Crimes Tribunal and stated her recollections of the massacre and subsequent treatment by the Japanese in the prisoner of war camps.
Conception of the Nurses Memorial Centre
Betty Jeffrey and Vivian Bullwinkel travelled around the state of Victoria talking about their experiences as POW’s and how they were fundraising to support the establishment of a nurses’ memorial centre in memory of their fallen comrades. They didn’t want just a stone edifice to memorialise their fallen friends, they wanted a living memorial that would offer nurses a place to meet and a place that would support continuing education. They had thought about this concept when they were prisoners in Sumatra. On the 19th of February 1950 the establishment of the War Nurses Memorial Centre would become a reality.
Vivian was appointed Matron of Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital in 1959. She was involved with many nursing related ventures that included the positions of President of the College of Nursing Australia and member of Council for the Australian War Memorial. She was an instrumental player in Operation Babylift where Vietnamese orphans we brought to Australia in 1975 by Australian nurses who cared for them in flight.
In September 1977 she married Colonel Francis (Frank) Statham and moved to Perth. She remained in touch with all of the ex-POW friends.
She continued to be an active voice for veterans throughout her life. Here she is on the left, marching with other military nurses in the 1955 Anzac Day parade in Melbourne.
Vivian was awarded both the Order of Australia and the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her bravery.
Over the years and she was awarded many decorations which included an MBE(Member of the Order of the British Empire), Order of Australia Efficiency Decoration and the Florence Nightingale Medal and the Royal Red Cross Medal. In 1993 she, along with seven of the other POW nurses, would travel back to Bangka Island, Indonesia to unveil the memorial to the nurses who had died there during the war and to those who had been prisoners of war.
Vivian died on the 3rd of July 2000 aged 84 years. Her service to Australia and to the nurses who died and were prisoners of war during World War II and to the nursing profession will never be forgotten.
This portrait in the Australian War Memorial depicts her wearing her grey nurse’s uniform, red cape and sister’s veil. Among her medals, she is wearing the Florence Nightingale Medal, the world’s highest honour available to nurses.
On the 75th anniversary of the tragedy in February 2017, a commemorative coin bearing an image of the SS Vyner Brooke was struck by the Royal Australian Mint.
At that time, the director of the Australian War Memorial, Brendan Nelson, paid tribute to this outstanding heroine by saying this: “From a generation that produced so many remarkable Australians, Vivian Bullwinkel was a giant among them.”
Rest in peace, Vivian Bullwinkel Statham.
Sisters Jenny Greer (left) and Betty Jeffrey recovering in a Dutch hospital in 1945 from the malnutrition they suffered while prisoners of war in Sumatra.
Throughout this ordeal, Sister Betty Jeffrey kept a secret diary, later published as White coolies (1954). In her diary Jeffrey recorded the physical and mental battle for survival, the unrelenting obsession with food, the death of friends, and the fading of hope.
By Emily Malone, July 2020
Agnes Betty Jeffrey was born in Hobart, Tasmania on 14th May, 1908. Second youngest in a family of six she preferred to be known as Betty, not liking the name Agnes. Whilst growing up her family moved often, as her father was an accountant at the General Post Office frequently transferred interstate to set up new accounting methods. Her family finally came to live in East Malvern, Victoria where Betty stayed for the rest of her life, close to some of her siblings.
Betty attended Warwick Girls College in East Malvern and gained her Intermediate and Leaving Certificates. At school she excelled at playing tennis, was good at swimming and athletics. Upon leaving school she worked as a Sports Mistress at a Girls School and as a typist for a firm of accountants.
At the age of 29 Betty began nursing training at the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne. She had always wanted to begin a career in nursing, but had not been impressed with hospitals interstate and so had put off training for many years, with her mind set on training at the Alfred Hospital. Betty graduated with her General Nursing Certificate in 1939. In 1940, at the Royal Women's Hospital, Betty received her Midwifery Certificate. Aged 33 she joined the Australian Army Nursing Service, excited by the opportunity to travel and aid the war effort. She was posted to Darley Military Camp, Victoria with five other nurses to set up a Camp Hospital.
In 1941, Betty was posted to Malacca, in Malaya to join the 2/10th Australian General Hospital. At this stage there wasn't any war in the Pacific, so it seemed to be a safe place for the nurses. Being fit and healthy and with no responsibilities at home, going overseas and representing her country was exciting and something Betty wanted to do. In May, she left Melbourne for Malacca aboard the ship, Zealandia. After the nurses had been in Malacca for several months the war in the Pacific commenced and their hospital was now heavily involved. In early January 1942 the hospital evacuated to Singapore and the 2/10th Australian Hospital converted a school into a hospital where the nurses worked tirelessly to care for the sick and wounded under constant danger and air raids.
On 13 February 1942 the order was given for the nurses to evacuate Singapore as the Japanese forces closed in. None of the nurses wanted to abandon there patients and initially they refused to leave. Carrying only a few possessions, Betty and her 64 nursing colleagues were taken by a fleet of ambulances to St. Andrew’s Cathedral. They waited while there was an air raid and when it was over they were taken to the wharf to board the small steamer ship, Vyner Brooke.
The Vyner Brooke, with just four cabins and built to carry only 12 passengers plus its crew left Singapore on under the cover of darkness with a few hundred civilians and soldiers on board. After dodging bombing attacks from Japanese planes and ‘hiding’ in the Bankga Strait, on 14 February 1942, the Vyner Brooke was attacked from the air. One bomb hit the bridge and another went straight down the funnel. The planes machined gunned the deck and the lifeboats. Many lifeboats filled with water and sank. The ship took on water very quickly and sunk approximately 10 miles (16kms) from Bankga Island, Sumatra.
Betty, a strong swimmer slid down a rope over the side of the ship just as it was going down and was burned from the rope along her hands, skinning her fingers. In the water, Betty clung to a raft containing Matron Paschke, head of her Unit, who was a non-swimmer. After hours, the raft drifted very close to a pier but was carried out by a storm. Betty realised that the load was too heavy so she, another nurse, Iole Harper and two men hopped out of the raft to swim beside it. Suddenly the raft was caught in a current, which missed Betty and those swimming beside it, and carried it out to sea. Betty and Iole never saw Matron or those sisters again. Of the sixty-five nurses on board the Vyner Brooke twelve were drowned.
Betty and Iole swam together in the sea and mangrove swamps for three days. After the first 28 hours they realised that they didn't know each other's name, so they stopped, formally introduced themselves and then continued swimming. Finally they were found, exhausted and delirious, by a Malay fisherman who took them to his village to feed and care for them, explaining they were on Bangka Island, now in Japanese hands, and were advised to give themselves up.
For the next three and a half years Betty and 31 other Australian Army Nursing Sisters were held captive as Prisoners of War in and around Sumatra. Fellow captives, including nuns, missionaries and Dutch and English civilian women and children endured appalling conditions in the prison camps. Water for drinking came from one tap, which could only drip. Bath water trickled into a large trough called a tong, which the women stood beside and splashed tiny amounts of water over themselves. They were fed rice twice a day, which was from the market floor and had teeth, hair, stones, bugs and dirt in it. They were sometimes given a little sugar or salt with their rice and perhaps a piece of vegetable the size of a 5 cent coin or a tiny pink splinter which they were told was pork. They went to bed hungry.
