Thank you Colonel.
Your Excellency the Lieutenant Governor, Minister Key, Mayor of the City of Marion, Fellow POW’s, Dr Chapman, Deputy Commissioner, Service Personnel, Members of Parliament, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I was honoured almost beyond belief to have been selected by the Committee to speak to you today for “approximately 20 minutes duration”. I now dedicate those words of 1866 by our own South Australian poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, to ALL our Nurses: “Life is mostly froth and bubble, Two things (do) stand like stone, Kindness in another’s trouble, Courage in your own.”
A detailed account was given by Major General John Pearn in his 2002 Address here titled “LIGHT AFTER DARKNESS”; briefly, 65 Australian Army Nurses were ordered to leave Singapore on the steamer “Viner Brooke” on 12 February 1942. It was sunk two days later by Japanese planes. 12 Nurses drowned including Sister Dorsch an old scholar of Adelaide Technical High School (the Tech); attended also by Don Beard, Norm Duncan, Mark Brindal and me. All but one (Vivian Bullwinkel AO. BEM. RRC. FN.) of the 22 who landed on Radji Beach, Bangka Island, including Nell Keats from Port Pirie whom I knew, were most brutally massacred by the Japs on 16 February 1942. 31 other Nurses landed and were taken prisoner. When the other Nurses heard Vivian’s story, Betty Jeffrey records (p.24) that “After we heard this story we decided then and there never to mention it again; it would not do for it to go back to Japanese ears. The subject was strictly forbidden.”
I was a very young Engineer Officer who landed in Timor on 12 December 1941 as part of ‘Sparrow Force’. Idiotically, our 23rd Brigade was said to be responsible for the Forward Defence of Australia from Timor to Ambon (‘Gull Force’) (‘Farce’) and to Rabaul (‘Lark Force’). The monumental errors, both of omission and of commission, are admirably described and in their generality by Norman Dixon in his “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence”.
The Japanese landed a Division, as usual, of some 23,000 men in what was then Dutch Timor on 19 February 1942. They had air and sea support of which our Force, of only 1000 or so, had NONE. We were overwhelmed and forced to surrender on 23 February 1942.
Forty-three months later to the very day and 15 Prison Camps later, I was one of those found by Edwina Mountbatten in Batavia, now Jakarta, and was flown to Singapore in her DC.3. We were admitted, after de-lousing, to the 2/14 Australian General Recovery Hospital in St. Patrick’s School, East Coast Road, Siglap, about 6 miles from Singapore Centre. On that same first floor as we were but separated by an armed guard there were those 24 surviving Sumatra Nurses who had arrived some five days earlier.
We got to know each other reasonably well, especially Vivian Bullwinkel who had been living with her mother and brother at Fullarton.
Two of those Nurses have written stirring accounts of their period of captivity; both were published in 1954, being Betty Jeffrey’s “White Coolies”, and Elizabeth Simons’ “While History Passed”. Elizabeth Simons has a Sydney Morning Herald photograph as Frontispiece of 21 of those Nurses “On arrival at Singapore from Sumatra”. How any of them survived almost beggars description. They all weighed only some 6 stone, or less.
Betty Jeffrey (p.41) tells a story of their early Commandant “Mr Ask-what-you-like-you-won’t-get-it” MIACHI. Elizabeth Simons (p.123) recounts how at St Patrick’s “Gracie Fields and Monty Banks came to entertain us, Lady Mountbatten dropped in for a chat.” : they did too and I was there! Gracie knew ALL our ditties and even one that concluded with “And one day if you are lucky sergeant, you’ll have a father too.”
Every year at this occasion, we sing “the Captives Hymn” composed in Muntok, with much else, by Miss Margaret Dryburgh, an English Missionary then in her late 50’s, and first sung on Sunday 5 July 1942. Betty Jeffrey (p.162) has paid a most handsome tribute to Miss Dryburgh who, sadly, died with beri-beri, like so many others, late in April 1945.
