Sister Hamilton served much of the war on night duty

Name: Vera Hamilton
Date: 1940-1945
Unit: 2nd AIF
Location: Middle East, New Guinea, Australia

Sister Vera Hamilton was nursing at Scott Memorial Hospital at Scone, New South Wales, when war was declared and immediately enlisted but it was to be 12 months before she got the call. Once it came it was but a few days before she was on a boat heading for the Middle East.

"When I presented myself at the office on Tuesday at 0900 hours I was told I would probably be sailing at the weekend," she said. "Needless to say I was in quite 'a tizz'. Being fitted for uniforms, coats etc. was quite something in those days. About three fittings for each."

There were also visits to the Showground for passport photos, x-rays and injections and being country lass it was all a bit much. However, her sister, who knew the city, helped her to get around and even did her packing when reaction to her injections set in.

Having paid a quick visit home, she piled into a taxi with her luggage and three of her sisters and arrived at the docks. The guard asked if they were all sisters, meaning nursing sisters, and was later given a tongue lashing from the Commanding Officer because he had allowed all four onto the jetty.

"Our ship, the Johan de Witt, looking no larger than a Manly ferry but was to hold over 1000 men of 2/1 Pioneer Battalion plus four sisters - three were members of 2/5 Australian General Hospital (AGH) and little me - detailed for transport duty," Vera Hamilton said. "We pulled away from the wharf in late afternoon and anchored in harbour until 2am when we were 'on our way'. Might I mention I was seasick all of the following day, as were all four of us and many of the troops."

They were joined by the New Zealand, a sister-ship of the Dutch line. As many of the troops, like Vera, had only just joined the Army and had not had their full quota of injections, the RAP was kept busy completing injections as well as attending the sick.

In Colombo, Vera and her colleagues had four days' leave, enjoyed a rickshaw ride and race through city streets and rode in trams strictly for native population only.

"On l November 1940 we arrived at El Kantara where we disembarked and, saying farewell to the Pioneers, we journeyed by train to Gaza where we were met by Miss Fall, a previous matron of Quirindi Hospital and now matron of 2/1 AGH, and Miss Sage, who was to be the area matron."

Then followed a busy period for Vera as she was attached to 2/1 AGH and quickly found herself on duty. Following a period of disembarkation leave in Jerusalem, where she visited many of the Biblical places such as the Mount of Olives and Church of Ascension, she was attached to 2/6 AGH.

"But the day they arrived I left to join the 2/2 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS)," she said.

It was about this time she received news of her father's death.

"On 1 February 1941 I said farewell to my friends and journeyed by train from Gaza to El Kantara on the first leg of my journey to join my new unit, the 2/2 CCS," Vera said. "It was a British troop train with little me the one and only Australian and female. The soldiers, with a sergeant in charge, were crowded into carriages like cattle trucks whilst I rode in splendour in a 1st class carriage of some magnificence. I had received letters from home as I was leaving on my journey and had not had time to read them. One of them was from home telling me of my father's illness and death.

"It was a seven-hour journey, and with only the guard for company, I wept profusely. The poor guard (no speaka de English) tried to comfort me. That was when I really felt alone. I solved the problem by managing to see the sergeant and suggesting that he and some of his boys join me."

She changed trains at El Kantara onto a civilian train bound for Ben Hur.

"This train was overcrowded and again I was the only foreigner and female as far as I could see. It was supposed to be a 1st class carriage but very crowded with members of the local population - Arabic, with 'no speaka de English' once again. When one opened the door was met with urine and its smell flowing along the corridor."

At Ben Hur she again changed trains in the middle of the night, and arrived at Alexandria at 2am to find no one was expecting her.

"Fortunately there was a British Army truck at the station which took me to the 5th British Hospital where I was given Matron's lounge to sleep on for what was left of the night," she recalled.

"I finally joined up with my new unit, the 2/2 CCS. The unit comprised little me and seven other sisters and was I glad to see them, or was I? The menfolk belonging to our unit were in the desert with the front-line troops and it was deemed unsafe for the womenfolk to join them. They were receiving patients direct from the combat area."

But it wasn't long before Vera was on the move again, back to El Kantara where she joined up with the 2/2 AGH.

"I worked mainly in burns ward, some of the patients travelling three days from CCS in the desert to the hospital and most in a shocking condition on arrival. Burns of such a degree I have yet to encounter in civilian life, and what an experience and what a work load.

"The doctor in charge was a Victorian who had previously been doing facio maxilliary work in England. Needless to say I was kept running from one patient to the next to keep wounds from drying out. My first case was a complete mes from head to toe. I would start at the face, ere I reached the feet I was told to get a move on, as the face bandages were drying out - a 'no no'.