Many of the nurses had only the clothes on their backs – and no shoes, having removed them before diving off the Vyner Brooke. Their treatment by prison guards was often cruel. Some nurses had to walk for hours to collect clean water for the guards’ crops of sweet potatoes, while they themselves were forced to drink water that was often putrid and contaminated. Red Cross parcels carrying food and medical supplies were also kept from the prisoners.
In camp, Betty wanted to keep her mind active. She was worried that when she returned home she would forget all the things that happened to her. In a 1983 interview when asked about her diary, Betty recalled: “I didn’t want my brain to rust. I wanted to remember how to read, write and spell but there was nothing to write on or write with. I found a pencil on a rubbish heap and I thought, well I’m getting started, but no paper. On my way to a working party, outside the camp, near the guard house I saw a little exercise booklet and thought that’s exactly what I want. I hope it is still there when I come in and it was. I grabbed it and no one saw. After that I kept it as my diary. I knew I had to keep it hidden”.
Betty hid the diary under the bench on which she slept in the hut. She rolled it in rags and hid it in a bottle amongst rats and spiders, a place where she thought her captors definitely wouldn't look. Had the Japanese soldiers found the diary Betty would have been executed and the diary been burnt. Other nurses knew about the diary because Betty needed someone to keep watch for the Japanese guards while she was writing in it.
To cope with the atrocious circumstances the nurses found themselves in, Betty and her friends attempted to establish a routine. Each woman was designated as a cook, a cleaner, or a gardener. In August 1942 a ‘shop’ was allowed into camp once a week. It was a cart belonging to a local man, containing fruit, sugar and a tiny amount of butter, tea, coffee beans and sandshoes. The shop was only good if you had money, so the nurses set to work. The Dutch women in camp had money, but the nurses had been shipwrecked and lost everything. Betty very quickly became the camp ‘hairdresser’, cutting people’s hair with a pair of nail scissors.
When morale was particularly low in the camp Norah Chambers who attended the Royal Academy in London and was classically trained and Dutch Missionary Margaret Drybrugh formed the Vocal Orchestra. These incredibly talented women wrote music to classical symphonies from memory on scraps of paper. Betty would watch and listen to the orchestra practice. She would hum the tunes to herself. Norah asked if she could read music and Betty responded that she could and so Betty was made a fist alto in the vocal orchestra. The concerts transported the captives to another place where they were not hungry and being held prisoner.
During her time in camp, Margaret Drybrugh composed the Captive’s Hymn which was sung in camp each Sunday at Church services held. This song is still sung at many commemorative services today.
To keep up morale, the nurses celebrated their birthdays and gave one other presents, using whatever they could find in the camp or make. Christmas was also an important time in camp and the prisoners made cards and gifts for one another, using any type of paper they could get their hands on. Many of the gifts Betty received were sketches.
On 15th August 1945, the Second World War ended. The women being held captive in the prison camp were not told of this until 24th August. During their first few days of freedom the men from the men’s camp were allowed to mix with the women’s camp and see their wives and children. More food became available and the women were given lipstick, clothes, materials and shoes. The Australian Red Cross supplies that had been sent to the camp were made available and medical supplies, letters from the internee’s families, writing paper and materials that had been withheld in a store room were now passed around the camp.
Only 24 Australian Army nurses were released from the final prison camp when the war finally ended and the nurses were rescued. Betty weighed just 32 kilograms. The nurses were flown to Singapore and were hospitalised immediately. They were desperate to get home.
On 5th October 1945, 24 nurses left Singapore on the hospital ship Manunda. Betty was very sick on the way home and wasn’t able to celebrate properly.
On 24th October 1945 Betty arrived home in Melbourne. She spent one night at home with her family, catching up on news. She was so unwell and after celebrating her arrival home, she was admitted to the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital where she remained for two years, suffering tropical diseases and tuberculosis.
In 1947 Betty was discharged from hospital. Together with Vivian Bullwinkel she fulfilled a promise made in captivity, to honour their colleagues who had died and create a memorial so they would not be forgotten. They travelled around Victoria, speaking at towns to raise funds in order to establish a Nurses Memorial Centre in Melbourne. Betty and Vivian, together with the support of Wilma Oram raised 78,000 pounds. An overall amount of 120,000 pounds was finally raised so the Nurses Memorial Centre could become a reality. This Centre was to be not just a place to remember the passing of the fallen nurses, but a place to meet, gather and continue the ongoing professional development of nurses through education.
On 14 May 1949 (Betty’s birthday) the Nurses Memorial Centre was opened and Betty was asked to be its first administrator. Betty lived at the Centre and enjoyed her position despite the very long hours which were often 9am – 10.30pm. Betty also established the Betty Jeffrey Auxiliary to raise additional funds for the Nurses Memorial Centre to enable the purchase of equipment.
In May 1950 Betty took a leave of absence from the Nurses Memorial Centre to travel to England with Vivian Bullwinkel. In May 1951 they were presented to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace. They were trained to curtsy correctly. They were also received by Her Majesty Queen Mary at her home, Marlborough House. Betty said this was an unforgettable and wonderful experience. Queen Mary wanted to know all about the Nurses Memorial Centre as she had sent an autographed photograph of herself there.
In 1954 Betty became unwell again and was in and out of Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital often for 9 – 11 weeks at a time. She was advised by the medical team to retire from the Nurses Memorial Centre. This was very difficult for her as she loved her job.
In May 1954 Betty’s book White Coolies was published after a suggestion her diary kept during her time as a prisoner should be made into a book. The book was originally called Diary of White Coolie but the publishers thought the name too long. Betty agreed to publish her experiences as she wanted to explain to her family what it had been like being a prisoner of war.
In 1955 an adaptation of White Coolies was recorded for radio and was broadcast across Australia.
In the early 1960s Betty was a golf caddy to Victorian champion, Burtta Cheney; an old friend. They were both members at Huntingdale Golf Club. It helped Betty to become fit once again. During this time she also worked on the ex-Prisoner of War (POW) and Nurses Memorial Centre committees.
During the 1970s and 1980s Betty was a frequent guest speaker on ex-service personnel and prisoner of war subjects. She continued to attend ANZAC Day and commemoration services. She was also invited to open many memorials and was Patron and Member of the ex-POW and Relatives association and a committee member for many years. White Coolies kept her busy during this period, she wrote dozens of articles about the book and answered hundreds of letters regarding being a prisoner or war.
In 1979 Betty travelled back to Sumatra for the making of the BBC Documentary “Women in Captivity” by producer Lavinia Warner, who is also the author of Women beyond the Wire. Dame Margot Turner and Betty were flown to Palembang Sumatra to be filmed for the documentary. This was what she called her ‘journey backwards’. Going back to Sumatra after 34 years.
In 1987 Betty was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for her services to ex-servicemen and women.
During 1996, Betty became an advisor to Bruce Beresford, director of the film Paradise Road which was largely based on White Coolies. The film was released in 1997.
Early in 2000, the latest edition of White Coolies was re-printed. This was its nineteenth edition. In June 2000, Betty was awarded with a Life Membership of the Returned Services League, presented to her by President, Bruce Ruxton and Major General Peter Cosgrove.
Betty passed away, aged 92, on 13 September 2000. Her life was remembered at a family funeral, and a moving memorial service arranged by the Returned Nurses Association.