The Nurses (they were NOT all just ‘eyelashes’) had a ditty about Miachi and it parodied Sammy Hall which some at least of those Nurses MUST have known and so must some of you. Their ditty went:–
“And Miachi he will come, he will come, he will come
And Miachi he will come, he will come
And Miachi he will come and he’ll talk of Kingdom Come
In a voice so bloody glum;
Damn his eyes, blast his soul, bloody hell.”
They sang this, I heard it, and with gusto for that visit of Edwina Mountbatten, Gracie Fields and Monty Banks.
Now, it is not only the Nurses who demonstrated W.E. Henley’s 1888 “Unconquerable Soul” from ‘Invictus’. According to Gavan Daws’ scholarly work “Prisoners of the Japanese. POWS’s of the World War II in the Pacific”, we ALL had nick-names for the Nips and also for sayings gotten from them. I am not at liberty here to tell you of more than one of them but at page 264 Daws gives an example of our collective fiendishness. JAP. “You think I know DAMN NOTHING”. You are wrong, WRONG. I know BUGGER ALL !” It’s just as well that the Japs never found out exactly what they were saying.
Later references to the Japs’ sadistic treatment of our Nurses can be found in:–Hank Nelson’s “Prisoners of War. Australians under Nippon”, with the ABC interviews with POW’s by Tim Bowden ; in Stella Guthrie’s and Jill Clark’s “Lighter Shades of Grey and Scarlet” ; in Patsy Adam-Smith’s “Prisoners of War. From Gallipoli to Korea.” ; and in Susanna De Vries’ “Heroic Australian WOMEN in War”. Susanna does use Henley’s immortal 1888 lines from “Invictus” namely:–“ I thank whatever gods may be, for my unconquerable soul.” and “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” These are TRUE survivor skills and they were shared by our Nurses.
Both Betty Jeffrey (pp. 30-33) and Elizabeth Simons (pp.36-38) give graphic accounts of the attempt by Jap. Officers to coerce the Nurses into acting as ‘Comfort Women’ in a group of houses as from 18 March 1942 in what they, the Nurses, dubbed ‘Lavender Street’ after an unsavoury brothel thoroughfare in Singapore. To cut a long story short, Elizabeth reports that “The six Japs were startled by the invasion of twenty-seven gaunt harpies”. Betty records (p.33) the struggle of wills that lasted some weeks and that “I really think that the mental strain was far worse than being bombed and shipwrecked” . Elizabeth records (p.38) that “I think all the girls would agree that this club experience was the most repulsive and unpleasant in our whole imprisonment. I know it stands out grimly in our memory.” Betty also records (p.31) that “Somebody suggested that we should all swear never to mention it, or tell any tales about anyone if and when we were released.” And nobody ever broke that promise.
We all boarded the Hospital Ship M.V. “Manunda” on Friday 5 October 1945; five days later we were escorted through the mined Malacca Straits by the Japanese Navy and were not turned loose until we rounded Ache at the North West tip of Sumatra and entered the Indian Ocean and headed South for Fremantle. There were then some 2.1/2 idyllic weeks except that one day there was a broadcast message to us POW’s telling us that we should not feel guilty for having capitulated, that their country was proud of us and similar rubbish. All of a sudden you think “Hell, am I supposed to feel guilty about something ?
There have been many instances of ‘yapping’ about a “Guilt Syndrome”, the most serious and outrageous coming from Volume II of Series 5 (Medical) of the Series “Australia in the War of 1939-1945”, where Allan S. Walker at p.664 in his “Middle East and Far East” asserts, stupidly in my opinion and among other things that “Some of these (ie. our ‘behaviour patterns’) might arise from an effaced and usually unjustified sense of guilt.