"My next ward - same doctor - was a facio maxilliary one where I saw the most amazing transition from faces unrecognisable by burns and wounds to ones of normality, having at the same time to cope with flies, heat, sand storms and air raids and everything the desert had to offer.

"The heat was so intense that, when on night duty, I would sit under a dripping shower until midday and when I moved to the bed had my canvas bucket (used for washing body and clothes when no better conveniences available) full of water and with my large bath towel I would wring it out in the bucket and put over me and if lucky I would sleep until it dried out, when I would once again repeat the procedure.

"Besides this I had to cope with the physiotherapists who tented next door and who seemed to work less hours or take longer lunch breaks than we did. They seemed to have only one record - And the Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square. If only I could have got hold of that nightingale!"

Three weeks later the 2/2 CCS sisters boarded the hospital ship Dorsetshire where they met up with the 2/4 AGH and sailed for Tobruk. They saw the wrecks of many sunken and disabled ships as they entered the harbour.

Next day they started work at the hospital.

"The CCS have their own ward consisting of odds and sods - mainly medical," Vera recalled. "Sixteen admissions the first afternoon, 13 of them Palestinians with petrol poisoning. It was a case of 'run, rabbit, run' and three air raid alarms in the midst of it all."

Vera said Tobruk was a mess with scarcely a building that had not been demolished or partially so.

"We had Italian POWs working in our kitchens etc - a very happy crowd who I feel were happier peeling spuds and singing, especially the singing, than they would be fighting. A different soldier to Mussolini's storm troops taken POW, who when being marched out past our hotel, spat at us."

About two weeks later they were ordered to pack and be ready for evacuation and left Tobruk on 10 March 1941.

"We are very sad at doing so, but were somewhat cheered by the relief on the men's faces and attitudes as they knew it was not going to be a place for women. We sailed on the hospital ship Vita loaded with casualties from our hospital. The sisters help with the nursing and we sleep on deck. It was a very rough sea and several of us are seasick - including yours truly. A floating mine just missed our ship by what seemed inches."

After a short time working at 2/1 AGH, they were once more sent to El Kantara and 2/2 AGH where Vera was again on night duty

"with heat plus plus and air raids. Off duty we throw water on our tent floor and hope for improvement. We are again very busy on duty with casualties coming from the desert, Tobruk and Greece."

Three months later they went back to Palestine and 2/1 AGH where Vera worked mostly in isolation.

"It was now the very cold wet season and we were nursing patients in large tents. In one afternoon we admit 40 new mumps, measles and a few diphtheria cases, and would say all of them off the Queen Mary and larger ships just arriving from Australia, and incubation is over - hence the large number. Now tents have to be erected etc.

"We wear our rain gear and gum boots most of the time having to go from one ward to the other on duck boards used to stop bogging between wards. One night a 40-bed tent blew down in the gale wasn't funny trying to accommodate so many patients and some of them very, very ill, and the rain teeming down."

The end of January 1942 found them packing once again and ready to depart.

"War news very grim-and we hear New Guinea is invaded by the Japanese," Vera recalled. "Our departure very hush hush, so no fond farewells as we leave Gaza Ridge. Once again its El Kantara and then to Port Suez where we have another wait for our ship. We have lunch per kind favour of some English lads. We eat it on a pile of timber and then go to sleep until time for departure. Taken on a lighter to the Orcades where we met up with one of our doctors and the radiologist and other sections of our unit, plus 2/2 Pioneer Battalion and corps groups and then set sail, destination unknown."

On the voyage they were given 'dinky di' boat drill and action stations and lectures on what to do if taken POW. They arrived at Sumatra on 15 February and watched the troops disembark.

"Next day we arrive at Batavia (35 ships in harbour). Here we leave the Orcades and catch train to Bandong where we are to stay at YWCA (Dutch) until we join our unit close by.

"We have very odd food, queer baths etc. and feel nearly starved as they apparently didn't think we would like their food and were not sure of the nature of the food we ate. Darwin receives its first bombing and we are all very depressed with the news.

"Only at Bandong a couple of days when we are visited by our CO and Dr Weary Dunlop. We are told to pack and catch the next train and if the going became sticky to leave our luggage and run - as if we would. Had uniforms etc soaking, which we hastily retrieved and stuffed into our hold-all. We arrived at Batavia in about the worst torrential downpour I have ever experienced. Complete blackout and chaos everywhere.

"The Army had taken over the evacuation - thank goodness - and along with civilian women, their golf clubs etc. We suddenly realise we were now among the evacuees and on buses and back to the good old Orcades, which luckily was still in the harbour. Our 14 pieces of luggage were apparently back at the station somewhere."

The ship pulled out of the harbour immediately everyone was on board.

"I might mention the captain had the side of the ship floodlit to speed embarkation although complete blackout orders prevailed, but the night was very dark and with the downpour I am sure accidents could have occurred, plus delays, had he not done so."