Regarded with great fondness by her friends, Betty Jeffrey's dignified manner and sense of humour has been recalled by many who knew her during the war. The camaraderie amongst the nurses together with her wit, imagination, ability to embellish a story and fabulous sense of humour all contributed to Betty surviving three and a half harrowing years as a Prisoner of War, and this can be seen in her dairies, the poems she wrote and the sketches she drew while in captivity. Her sense of humour, conscientious, caring, innovative and generous spirit remained with her throughout her years, as did her strong friendships with the returned nurses. It was her wish to keep the memory of the nurses who did not return alive, and so now this task is passed onto us. Lest we forget.
Elaine Lenore Balfour-Ogilvy - SX10596
Elaine Balfour-Ogilvy, or Laine as she was known to her friends, born on 11th of January 1912 to Major Harry and Jane Balfour-Ogilvy of Renmark South Australia.
She attended Woodlands School Adelaide as a boarder from 1928-29. She excelled in her studies and was a member of the dramatic and debating societies. She was also noted to be a capable swimmer and a tennis player. She was also a singer and was invited to join the Adelaide Choral Society.
She trained at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital and completed her training in 1934 where she won the silver medal for her final results.
Sister Balfour-Ogilvy enlisted on the 13th of September1940. She was appointed to the 2/4 Casualty Clearing Station of the AANS and in February 1941 embarked on the Queen Mary bound for Singapore and Malaya. She worked with the 9th Field Ambulance and the 4th CCS in Lampai, South Jahore. She remained there until the inevitable fall of Singapore. She along with the remaining nurses would leave on the SS Vyner Brooke on the 12th of February 1942.
When the fall of Singapore was imminent, most nurses were evacuated, but a few, including Lanie assisted to the last before loading children and injured men onto a small coastal steamer, the SS Vyner Brooke. On the 14th February, Japanese planes bombed and sank the steamer. Lanie who learned to swim in the Murray, swam to a rope trailing from a lifeboat and assisted and encouraged others.
Several hours later, around eighty survivors including Lanie, had reached shore. She and twenty one other nurses tended to the needy. Two days later, the group had split and those that remained decided to surrender. They were met by Japanese soldiers who took the men behind a bluff. The soldiers returned wiping their bayonets ... the nurses were then made to walk into the sea and as they did, were shot from behind.
The longest north-south road in the Loxton Settlement and a wing in the Renmark Municipal Library recognise this young, beautiful, laughing Riverlander who died so tragically aged just thirty.
Alma May Beard - WFX11175
Sister Alma Beard was the daughter of Edward and Katherine Beard of Toodyay. She was born on the 14/1/1913 at ‘Tellmell’, the family farm.
She attended the local primary school and then boarded at the Mercedes College in Perth for a year. Alma returned home at the age of 17. She loved to ride horses and entered dressage events at the local show.
She enlisted on the 19th of June 1941 She was part of the 2/13 Australian General Army Hospital. She embarked Perth on the 19th of September 1941 on the Wanganella. She arrived in Singapore and served at the St Patrick’s School for a while before moving to Tampoi Hills on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. As the Japanese advanced down through the Malay Peininsula the hospital was transferred back to the relative safety of Singapore. Shortly before the fall of Singapore the 65 Australian nurses who remained left on the SS Vyner Brooke bound for Australia. The SS Vyner Brooke would never make it. On the 14th of February it was sunk by the Japanese.
Alma would make it to shore on Bangka Island. She would arrive on Radji Beach. The nurses would care for the sick and injured whilst on the beach. Eventually the decision would be made to give themselves up to the Japanese.
On the 16th of February the Japanese returned and ordered the men around the bluff and killed them. Returning to the nurses they motioned them to walk into the sea. Alma was the last in the line to the left of the group. She turned to Vivian Bullwinkel and said, ‘Bully, there are two things in life I’ve always hated in my life, the Japanese and the sea and today I have ended up with them both’.
It is reported that Vivain Bullwinkel wrote to Alma’s parents upon her return home after 3 ½ years. She wrote,”Her Brave conduct in an hour of crisis has added lustre to the service which she so nobly carried on”.
Sister Alma May Beard, service number WFX11175 of 2/13 Australian General Hospital, was shot as a prisoner of war at Bangka Island on 16 February 1942. She was 29.
Florence Casson and Florence Nightingale had much in common. Their names, their Christian virtues, a love for people, and a deep desire to serve others. Each received two marriage proposals but both chose nursing careers instead.
Born in Warracknabeal, Victoria, five years before Florence Nightingale died, young Flo moved with her family to Panitya. Later they moved across the border to Pinnaroo, SA, where Flo, now an adult, became the hospital matron. She had trained at Mannum and the Royal Adelaide Hospital and nursed at Mannum, Rose Park, Jamestown and Port Pirie where she ‘…was greatly appreciated’. In 1940, she joined the AANS and in September 1941, was dispatched to Singapore.
In February 1942, Sister Casson was one of sixty five nurses reluctantly evacuated from Singapore before the Japanese invasion and crammed among 200 others aboard the SS Vyner Brooke, a yacht designed for twelve. The next day in the Bangka Straits off Sumatra, the yacht was bombed and sunk by the Japanese. Fifty three nurses survived; twenty two made it to Radji Beach while the rest reached another beach near by.
Two days later, having no food, the survivors on Radji Beach decided to surrender, not suspecting the tragedy to follow. The Japanese soldiers took the men and killed them, then returned for the women ordering them to march toward the sea. This they did, ‘…with their chins held high.’ They were shot from behind. Florence was killed before she reached the water.
Casson Avenue which connects Bookpurnong and Briers roads, bears her name as a memorial to this tragic event.
Matron Irene Drummond - SX10594
Matron Drummond SX10594 was called up in January 1941 with the 2/4 Casualty Clearing Station.
Minnie Ivy Hodgson - WFX11174
Sister Minnie Ivy Hodgson of 2/13 Australian General Hospital is the daughter of John and Contrary Hodgson.
When Australian Army nurse Kathleen Neuss sat down to write a letter home from Singapore on 6 February 1942 she couldn’t have known it would be her last. “Guess you will be thinking I’ve gone up in smoke,” she quipped. “There is plenty of it about.”
Ten days later she was dead, one of 22 Australian nurses who were ordered into the sea at Radji Beach and shot by Japanese soldiers during the infamous Banka Island massacre.
She was just a lovely fun-loving lady. She was a tall, fun loving and gregarious woman with brown eyes and dark hair. She had a wicked sense of humour and was full of life, her letters home telling of a young woman enjoying her experiences overseas …
Neuss enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in December 1940 and embarked for Singapore in February 1941 on the SS Queen Mary, the same ship her younger brother William had sailed on only a few months earlier.
She was working on the Malay Peninsula when the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and invaded Malaya. Once the fall of Singapore became inevitable, Neuss was one of 65 Australian nurses who were evacuated. Although they protested leaving their patients, the nurses left Singapore on 12 February aboard SS Vyner Brooke. Two days later, the desperately overcrowded ship was attacked and bombed by the Japanese, sinking in the Banka Straits within half an hour of Sumatra.
Neuss was hit in the hip by shrapnel from a bomb blast, and had to be helped up on deck by her friends Wilma Oram and Mona Wilton, who were already wounded. They all but carried her to a lifeboat, her friend Pat Gunther giving her tin hat to Neuss in case she needed to bail water from the lifeboat, saying, ‘We’ll see you on shore’. Neuss gave Gunther her lifejacket, and Gunther made it to another part of Banka Island and survived the war as a prisoner of the Japanese.