I draw attention to two refutations of the above ill-informed assertion. First. Hank Nelson (p.218)quotes Jack Panaotie”—“When we get talking together, we say, couldn’t go through it again, but we wouldn’t have missed it. An experience that we know that nobody else knows. Not that you want nobody else to know about it, but you cannot explain it to anybody else, Because we are unique.” Secondly. Gavan Daws (p.21) records that:–“Psychological concepts such as post-traumatic stress disorder’ (1956)’ and survivor guilt were never in the heads of POWs in the camps, and were not available to them in their postwar lives. The way they saw things—the way they still see things—is this: As POWs they did what they had to do and afterward they had to try to live with it or it would destroy them”. I truly believe that those Nurses whom I knew were in that same mix as the rest of us.
It was on Thursday 18 October 1945 that we could first SMELL Australia with the mixture of eucalyptus and dust. It was then some hours later, as Betty Jeffrey (op,cit) at p.203 describes:–“We saw our first little piece of Australia at about 3 pm last Thursday, when the deck rails were lined with hundreds of soldiers and us twenty-four Nurses. We were terribly excited at first, but as it got nearer silence reigned. For an hour we watched Fremantle getting closer and still there was silence everywhere.” After over 4 years away, it was truly quite ‘spooky’.
I finally got home to Adelaide to be met by the family on Saturday 28 October 1945; this was 10 ½ weeks after the war had ended; I still weighed only about 10 stone.
Subsequently, I saw a lot of Viv as she was living with her mother and brother at 25 Blyth Street, Fullarton. Viv’s great friend Wilma Oram had come to stay with her from Melbourne as they also needed the close company of fellow souls. My young brother Brian and I would ride our bikes from Kurralta Park to Fullarton, pretty much then across the paddocks to play tennis. As often as not the four of us would just lie on the grass and often for hours without talking at all. I saw Viv on several later occasions when she was Matron of Heidelberg Hospital. I last saw her at a POW Reunion here in Adelaide some 15 or so years ago.
I now wish to pay a special tribute to the eldest of those Nurses, the South Australian Senior Sister Carrie Jean (Jean) Ashton MID (13/5/1905-7/12/2002) and known to many of you here today, including me. Jean regularly gave the Prayer “For the Nations of the World and for Peace”. Jean’s Prayer was:–“We pray that all will decide in their hearts that we must have no more wars, and work to that end.”
Jean last attended here on Sunday 17 February 2002, it being 60 years and I day after that Bangka massacre, the sole survivor of which, Vivian Bullwinkel, had herself died on 2 July 2000 at 84 years of age. Jean has contributed similarly in the Guthrie/Clark book “Lighter Shades of Grey and Scarlet” at p.92 “But come! Let us go forward in faith that Good will prevail, working and praying always for Peace.”
My cousin Barbara (Medlin) Parri, former war-time W.A.A.A.F. member has produced the booklet:–“In Tribute, Sister Jean Ashton, SX 13548, POW.” Barbara gives the chronology of Jean’s schooling, training and nursing service particularly at Jamestown. Jean enlisted in 1941 in the 2/13 A.G.H. and was stationed at that St.Patrick’s School on East Coast Road, Singapore, from 15 September 1941 and to which she returned upon release in 1945.
There are many tributes to the late Jean Ashton. The literature is replete with references to her leadership, courage, compassion, theatricality, honesty, dignity and self-denying service. Betty Jeffrey writes (p.148):– “ Iole (Harper), Vivian(Bullwinkel), Wilma (Oram), and Jean Ashton are earning their living being nightmen. They get eighty cents a day from a camp pooled supply of money to do this filthy job…..the original sanitary squad who carried on in this camp simply could not cope. So these girls get up at the crack of dawn and work……Their tools of trade, provided by the Japanese, are two kerosene tins, two coconut shells nailed on sticks for scoops, and a long pole to help carry the tin away…..They have to walk a good half-mile each trip, six times before breakfast. They have to take it out of camp and away quite a distance into the jungle on the other side of the main road passing the camp entrance. These girls are tops; they chat to each other as they walk past our block ‘carrying’ as they call it, and it is always something quite pleasant, never a grumble.”
Ladies and gentlemen, that is the very stuff of which born leaders and survivors are made. Believe me!
Thank you. Wassalam. Harry Medlin. E&OE.