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POW nurses: a remarkable story of resilience

Alumni News

A chance conversation with a Professor from the School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedicine inspired humanities graduate and history lover, Sarah Fulford, to research the experiences of the ‘Vyner Brooke nurses’, a group of World War II prisoners of war (POWs), whose remarkable camaraderie and stoicism in the face of horrific experiences defines them.

Photograph taken of the nurses after their release from internment, all wearing what was left of their AANS uniforms (Australian War Memorial collection).

The public narratives of war are typically male stories; battles, victories, defeats, surrenders and the lists of all men lost. The history of the Vyner Brooke nurses is a uniquely female story of a group of courageous women who joined the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), and left Australia with no knowledge of where they were heading. It’s a story Ms Fulford, who is currently working in the Pre-Hospital, Resuscitation and Emergency Care Research Unit, was determined to document in her Master of Philosophy thesis entitled Training, ethos, camaraderie and endurance of World War Two Australian POW nurses.

“The female stories are quite often the marginalised other in the context of the war. My thesis wasn’t trying to rewrite history from a female perspective, it was alternatively telling the female story, and laying it down next to the stories already in place, to add further context to the history of Australia’s involvement in World War II,” Ms Fulford said.

“My thesis focused on the Vyner Brooke nurses’ endurance, camaraderie and resourcefulness, and examined these concepts through their own diaries, biographies and autobiographies, as well as histories of the events during World War II. I started the thesis by looking at the Florence Nightingale inspired nursing system, which was brought to Australia by Lucy Osburn, and how the patient-first mentality and keep-working-ethos sustained the nurses throughout the war.”

Sister Jean (Jenny) Greer and Sister Betty Jeffrey recuperating from malnutrition in hospital after release from internment (Australian War Memorial collection).

When the nurses left Australia they were posted to Singapore, where they served until mid-February 1942, when they were ordered to leave due to the threat of the advancing Japanese army. It was an order they initially resisted.

“They refused to leave their patients when the war came to Singapore, and were forced with court martialling if they didn’t evacuate,” Ms Fulford said.

The nurses finally agreed to leave Singapore, and boarded the small and inadequate coastal steamer, the Vyner Brooke. The ship, which was packed with sixty five nurses and more than two hundred civilians and military personnel, set sail for Sumatra via the Bangka Strait. It was to be an ill-fated journey; two days later the Vyner Brooke was bombed by Japanese aircraft and sank.

Twelve nurses drowned in the attack, and twenty two nurses, many of them wounded, managed to get to Bangka Island, east of Sumatra, only to be sent back into the water by Japanese soldiers and shot. One nurse, Vivian Bullwinkel, feigned death and later made her way back onto the island. Vivian, and the remaining thirty one nurses, were interned as POWs for three and a half years. Eight nurses died in the POW camps, and twenty four nurses eventually returned home to Australia.

Sister Eileen Short recuperating in hospital after release from the Belalau Prisoner of War camp (Australian War Memorial collection).

While the nurses experienced great wartime trauma, lost close friends and colleagues, and were subjected to brutality, deprivation and starvation as POWs, their close bonds and their shared humour helped to sustain them.

“As their ship was bombed by the Japanese, the women rallied together and the sense of camaraderie and loyalty to each other is prevalent in all of the stories,” Ms Fulford said.

“As the women were shipwrecked, they were imprisoned with only the clothes they were wearing – some of the nurses didn’t even have that as they used their uniforms as bandages to help the injured – so their level of ingenuity to survive internment, their character and most importantly their humour were unlike anything I had ever encountered before.”

“The humour of the group was evident in the memoirs, even when they were training for the war in Australia before heading to Singapore, and was found in even the most difficult scenarios. One of the stories of this humour, repeated in many of the memoirs, occurred after the Vyner Brooke had been sunk and the women were in the water, covered in oil from the wreckage, injured, unsure what their future held, and they started to sing ‘We’re off to see the Wizard’ as loud as they could.”

A hospital ward in Singapore showing the members of the 8th Division after release from the Changi Prisoner of War camp – all were suffering from malnutrition. From nearest to camera: T Chiplin, S Wales, FV Wart, J Campbell, JA Damien, GW Rogers, WJ Brown, GC Twysel (Australian War Memorial collection).

Ms Fulford was also struck by the stories of the nurses’ courage and decency in the face of debilitating circumstances; the daily acts of service that aren’t typically documented in the grand acts of war, the endurance of the human spirit against all odds.

“The bravery of the women was not unexpected, but the level of courage and bravery was…true courage isn’t just found in the large scale events of the war, or by taking land or retaking a city. Courage can be found when you are facing your friend who has dysentery and Beri Beri, and supporting them to get through the day. It can be found in the continuation of nursing other people to keep them alive, and giving them your ration of food even though you are starving,” Ms Fulford said.

“There are so many amazing stories of the endurance of all of the internees, especially a choir that was organised by Margaret Dryburgh, who was a Scottish missionary interned with the nurses. The performance by the choir highlighted that humanity and compassion can be found in the direst of situations. The movie Paradise Road is loosely based on this group of nurses.”

Private Robert Harvey Gill (QX10305) of the 8th Division recuperating in hospital after his release from Changi Prison – his emaciated condition is evident (Australian War Memorial collection).

Ms Fulford was fortunate to have the support of dedicated supervisors for her project, Professor Graham Seal, School of Humanities Research and Graduate Studies, and Associate Professor Bobbie Oliver, School of Media, Culture and Creative Arts, as well as support and guidance from Professor Linda Shields, Mrs Ailsa Munns, Dr Mary Tallon, Dr Karen Heslop and Professor Gavin Leslie, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedicine, where she was working while studying.

“Without the unbelievable support and patience from so many Curtin staff, this Masters would not have been completed. I cannot even begin to thank them enough for being so inspiring and keeping me focused for the duration of my study,” Ms Fulford said.

“The greatest enjoyment was the research itself. To be able to spend my days researching war history, especially as it affected Australia, was an unbelievable privilege.”

Vyner Brooke Prisoner of War nurses on board the hospital ship Manunda after its arrival in Australia (Australian War Memorial collection).

Nevertheless, her research was not without its challenges, the biggest being peeling back the layers of the sanitised versions of the prisoners’ experiences to reveal a more authentic rendition of events.

“As the Vyner Brooke nurses were POWs, there was little correspondence back to Australia.  A few letters did return, but they were censored by the Japanese before being sent, so there was not an insight to any events, thoughts or feelings while the women were interned. The nurses also worked as a collective and they initiated a ‘cone of silence’ around any event they did not want discussed, so the diaries that survived internment often had parts deliberately erased to hide the atrocities of what was going on,” Ms Fulford said.

“While being able to research this was amazing, the stories written were very difficult to read. Especially knowing internees were starving and dying, and that there were Red Cross parcels at the internment camp only discovered at the conclusion of the war.

“One story that always stands out for me is the Australian women refused to wear their AANS uniform, even though they had little or no other clothing. It was kept for the day of their release, and unfortunately was also used at their colleagues’ funerals, as some of the women died before the end of the war, so it acted as a funeral shroud as well.

“But, when the women were released, it was recorded that the buttons on their dresses had still been polished. To have that much pride in your uniform, your group and in being Australian, continues to give me goose bumps when I think about it.”

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