Many lives were lost during the sinking. Some, like Neuss, were helped into lifeboats, while others swam or desperately clung to debris. Those who could made for the nearby Banka Island. It was there that some of the survivors travelled from Radji beach to the nearest port to formally surrender to the Japanese, but Neuss was among the 22 Australian nurses who remained to tend the wounded.
The Japanese signed for the remaining nurses and one civilian woman to march into the sea. Aware of what was about to happen to them as they walked to the water’s edge, Matron Irene Drummond said to her sisters, “Chins up, girls. I’m proud of you … I love you all.”
When the water reached their waists the Japanese opened fire with machine-guns. Of the 22 Australian nurses ordered into the sea that day, all but one were killed. The only nurse to survive the massacre was Sister Vivian Bullwinkel who was shot in the hip but survived by feigning death in the surf. After the war she contacted the families of the nurses who were killed and testified at the International War Crimes Tribunal.
Bessie Wilmott - WX3439
Sister Bessie Wilmott was born on the 24th of May 1913 to John and Clarice Wilmott at Claremont , Western Australia. She spent most of life at Como. In 1919 Bessie’s mother would die. In 1923 her father remarried and it would appear that Bessie and her stepmother had a loving relationship.
She trained as a nurse at the Royal Perth Hospital. She became Sister in Charge of “A ward”.
Bessie enlisted on the 14th August 1940. She was appointed to the 2/4 Casualty Clearing Station of the AANS. She departed for Singapore in early February 1941. She would return to Singapore in early 1942 and was subsequently evacuated on the SS Vyner Brook. After the ship was bombed she would grab a rope on the raft which had many nurses on it. They would end up on Radji Beach, Bangka Island. On the 16th of February she would be shot with twenty-one of her nursing colleagues. Only Vivian Bullwinkel would survive.
Group photo of Australian Army Nursing Service 1941. Sister Bessie Wilmott is far right.
Dorothy Gwendoline (Buddy) Elmes - NFX70526
Dorothy Gwendoline Elmes was born at Armadale, Victoria to Robert and Dorothy Jean Elmes on the 27th of April 1914. She would grow up in Melbourne and Cheshunt in Victoria’s King Valley.
She would train at Corowa Community Hospital and would graduate in May 1939. By all accounts she was a very popular girl.
She enlisted in Paddington NSW on the 17th of December 1940. Embarkation was on the Queen Mary in early February with other members of the 10th Australian General Hospital .She disembarked in Singapore on the 18th of February. On the 10th of January 1942 she was attached to the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station of the AANS. Eventually she was to travel to Singapore to await evacuation .She was evacuated on the SS Vyner Brooke. Eventually she would make land at Radji Beach on Bangka Island. On the 16th of February she would be killed with twenty other nurses by the Japanese on Radji Beach with only Vivian Bullwinkel surviving the massacre.
Her mother wrote, “My Darling little Bud, Oh dear I wish I knew where you are in the world…..”, on the 2nd of March 1942, but Dorothy had already died on Radji Beach.
Rosetta Joan Wight - VX61329
Sister Rosetta Joan Wight, VX 61329, was a member of the 2/13th Australian General Hospital. She was born on 3 December 1908 the second eldest of 4 children to Leslie Rivers Wight and Rosetta Frances Wight (nee Brown) of Fish Creek, a small rural town south east of Melbourne in Victoria,.
Rosetta’s father Les was born at Kensington London and immigrated with his family to Australia as a child. His own father died in Melbourne when Les was only 14 but it was not until Les was 39 that he married Rosetta’s mother, also named Rosetta.
Four children followed in the next 5 years, so it was a pretty busy Wight household in which Rosetta lived. The growing family moved from suburban Melbourne to Fish Creek in early 1908 and Leslie worked as a farmer. So it would have been a pretty carefree life enjoyed by Rosetta and her siblings.
Tragedy through war service was to cruely strike Rosetta’s family a generation before the Radji Beach atrocities in February 1942. William Brown was her mother’s younger brother and Rosetta’s Uncle. In 1916 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and after training his unit went to France. He was killed in Belgium on the 20 September 1917. Being nearly nine, the tragedy would certainly have hit young Rosetta hard, as it would her whole family. But no-one could foresee the immense sadness that would confront the family a generation later.
Little is known of her schooling. There is however a record in “The Argus” Melbourne newspaper of 30 March 1935 that Rosetta J. Wight passed her Nurses Board exams whilst at Bendigo Hospital in Central Victoria. From the Electoral Roll it is also known that in 1931 when Rosetta was about 23, she was living in Toorak in Melbourne and her occupation was stated as ‘nurse’.
On the 8 August 1941 Rosetta enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service and her paybook photo shows a cheery faced country girl. It is believed that in late August 1941 Rosetta sailed for Malaya on the hospital ship Wanganella, arriving on 15 September 1941. She was posted to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital which was initially located at St Patrick's School on Singapore Island. Between 21-23 November 1941 the entire hospital was moved across the Strait to Tampoi Hill on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Due however, to the swift progress of the Japanese invasion force, most of the hospital staff was evacuated back to Singapore in late January 1942.
There is little else of her life recorded until the attack on the SS Vyner Brooke on 14 February 1942, following its departure from Singapore on 12th. Rosetta was one of the 65 Australian Army Nursing Service nurses on the ship. She was severely wounded during the attack on the ship and in the book On Radji Beach there is a long account of her suffering during the last two days of her life. This is quoted below because it is appropriate to understand what was inflicted on this dedicated nurse whose sole purpose in life was to care for others.
In On Radji Beach on page 153, immediately after the bombs hit the ship it states
“… the worst of the injuries appear to those suffered by Sister Rosetta Wight, who was one of the older nurses, and Clare Halligan. The two nurses had been in the rear of the saloon near the passageway to the cabins when the bomb landed behind them. Both had been facing towards the front of the boat and suffered deep shrapnel wounds to the back of their thighs and buttocks, wounds that penetrated to the bone …..”
Unable to move they were half carried to the upper deck by fellow nurses and were loaded into the second lifeboat with the frail elderly and mothers with children.
Tragically, this lifeboat overturned as it landed in the sea and all aboard had to hold onto the upturned craft until around 10pm on that Saturday night until it was washed ashore. They were at least a couple of kilometres from where the first lifeboat had much earlier rowed ashore at Radji Beach and where its occupants had lit a beacon bonfire.
Vivian Bullwinkel and Jimmy Miller walked from the second lifeboat to the bonfire to obtain help for the injured. Only Eric German, an American civilian who was destined to survive the killings, and a young English teenager offered their help. So, in agony Rosetta was half carried and half dragged by the small rescue party led by Jimmy Miller. It took over two hours to cover the couple of kilometres to reach the bonfire location, whereas it had taken Vivian and Jimmy about half an hour a little earlier.
Rosetta appears to have been placed on the high side of the beach in the shade of the coconut trees on the edge of the jungle. She and the other wounded were being cared for by Matron Drummond and her Australian Army Nurses and a Chinese doctor who had also survived the sinking.
When dawn broke on Monday 16th February the survivors were joined by another lifeboat and rafts with many wounded people from ships that were sunk by the Japanese in the Banka Straits during the night. The sheer volume of over 80 survivors and wounded seems to have tipped those in authority to seek help from the Japanese.
