… It was lovely, it was Australia…I just started to howl…
On 23 October 1945, the hospital ship Manunda arrived in Fremantle.
On the wharf were hundreds of waving and cheering people including Matron-in-Chief Annie Sage of the AANS. As the ship docked, people came on board carrying flowers and fruit. They had come to welcome home 24 Australian army nurses, women who had just spent three and a half years in Japanese captivity on the island of Sumatra and who, in February 1942, had survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke.
The nurses were taken to recuperate in the Military Hospital at Hollywood in Perth. There they received more flowers than they had ever seen: ‘they came from every garden in Perth and kept on coming’. The matron at the hospital, Sister Eileen Joubert, had appealed over the local radio for flowers to brighten the wards for the nurses:
The response was overwhelming. The large forecourt of the military hospital was covered in blooms, some of them brought hundreds of kilometres, others carried locally in wheelbarrows.
[Michael McKernan in This war never ends, University of Queensland Press, 2001, p122]
The womens’ arrival in Australia was a combination of luck and perseverance. The Australian authorities had no idea where the Japanese had taken the nurses during the last months of the war. The search for them had started on 15 August 1945 but since no-one knew where they were, they missed out on the widespread emergency drops of food and medical supplies to the camps located around south-east Asia. By August 1945, they were starving.
Three and a half years earlier, after the sinking of the Vyner Brooke on 14 February 1942, 12 of the 65 Australian Army nurses on board were drowned or killed in the water. The rest struggled ashore on Banka Island, some having been in the sea for more than 60 hours. Japanese soldiers captured one group of 22 nurses, plus a civilian woman, ordered them into the sea and machine-gunned them. The only survivor, Sister Vivienne Bullwinkel, lay still in the shallow water until after the Japanese troops had gone. Days later, she was reunited with her surviving colleagues and interned at Muntok on Banka Island for two weeks before the group was transferred by ship to Palembang in Sumatra.
Japanese attempts to persuade the nurses to join a brothel were resisted by the women and they were eventually put into bungalows with Dutch women and children at the other end of the town. The conditions were dreadful with inadequate sanitation, mosquitoes, scarce food, and unlike many of the Dutch internees, the Australians had no resources with which to purchase supplements for their diet of low-grade rice and vegetables. In 1943 the women were moved again, this time to a desolate spot in the jungle where they eked out an existence in leaking bamboo huts with mud floors and trench toilets.
In October 1944, the Japanese moved their prisoners back to Muntok on Banka Island. Rations were worse than at Palembang and there were few medicines. Four of the nurses died in February and March 1945. Sister Pearl Mittleheuser died on 18 August 1945, three days after the Japanese surrender.
Early in April 1945, the women and children were forced to take an appalling sea voyage back to Sumatra. They were packed into the holds of a small ‘bumping little launch’, many of them severely ill with malaria, dysentery and beri-beri. Others, some of them unconscious, were on stretchers and were carried by the ‘fittest’ of the women. Twenty-six hours later the women arrived at the wharf in Palembang. From there it was a train and then a truck trip to what was to be their final camp, Loebok Linggau in Sumatra. More than five hundred women and children were squeezed into the crowded and leaking ‘atap’ [bamboo and palm leaf] huts and all their water had to be carried from the creek. At first, the food supplied was an improvement, but after a month in the camp, the variety stopped and the diet was once again rice and sweet potatoes.
We find we can eat most of the grass growing near the creek, also the young curling fronds of ferns. Curried fern with sweet potato is exactly like eating mushrooms!
[Betty Jeffrey, White Coolie, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954, p162]
By now the women were in an appalling state but the Japanese still expected them to work in the camp.
After the Japanese surrender of 15 August 1945, Australian war correspondent Hayden Lennard began searching for the nurses. By following a number of leads from local villagers he eventually located them in their camp at Loebok Linggau.
On 15 September, one month after the Japanese surrender the nurses were told they would be flown out of the camp.
At 6.00 am the next morning, sixty women from the camp, including the Australian sisters, were driven in open trucks to the railway station. It took them nearly 3 hours to travel the 12 miles. At the station they were met by Hayden Lennard and a RAAF pilot, Flying Officer Brown, who had been landed at the Lahat aerodrome to collect them. The two men accompanied the women on the train to Lahat where they waited for their aircraft to arrive from Singapore. Nearly four hours later they watched it land. Out stepped the Matron-in-Chief of the AANS, Colonel Annie Sage with Major Harry Windsor and Sister Jean Floyd, one of their colleagues from the 2/10th AGH, who had managed to escape safely from Singapore. Expecting to recover many more of the nurses, Colonel Sage looked around at the small, emaciated group and asked:
But where are the rest of you?
The Australian Army doctor who travelled with the rescue team, Harry Windsor, was so outraged by the appearance of the surviving nurses and the other prisoners at the camp that he recommended, officially, that the guards, the Kempei Tai [military police] and all of the those Japanese involved in their treatment,
be forthwith slowly and painfully butchered.
[Report of Dr Harry M Windsor, Major, 2/14th AGH, 19 September 1945. NAA MP742/1 Item 336/1/1289]
Historian Michael McKernan, who discovered Dr Windsor’s report in the Australian Archives in Melbourne, wrote of his reaction to the doctor’s words:
The savagery of this statement would leap at any researcher however drowsy in the hushed quiet of an archival reading room. The words were more dramatic for me as I had known Harry Windsor in his later life; his son is one of my closest friends. The passion, the grinding anger, is entirely at odds with everything I knew of this man or had been told of him. Those few words of brutal and savage retribution, ‘slowly and painfully butchered’, I have no doubt were precisely what Harry Windsor wanted to order for these Japanese whom he now despised for what they had done.
[Michael McKernan, This war never ends, UQP, St Lucia, 2001, p 73]
Only 30 passengers could be carried on the aircraft so the Army nurses left that afternoon. Matron Sage and Sister Floyd remained in Lahat to look after the civilian women who were to fly out the next morning.
The nurses’ aircraft landed in Singapore at dusk that evening and they were taken straight to the Australian hospital at St Patrick’s College. There they learnt to sleep on proper beds with sheets, to enjoy proper food and for the next few weeks they were ‘fattened up’.
On 4 October 1945, after enduring three years and seven months as prisoners of war, the 24 sisters sailed for Fremantle, Australia.