Of the 23 ships that left Batavia, only one survived as they made their way Colombo and then to Australia.

"Bandong has fallen to the Japanese, the battleship Perth reported sunk and our escort ship the Hobart attacked," Vera said. "We wondered why she had left us in such a hurry." They arrived in Hobart on 14 March and three days later went to Melbourne and then to Sydney.

"After a few weeks' home leave, I joined a re-formed 2/2 CCS at Tenterfield. Most of our old unit was left behind at Batavia - Colonel Weary Dunlop and Major Moon of the famous Burma Railway being amongst them," Vera said.

After five months at a camp hospital the sisters were sent to Toowoomba and the 117th AGH for another seven weeks. Then they were on the move again this time via hospital ship Manunda to New Guinea, where they joining up with the menfolk of their unit at Koitaki in the foothills of the Owen Stanley Ranges.

"Here we received the walking wounded and some stretcher cases as carried by the 'Fuzzy Wuzzy' angels down the 'track' to us and direct from the fighting zone where they have been treated by the field ambulances," Vera said. "We found a different kind of nursing here as, mixed with the surgical cases we had the tropical diseases, Scrub Typhus, Berri Berri and many skin problems with lack of vitamins etc.

"The Scrub Typhus patients arrived mostly in a very serious and unconscious condition requiring all our nursing skills. In the desert we had to cope with sand, dust and flies; in New Guinea it was rain daily, the Scrub Typhus bug and the Malarial Mosquito."

After 13 months they returned to Australia and home leave.

"Here I am re-posted - we all are. I go to Townsville and the 2/14 AGH where we worked mainly as a clearing station for the incoming from New Guinea who, when well enough, were transferred south to one of the major AGHs. Whilst here peace was declared. Great celebrations in Townsville and I guess everywhere that night."

After 12 months in Townsville they boarded a ship in Melbourne heading for Singapore.

"The armistice now being signed, we set up hospital in what had been a school on the outskirts of Singapore," Vera said. "The idea was to nurse these POWs who were too ill to make the journey to Australia. Among them were the sisters taken POW at the fall of Singapore. We visited the infamous Changi Prison Camp and those men still waiting to go home, amongst them several of the original 2/2 CCS we had left behind at Batavia."

After that it was back to Australia and the 101 AGH at Herne Bay for five months - mainly a staging hospital for discharges etc. From Herne Bay Vera was transferred to Concord and the 113th AGH in Sydney, working mainly in surgical wards doing night duty.

"Most of my Army life seemed to be spent doing night duty," she recalled. "Always given night duty first thing when staging at another hospital."

When the tuberculosis patients were transferred to Concord, Vera was asked to volunteer to work in TB wards. She was told she could refuse to do so but was made to feel a 'bit of a heel' if she did so.

"We had to have a positive Mantoux test to work in TB wards so I tried to give myself a negative Mantoux by trying to squeeze the serum out of my arm - needless to say all I got was a very sore arm," Vera said.

"Three hundred to 400 patients (TB) arrived at Concord and I was very fortunate to have been allotted the chest investigation ward, which included chest surgery. Once diagnosed positive TB they were transferred to TB wards.

"This kind of nursing I found most interesting, so much so that when Concord became a repatriation hospital I was easily persuaded to go along with it, which meant my resignation from Scott Memorial Hospital. Prior to this I was on leave of absence."

Whilst Vera was in the Middle East, penicillin was first introduced and was made up by the theatre staff - gowned and gloved.

"Whilst at Concord I had the privilege of being one of the team to administer the first course of streptomycin, which really helped so much to eradicate TB. A young Army officer had TB of the throat but all tests were negative. His throat became worse and the patient was only able to speak in whisper and showing signs of distress and unable to swallow his saliva. A doctor was on round-the-clock call to do a tracheotomy if necessary.

"It was at this stage doctors decided to diagnose positive tuberculosis. The doctors managed to obtain the first issue of Streptomycin to arrive in Australia and the day it was first administered, the patient produced his first positive test for tuberculosis. Within 24 hours of commencement of treatment the patient was able to swallow some milk and soda water. He quickly wrote on some paper 'Sister I can swallow'. I might say he cried - and so did I!"

During the following years at Concord, Vera saw many fascinating changes in medicine generally, and nursing.

"The war years were responsible for the discovery of wonder drugs like the sulpha group," she said. "Together with Dr Harry Windsor (first heart transplant at St Vincent's Hospital) and Dr Dave Perry, the intensive care unit was formed. I remained as Charge Sister of that unit until my retirement."

Information for this article was provided by Vera Hamilton of New South Wales
8/01/2002 10:32:01 AM

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Sister Hamilton served much of the war on night duty, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 July 2024,
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