While Sub-Lieut William Sedgman, Royal Naval Reserve and First Officer of the SS Vyner Brooke, was away to surrender the group to the Japanese, Matron Drummond decided to send the women and children and a few walking wounded men on a trek towards Muntok the nearest town. This group in fact passed the Japanese soldiers coming to Radji Beach with Bill Sedgeman.
The nurses knew it was their duty to stay with and look after the wounded, regardless of their difficulties.
So, Rosetta was amongst the group of nurses destined to be killed by the Japanese. Once the Japanese had executed firstly the Officers and then the second group of Other ranks and civilian men they turned their attention to the nurses. Forming the nurses into a line facing the sea, with Rosetta and her wounded friends being supported at the right hand end of the line by other sisters (On Radji Beach page 216) the Japanese carried out one of their most abhorrent war crimes against Allied women on record.
This group of noble caring women fell together under the impact of the Japanese machine gun bullets and the life of this open faced country girl from Country Victoria was most cruely taken at Radji Beach.
Rosetta Wight is commemorated with 28 other ‘Royal Australian Army Nursing Service’ personnel on the Bendigo Base Hospital Honour Roll at Pall Mall, near the soldiers Memorial Institute at Bendigo Victoria.
Perhaps the real memory of Rosetta Joan Wight can be appreciated by the many family trees on ancestry.com that includes her name and details.
On one tree there is even a photo of a page describing the killings from the biography of the only nurse who survived the massacre, Vivian Bullwinkel and this photo is below.
Florence Aubin Salmon - NFX70991
Sister Florence Aubin Salmon, NFX 70991, was a member of the 2/10th Australian General Hospital, and was born on the 20 October 1915 in Sydney. She was the daughter of John Henry Salmon and Florence Alexandria Salmon (nee Aubin) of Punchbowl Sydney and belonged to the Methodist Church.
Sadly, despite the historic profile of the Radji Beach war crimes not much is known about Florence’s life. Her pay book photo in the Australian War Memoril shows a smiling woman with the description of ‘… dark hair, hazel eyes …’.
The records at the Australian War Memoril have virtually nothing else about Florence Salmon. Nevertheless, from a report in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on 26 June 1938 it is known that she passed her Nurses Registration Board exam whilst at the War Memorial Hospital at Waverley in Sydney, notably at the same time as Winnie May Davis.
Winnie was one of the younger and most popular Nurses and sadly died of illness and malnutrition on 19 July 1945 while a Prisoner of War at a remote camp in Sumatra.
Florence initially enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service at Victoria Barracks in Sydney on the 22 February 1941. Her record shows that it was for Home Service and that she was at Bathurst NSW. On 9 May 1941 she was called up as a reinforcment for the 2/10th Australian General Hospital that was then stationed at Malacca in Malaya. After joining the 2/10th AGH Florence went back to her old unit at Bathurst until he went on a week’s pre-embarkation leave on 30 June 1941.
Florence sailed to Singapore on the 24 July and disembarked on 17 August and travelled immediately to join her new unit at Malacca. At various times she was seconded to work with the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station. She was with the 2/10th AGH when most of the hospital staff were evacuated back to Singapore in late January 1942, due to the swift advance of the Japanese invasion force.
Little is known about Florence’s last voyage on the SS Vyner Brooke apart from the fact that, after somehow attaching herself to either a raft or lifeboat she made it to Radji Beach. With the other Australian nurses she proceeded to care for the wounded and injured on the beach.
Two days later on the 16 February 1942 this lovely caring young woman in her mid 20’s was brutally executed by the Japanese soldiers on Radji Beach with twenty Australian Army nurses and the other civilians and military personnel.
Clarice Isobel Halligan - VX47776
17/10/1904 – 16/2/1942
Sister Clarice ‘Clare’ Isobel Halligan, VX 47776, 2/13th Australian General Hospital was born in Ballarat, Victoria on 17 September 1904, the third daughter of Joseph Patrick Halligan and Emily Watson Chalmers, who were married in Ballarat in 1898. They had eight children, the first in 1899 and the eighth in 1918. Clarice was the first of the siblings to die on 16th February 1942 at the age of 37 years.
Clarice’s father Joseph Patrick Halligan, started work at Ballarat Brewery and left to join Abbotsford Brewery, in Melbourne. The family at that time lived in a lovely Victorian House in the grounds of the Brewery in Abbotsford. Later on, they all moved to Kew.
Joseph rented stables in a back block, where a horse and jinker (2 wheeled cart) were kept for travel around Melbourne and for Joseph to travel to work. The children had a carefree childhood and played down at the Yarra River in Kew where they swam and bought ice cream from a punt on the River. They all went to school in Kew. They also went for escapades into the expansive grounds of the Kew Mental Asylum.
Clarice was a member of the Church of England. She had very strong faith as shown by a life committed to helping others and her work as missionary in New Guinea. She was Confirmed at the Holy Trinity Church in Kew Melbourne on the 5th August 1917 and her Confirmation Certificate is in the possession of her family.
Her family are very fortunate to have many Certificates of her very extensive training as a Nurse, but the oldest record dates to when Clarice was very young; nearly 12 years old. It is a Victorian Education Department Pupil’s Cookery Certificate dated 30th June, 1916. This is for a Six Month Course of Instruction in the Theory and Practice of Elementary Cookery, Richmond, Vic.
Another Certificate is the Australian Nursing Federation Certificate of Registration dated 3 October 1929 Certifying that Clarice Isobel Halligan, has been admitted to Membership of the Australian Nursing Federation as a General Nurse.
Clarice trained at the The Melbourne Hospital and Women’s Hospital Melbourne (combined training school for Nurses). The family have a Certificate dated 3rd October, 1927 certifying that Clarice Isobel Halligan had been trained at these Hospitals for three and a half years in Medical, Surgical and Nursing and six months in Midwifery.
There is also a Record of Service dated 5th June 1928 from the Lady Superintendent of Royal Melbourne Hospital recording that Clarice worked for three and a half years at this hospital in various men’s and women’s, medical, surgical, isolation, eye, ear, nose and throat wards, on day and night duty, in the casualty and out-patient department and in the operating theatres. She also worked in the gynaecological wards at the Women’s hospital. Clarice clearly had much experience.
Other qualifications included
(1) Training in Mothercraft and Infant Welfare required by the Victorian Baby Health Centres Association, qualifying her to take charge of a Baby Health Centre.
(2) Special course of training in Infant Welfare Nursing.
(3) Registration as a Midwife by the Nurses’ Board of South Australia
In 1934 Clarice went to Papua New Guinea as a Missionary and kept a diary but unfortunately only one now remains in the possession of the family. Paper was obviously in short supply in New Guinea and this diary was written in pencil on her brother’s school work book. It is assumed by her family that she may have written many diaries that were mistakenly thrown out by relatives who did not know that diaries were hidden in between school work. The diary starts with DOGURA, PAPUA NEW GUINEA - 31.07.1934 (DIARY and says
“As you probably know I am one of the newer missionaries, having landed in Papua on the last day of July, 1934……”
From stories related by relatives, Clarice worked in Melbourne for the Grey Sisters, an Order of Anglican Sisters who looked after poor people in Abbotsford. She then went to Neerim South as the Matron of the local hospital, where her parents went to meet the Doctor who was thinking of marrying Clarice. But for one reason or another Clarice’s parents deemed him unsuitable for marriage to their daughter. Something was wrong with his foot; maybe what used to be called a “club foot”!
