Nurses

Sores wouldn't heal. Your hair was getting thinner. You were so thin that you'd scratch and you'd get your finger caught in your ribs.

[Sylvia Muir quoted in Hank Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon, Sydney, ABC, 1985, 82.]

The Australians captured by the Japanese in early 1942 included fifty-nine women who were serving with the Australian Army Nursing Service.

Six nurses were captured on New Britain in late January 1942 and were transferred six months later to Japan. There they were employed as domestic labourers and on manual tasks such as gardening, building trenches and cleaning streets.

The nurses based on Singapore were captured while trying to escape in the chaotic days preceding the Allies' surrender. Two boatloads of evacuees eventually got through to Australia but the Vyner Brooke, carrying sixty-five nurses, was sunk on 14 February by Japanese aircraft off the coast of Sumatra.

Twelve nurses drowned as the ship sank but the others managed to swim to shore, only to find that Sumatra had already been occupied by the Japanese.

Twenty-two nurses who reached Banka Island from the Vyner Brooke soon met with other civilians and some sixty Commonwealth servicemen and merchant sailors who had also made it ashore after their vessels had sunk. Failing to gain food and assistance from local villagers, they decided to contact the Japanese with the aim of being taken prisoner.

However, when a Japanese patrol arrived they bayoneted the men and ordered the women to walk into the sea at the nearby Radji beach. There they machine-gunned them from behind. All, except Sister Vivian Bullwinkel who feigned death after a minor gunshot wound, were killed.

After some time in the jungle nursing a British survivor, Bullwinkel surrendered and joined another 31 nurses who had survived the sinking. After a short time they were confined in a camp at Palembang in southern Sumatra together with some three hundred British, Dutch and Eurasian women and children.

Generally the Japanese ignored Article 9 of the 1929 Geneva Convention which classified nurses as non-combatants to be 'respected and protected under all circumstances'. Early in their captivity the women had to resist Japanese attempts to induce them into prostitution. As elsewhere in Asia the food and medical supplies provided by the Japanese were also grossly inadequate.

Despite this there were no deaths in the seventeen months the women spent at Palembang. They set up an efficient camp administration and supplemented their diet through trading with the locals and with supplies smuggled in from the nearby men's camp.

The women also maintained their morale by a variety of activities including a camp choir or voice orchestra led by two British women, Margaret Dryburgh and Norah Chambers. Not only could Dryburgh recall complete scores of music ranging from the baroque to the contemporary but she wrote her own compositions including 'The Captive's Hymn'. Even the Japanese were impressed.

As they came rushing saying, 'You! Don't do this!' [Betty Jeffrey recalled] Norah started the concert and they just stopped in their tracks. I think the first thing we did was the Largo from the New World Symphony which was absolutely gorgeous. They just stopped. They were human beings, they were away from home, we were away from home, and I think that's about the first time we ever saw eye to eye with them.

[Hank Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon, Sydney, ABC, 1985, 80].

When in December 1943 the women were shifted to Palembang gaol and the Japanese administration changed from civilian to military, their conditions deteriorated. Then in October 1944 they were moved again to Muntok on Banka Island. By now the women were severely malnourished and when in early 1945 a fever swept through the unsanitary camp, four nurses died.

In April 1945 the women were again shifted to a site in western Sumatra, Lubuklinggau. Here another four nurses succumbed to illness, one of them three days after the Japanese had surrendered in August 1945.

The story of the Australian nurses became well known after the war partly through the memoirs of survivors. Betty Jeffrey's White Coolies (1954) and Jessie Symons' While History Passed (1954) both sold many copies. Nurses were also commemorated in a number of memorials installed by communities around Australia.

The nurses' story was also maintained in popular memory through a joint ABC-BBC television series Tenko in the early 1980s and the feature film Paradise Road (1997) which powerfully retold the story of the women's voice orchestra.

Vivian Bullwinkel (later Statham) lived till 2000 and together with another survivor Betty Jeffrey was active in the creation of the Australian Service Nurses National Memorial, installed on Anzac Parade Canberra in 1999.


Last updated: 17 January 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Nurses, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 24 July 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/locations/australian-prisoners-asia-pacific/nurses
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