According to her Record of Service Clarice joined the Australian General Hospital on 20 December 1940 and was allocated to the 7 AGH. She immediately went on leave without pay and returned to duty on 31 January 1941 and was the attached to the Camp Hospital at Seymour Victoria.
On the 11 July 1940 she enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service at the Australian Army Medical Corp Depot in William St Melbourne. She sailed on the 30 July 1941 and disembarked at Singapore on the 14 August 19/41. Clarice had wanted to go to the Middle East but ended up in Malaya. Initially Clarice was seconded with 10 other Nurse to the 2/10th Australian General Hospital at Malacca in Malaya.
Clarice returned to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital that was initially located at St Patrick's School on Singapore Island. Between 21-23 November 1941 the entire hospital was moved across the Straits to Tampoi Hill on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Due however, to the swift progress of the Japanese invasion force, most of the hospital staff was evacuated back to Singapore in late January 1942.
With the 65 other Australian Nurses Clarice was on board the SS Vyner Brooke when it was bombed by the Japanese and sunk on 14 February 1942. Clarice was badly injured by a bomb blast at the same time as Rosetta Wight and both
“ … suffered deep shrapnel wounds to the back of their thighs and buttocks, wounds that penetrated to the bone …. Partially in shock and bleeding profusely, both women were unable to move …”(p.153, On Radji Beach).
Fellow nurses helped her up to the deck and into what would be the second lifeboat to be launched. This lifeboat however overturned as it hit the sea and throwing out most of its passengers out ( p.160, On Radji Beach). Nevertheless, Clarice managed to hold onto the upturned craft. She must have been in excruciating pain for many hours before the sea currents eventually washed the upturned lifeboat and its survivors ashore at one end of Radji.
Clarice's wounds, whilst bad, were apparently not quite as severe as those of the other two wounded nurses and she was “… able to walk and simply needed some stitching and some medication to be guaranteed a full recovery …” ( p.199-200, On Radji Beach). But there is no doubt that she would have been in agony as she managed to make the journey along the coast to where the first lifeboat had lit a bonfire.
Clarice would have been in real pain during the next two days until the time the Japanese troops arrived at Radji beach. The soldiers proceeded to execute firstly the officers and serviceman and then the crew and civilian men on the beach before in an unbelievable act of totally senseless brutality they lined up the nurses near the waters edge. Clare and the other wounded nurses were on the left of the line facing out to sea. The soldiers opened fire with their machine gun.
Thus ended the life of a woman in the prime of life who had been dedicated to caring for others in pain and suffering.
One the final entries on Clarice’s Offical Record states
“Deceased whilst POW. Executed by Japanese”
An example of the impact on families of the uncertainty of their loved one’s fate can be seen in letters on Clarice’s file and her Officiers Record of Service at the Australian War Memorial Canberra. Clarice died in February 1942 and it was not until September/October 1945 that her death could be really confirmed, following the release of the surviving 24 Nurses from captivity as POWs. Prior to that the Nurses were ‘presumed killed’ which still gave their families some hope that they were alive.
On 2 September 1944 Clarice’s mother wrote to the Army for “a Certificate, or otherwise a statement of authortity” to enable her to sell Clarice’s car. Further correspondance followed and the Army thought her mother wanted a Death Certificate. But her mother wrote on 28 September that
“We don’t wish to apply for a Certificate of Death ……..as we still have some hope that our daughter may still be alive.”
How sad are those words and any slender hope would be shattered 12 months later.
Undoubtedly, similar sentiments were being experienced by the families of the other 41 Nurses from the SS Vyner Brooke who died during or after the sinking, were executed on Radji Beach, or died whilst a Prisoner of War of the Japanese. And we should not forget the anguish and uncertainty of the familes of the Nurses who did return home.
Ellen Louisa (Nell) Keats - SFX11647
Sister Ellen Louisa ‘Nell’ Keats, SX 11647 was member of the 2/10th Australian General Hospital. Nell was born on 1 July 1915 at ‘Gunyah’, a private nursing home at North Unley a suburb of Adelaide. She was the daughter of Mr and Mrs C. C. Keats of Dulwich, South Australia. She had twin younger brothers and one was later listed as ‘Missing’ during the War.
Nell attended St Peters Collegiate Girls School, Adelaide. In 1927 she is listed as passing her pianoforte exam for the School Exams and in 1932 she passed the ‘Invalid Cookery Examination’ conducted by the School of Mines; by then she would have been about 16-17 years of age.
Nell commenced her training at Parkwynd Private Hospital in 1933, transferring to Adelaide Hospital to complete the course, and it is reported that Nell was an excellent nurse. In 1937 she passed her final exam for the Nurses Board of South Australia and was employed at the Adelaide Hospital as a staff sister (Health Museum of South Australia).
Nell enlisted with the Australian Army Nursing Service on 18 December 1940 and was called up for service on 3 February 1941. A studio portrait of Nell in her nursing military uniform taken in 1941 prior to her departure with the AANS shows a serious, pleasant faced young woman of 5 foot 3 inches in height. A similar impression is given in her paybook photo at the Australian War Memorial.
On 19 May 1941 Nell embarked on HMAT Zealandia arriving in Singapore on 9 June 1941. She immediately traveled to Malacca in Malaya where the 2/10th AGH was located. From time to time Nell and other nurses from the 2/10th AGH were seconded for duty with the 2/13th AGH. Nell was with this unit when due to the swift progress of the Japanese invasion force in Malaya, most of the hospital staff was evacuated back to Singapore in late January 1942. On 25 January she rejoined her fellow nurses of the 2/10th AGH who were also back on Singapore Island.
According to the documents in the Australian War Memorial lodged by Mavis Hannah, Nell’s letters home from Malaya to her mother “… were positively upbeat …” (On Radji Beach p.80). ‘Writing to her mother in Adelaide on 20 December 1941, she said “Each night we have community singing in the Mess, which I enjoy very much, and tonight I am going to the pictures to see Waterloo Bridge…….We are still not very busy as we haven’t started receiving casualties”.
On the back of the studio mounted portrait of Nell in her nurse’s uniform is a nice and succinct but sad synopsis of Nell’s life . After outlining her nursing career it says:
“ ………..In February, 1942, she was amongst the group of sixty-five nurses evacuated from Singapore on the “Vyner Brooke”. The ship foundered off the coast of Sumatra as the result of enemy action. Sister Nell Keats was one of the number posted as “missing”. It is now known that she lost her life, after being taken prisoner”.
It is not known how Nell came to be on Radji Beach after the sinking of the SS Vyner Brooke on that fateful day in 1942. Perhaps she was in one of the lifeboats or just floated in her life jacket with the currents. We know for certain that Nell Keats was one of the group of fine, brave and noble women murdered by Japanese soldiers on Radji Beach on 16 February 1942 after the sinking of the SS Vyner Brooke.
One of the final notations on Nell’s Record of Service says
“Deceased while POW. Executed by Japanese”
Along with seven other nurses from the ‘Vyner Brooke’ who lost their lives at sea and on Radji beach, Nell Keats is memorialised on a brass plaque in the Royal Adelaide Hospital Chapel and on other Memorials around Australia and overseas.
Mary Eleanor (Ellie) McGlade - NX76275
Sister Mary Eleanor ‘Ellie’ McGlade, NX 76275 2/13th Australian General Hospital overcame a very difficult childhood to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life in caring for others.
Ellie was born on 2 July 1902 in Armidale in the New England area of country NSW, to Francis Aloysius and Agnes Beatrice McGlade. Soon after her birth her mother passed away. It seems that she died for post natal reasons as in later life Ellie “… specialised in an area that would perhaps allow her to help young mothers in a way that her mother had not been helped …” (On Radji Beach, p.45).
Ellie was orphaned when only 3 after her father passed away in 1905. She went to live with her aunt Mrs Walter Scott of Wallalong near Maitland in the Hunter Valley area of NSW and Mrs Scott became her guardian. From her pre-school years Ellie “… attended St Ursula’s Convent in Armidale NSW as a boarder, at first sleeping in a cot beside Mother Berchman’s bed”.
St Ursula’s was founded in 1882 by a group of exiled Usuline nuns from Daderstadt in Germany. Operating as a boarding and day school for girls, St Ursula’s was owned and operated by the Usuline nuns until the mid 1970s. The magnificent Convent Chapel, for which Ellie donated the Crucifix was opened in 1930.
As she grew older St Ursula’s became a beloved childhood home for Ellie with which she stayed strongly connected for the rest of her life. When completing her Intermediate Certificate in 1920 she won prizes for singing, violin, piano, and Christian doctrine and had already begun to care for girls who fell ill.
The School report of 1921 noted that ‘owing to the kind solicitude of their College Infirmarian no one has a chance to get seriously ill before she is reported and nursed back to normal by the indefatigable Ellie’. On leaving school Ellie visited relatives in Scotland and Ireland, returning to begin training as a nurse at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.
Ellie graduated in 1927 with Certificates in General Nursing, Cooking and Dispensing and became a Mothercraft nurse in the Hunter Valley. McGlade often visited St Ursula’s Convent in Armidale and was well remembered there even after she left school. The 1927 School magazine remembered Ellie as a’ winsome toddler… playing about with Rex, the collie, or her family of dolls’ and later ‘as a girl of amiable disposition, still loved by those who surround her … untiring and unselfish in her care of the sick…”.
Ellie appears in the 1927 and 1929 NSW Register of Nurses as Mary Eleanor McGlade of Wallalong, Hinton, so it seems that after her graduation she returned to base herself in the small town of Wallalong in the Hunter Region of NSW.
In 1930 as a young nurse Miss Ellie McGlade donated the Crucifix for the new Ursuline Convent Chapel when it was being built at Armidale. A decade later as a mature woman, good fortune at last came Ellie’s way. The Newcastle Sun on 22 February 1940 reported that a nursing sister Mrs [sic] E. McGlade “… who gave her address as Wallalong a small township north of Morpeth, where she was at the time attending one of her many cases…” won fourth prize of 300 pounds in the State Lottery.
In January 1941 McGlade enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service. Called up on the 8 August Ellie was posted to the 2/13th Australian General Hospital and she embarked for Singapore and Malaya on the Hospital Ship Wanganella, arriving in September 1941. Ellie’s her Paybook photo shows a lovely woman with an intelligent, attractive face and it also says that she had brown hair and grey eyes.
In Malaya she worked with the 2/13th AGH in Tampoi, near Johore. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the fall of Singapore became inevitable, most Australian personnel were evacuated from the island, but the 2/13th AGH remained until 12 February when they too were evacuated.
Ellie McGlade was one of 65 Australian nurses who left Singapore aboard the Vyner Brooke, but two days later the ship was bombed by the Japanese and many lives were lost. Those who could swim, or on rafts or in lifeboats made for the nearby Banka Island. It is not known how Ellie made it to Radji Beach, but there she was with her 21 other nursing friends on that fateful day on 16 February 1942.
The fact that she was brutally murdered by the Japanese troops who captured Ellie and the other AANS nurses on Radji Beach is incomprehensible to the civilised mind. With her other Nursing friends and Mrs Betteridge, a civilian women, Ellie was ordered to walk into the water where all the ladies were so cruelly executed, except for Vivian Bullwinkel, the one survivor.
Sister Ellie McGlade is commemorated on the War Memorial on the high Street, Wallalong and also on the Roll of honour at the Australian War Memorial. At the Last Post Ceremony on 12 February 2016 her photograph was displayed at the Pool of Reflection at the AWM.
The Australian War Memorial in Canberra has a collection of biographical notes relating to Ellie. The notes cover her early years at Armidale, her training at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital at Camperdown Sydney, her service with the 2/13th AGH and the events surrounding the “SS Vyner Brooke” sinking and the Radji Beach killings. There is also a newspaper cutting of a Memorial Service for Ellie whose memory continues to live on; a truly remarkable woman whose loss was widely felt.
Peggy Everett Farmaner - WFX3438
"Don’t worry about me mother” wrote Peggy Farmaner on 2 February 1942. Two weeks later she was cruelly executed by Japanese soldiers on Radji Beach, Bangka Island.
Sister Peggy Everett Farmaner, WFX 3438, born in 1912 was a member of the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station.
A newspaper article records that she” … was the daughter of George Frederick Farmaner and Flora Susan Farmaner of 9 Lapsley Place, Claremont, Western Australia and part of an old pioneer family well known in that area. She was educated at Methodist Ladies College and St Mary’s Church of England Grammar School, from where she matriculated. She did her nursing training at Perth Hospital.
“When war was declared she was in Sydney but immediately returned to her home State to enlist. In August 1940 she left on the ‘Queen Mary’ for Malaya. She worked with four other nurses at a Clearing Station in the most forward area of North Johore. The Nurses then moved to Kluang where they established a hospital on a rubber estate. On January 20, 1942 they were again evacuated at two hours notice, were moved to another place, which within 12 hours was found to be the wrong place. From here they moved to Singapore…
“The last letter her parents received from her was written on February 9, 1942. She was killed a week later, ’God knows the position is desperate but I am strangely unperturbed. Don’t worry about me, mother’ she wrote …”.
"Her death was absolutely devastating for everyone," says Peggy's grandniece, Susan Thomson. Peggy completed her primary school education at MLC, and then attended St Mary's Anglican Girl's School for her senior years. After leaving school Peggy trained as a nurse, and when war broke out signed up to the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station in Malaysia.
Tom Hamilton, the doctor who headed the 2/4th CCS, described her as "a pretty little Western Australian, who was full of fun."
When war was declared on the Japanese on December 8, 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbour, the 2/4th CCS was relocated to the Oldham Hall School.
After the ship sank Peggy reached the lifeboat with Matron Drummond and grabbed a trailing rope (p.169, On Radji Beach) and so reached Radji beach. She was one of the Australian nurses forced into a line facing the sea and murdered by Japanese troops at the beach.
Peggy Farmaner is included in the memorial to all the nurses unveiled in 1999 by Mrs Vivian Statham (nee Bullwinkel) and Wilma Young at Honour Avenue (at the lake near the tennis court of the Botanical Gardens), Kings Park, Bicton, WA. Her plaque is number M264.
Perhaps the best memorial to Peggy is reported to have occurred when the surviving nurses returned to Australia on the ‘Manunda’, “When the nurses spent the night at Hollywood Military Hospital, in Perth, the reception-rooms were banked with flowers.
“For each nurse was a special gift of a posy from the garden of the late Sister P. Farmaner, one of those who died on Bank Beach.
Her mother brought the flowers to her daughter’s comrades …
Esther Sarah Jean (Stewie) Stewart - NX70936
With the present publicity about the possible, if not probable, abuse and rape of the Australian Army Nurses before they were so cruelty executed on Radji Beach, the final few words of some of the Nurses are quite chilling, particularly those below of Sister Esther Stewart.
What did she mean when she said “Girls, take it, don’t squeal!”
Sister Esther Sarah Jean Stewart (more commonly Jean or Stewie), NX 70936 was a member of the 2/10th Australian General Hospital. Jean was born in Terrace Street Spring Hill Brisbane on 15 October 1904 to Charles Lloyd Stewart and Sarah May Jean Stewart (nee Mann).
Some sources say Jean came from Coolangatta and her mother certainly lived there in later years. Jean moved to Sydney when she was older and worked as a nurse. Jean had a very strong Christain faith and was a devout Presbyterian
At the time of her enlistment in the Australian Army Nursing Service Jean was living at “Greenholme” 209 Victoria St Darlinghurst Sydney.
One summary of Jean’s life, which seems to be a little at odds with other research, is that “…Unfortunately, she did not have any close relatives as her next of kin was a solicitor whom she had no relationship with named Andrew Muir. Jean had nothing holding her back from going on an adventure like travelling to Asia to work. She had no partner, no immediate family, she seemed like a very independent woman who was determined to make a change in her life and use her skills as a trained nurse to help injured soldiers. However, the adventure was tragically short-lived……”
(“Soldiers Story/Eulogy prepared by Alex White).
This interpretation of Jean’s life seems to have been partially influenced by information in her Record of Service, the digitised copy of which is now available. But as can be seen from the newspaper reports, Jean was in fact greatly loved by her mother Sarah.
Her father had died in 1938 and with Jean the only child now working as a nurse in Sydney, her mother seemed to be all alone at Coolangatta in Queensland. Perhaps Jean may have been estranged, for whatever reason, from her mother and that could be why she noted on her Attestation Form when she enlisted that her next-of-kin was Andrew Purdie Muir a Solicitor in Brisbane.
Jean enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service at Victoria Barracks, Sydney 25 April 1941 and was posted to the 2/10 Australian General Hospital which had earlier arrived in Singapore on the Queen Mary in February 1941. Jean’s pay book photo shows a cheery, smiling, open faced woman with light brown hair and hazel eyes. There is also a photo from ancestry.com of Jean as a younger woman, perhaps about 20 years of age, showing a sweet faced young woman.
On 19 May 1941 Jean embarked on HMAT Zealandia arriving in Singapore on 9 June 1941. She immediately traveled to Malacca in Malaya where the 2/10th AGH was located. Jean must have quite ‘run down’ and working very hard as on 30 July she was admitted to hospital suffering from Herpes Simplex. She was back with her unit in a week.
How Jean came to be on Radji Beach after the sinking of the SS Vyner Brooke on that fateful day in 1942 is not known. Perhaps she was in one of the lifeboats or just floated in her life jacket with the currents. We know for certain that Jean Stewart was one of the group of fine, noble women murdered by Japanese soldiers on Radji Beach on 16 February 1942 after the sinking of the SS Vyner Brooke. One of the final notations on Jean’s Record of Service says
“Deceased while POW. Executed by Japanese”.
Soon after the surviving nurses were repatriated to Australia in late 1945 there appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6 October 1945 this insertion in their “Roll of Honour” column
“… STEWART – A tribute of love to NX 70936 Sister Jean Stewart, dear friend of Mrs. Cathro (Urana) , Mrs Cheek, and Mrs Edwards (Newcastle)……..”
This suggests that if Jean was short on family she certainly had good friends. Also interestingly, in contrast to the earlier summary of her life indicating that Jean was some sort of orphan, there appeared in several newspapers after the War evidence of clear actions by Jean’s mother to ensure her daughter was remembered and which give us a much clearer picture of the progression of Jean’s life.
The Courier Mail newspaper in Brisbane on 29 January 1946 says “… Mother perpetuates memory of Heroic Army nurse Shot by Japs … Coolangatta and Tweed heads are perpetuating the memory of Matron Esther Stewart, of Brisbane whose last words when she and 20 other Army Nursing sisters were being slaughtered by Japanese machine guns on the beach at Banka Island, off Sumatra, four years ago were: “Girls take it, don’t squeal!”…
“Her mother, Mrs Jean Stewart of Dixon Street, Coolangatta, has presented a memorial electric clock to the local sub-branch of the Returned Soldier’s league. At the unveiling service the President (Mr. A. Thomas) said that the only survivor of the massacre (Sister Vivien Bullwinkel) of Adelaide had told Mrs Stewart of her daughter’s last words as she and other nurses were being shot down…..
"The late Matron Stewart was born at New Farm, Brisbane and was educated at the New Farm and Roma Schools. She entered the nursing profession at Toowoomba, and subsequently trained at the Diamantina Hospital Brisbane and the Royal Prince Alfred and Crown Street Women’s Hospital, Sydney…..”
As outlined in another post, in the Tweed Daily newspaper on 20 February 1946 in the “Roll Of Honour” classified listings the following was written
“STEWART – In loving memory of NX 70956 Sister Esther Sarah Jean Stewart, only child of Mrs Jean Stewart (nee Mann), who was murdered by the Japanese at Banka Island, February 1942.”Lest We Forget“
If I could have my dearest wish,
And all earth’s treasures too;
And pick from Heaven what I may,
Dear Jean, I would ask for you
Many a lonely heartache, many a silent tear,
But always a beautiful memory,
Of a daughter I loved so dear.
I keep forever in my heart. Mother”
There is a further report in the Tweed Daily newspaper of the Coolangatta War Memorial being built in front of the Council Chambers – the memorial to stand 11 feet high in the form of a cross and containing two drinking fountains and to be lit by electricity. Jean ‘Stewie’ Stewart is also memorialised on the memorial to AANS nurses who gave their lives in the Second World War at Kapunda memorial Gardens, Dutton park, South Australia; the ‘Memorial garden for Nurses’ at Augusta Western Australia and, as with all the nurse at the Kranji War Memorial in Singapore .
Jean was most certainly never forgotten by her mother who died in 1959. Attached to her Record of Service is a letter dated 12 July 1951 from the Manager of the Commercial Bank of Australia Limited, Coolangatta branch to the Records Officer at Army Headquarters. The letter says
“We have been requested to contact you at the request of the abovemention’s Mother Mrs S. M. J. Stewart, Coolangatta, as she is anxious to obtain as a Keep-sake The King’s Letter which she understands is forwarded to all Next-of-Kin..
“The Late Sister Stewart’s War Medals have been received by our customer, but it would be appreciated if you could obtain and forward for delivery to Mrs Stewart the Letter referred to.”
Perhaps the original of The King’s Letter had been already sent to Andrew Muir her nominated next-of-kin. The Army did, however, on 24 July 1951 very promptly reply to the Bank Manager attaching a “copy of the Royal message of condolence, which was forwarded to the next-of-kin of members of the Australian Military Forces who gave their lives for their country”.
The Australian War Memorial in Canberra holds a Bible owned by Sister Jean Stewart. The Bible was presented to her on 1 May 1916 on the occasion of departing Kent Street Congregational Sabbath School in Brisbane. In the Bible are personal inscriptions by Jean, a newspaper cutting from the Sydney “Daily Telegraph” dated 17 September 1945, giving details including Jean’s name in the casualty list, of the Banka Island massacre in February 1942.