Archives For Australia

White Feathers

February 20, 2017 — 3 Comments

p09909-005           Sister Ida Morse, my mother, back row, tall unhatted!

Over the years, I have been asked by those on the global trail how I have managed multiple relocations to multiple countries with a certain amount of sangfroid. This is how, and why.

I must have been about twelve. We were living in Kuala Lumpur so maybe that triggered the conversation about war, which prompted my mother’s comment, “Being shot in the stomach is a terrible way to die.”

This is Mum’s story.

75 years ago, on February 12th, 1942, 65 nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service boarded the SS Vyner Brooke in Singapore. Not far offshore Sumatra the ship was bombed and sunk. 12 nurses drowned or were killed in the water. 53 staggered ashore at Banka Island having been in the sea for about three days. On Radji Beach, 22 of those women and one civilian, were lined up in the shallows and machine gunned. One, Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, survived. Shot in the waist, she played possum in the waves until the Japanese soldiers moved on. She later surrendered and was interned in a POW camp. Of those 65 nurses only 24 survived to be rescued on 16th September, 1945.

Sister Bullwinkel and my mother, Sister Ida Arundel Morse (NX76286), were passing acquaintances. They met in the chaos of a Singapore under threat from the rapidly advancing bicycle brigade of the Imperial Japanese Army, which on December 8th, 1941 landed on the beaches of Kota Bharu on the north eastern shores of the Malay Peninisula.

An hour before the attack on Pearl Harbour began.

Fresh in people’s minds were stories filtering in from Hong Kong of the gang rape and massacre of nurses at St Stephen’s College, being used as a front line hospital, on Christmas Day 1941 just prior to the British surrender. As it became increasingly obvious the island citadel of Singapore would be breached, General Gordon Bennett ordered the evacuation of all Australian nurses.

Matron Irene Drummond called her nursing staff into the main hall, explaining there were two ships, the SS Vyner Brooke and the SS Empire Star, on which they could be evacuated. One to depart within the hour and the other the following morning. Volunteers were needed for the second departure. Every nurse stepped forward. The matron smiled,  nodded and raised her arm, unilaterally signaling one side of the room would leave immediately aboard the SS Empire Star. My mother was allocated the first ship. Each nurse was allowed one small case. Matron Drummond was shot on the beach at Banka Island.

The SS Empire Star, under the command of an irascible Brit named Captain Capon, not happy having women on board, had accommodation for 23 passengers and a crew. An air raid attack on the wharf delayed embarkation but eventually 2,160 people, of whom 59 were AANS or physiotherapists, were herded into the holds. They did not set sail until first light on the 12th February due to the darkness of the night, mines in the straits and the light buoy being shot out.

Japanese aircraft found them at 9am, bombarding and strafing the fleeing ship until about 3pm. It was due only to Captain Capon’s seamanship they survived with, at one point, bombs landing simultaneously on either side of the ship. If one of the bombs had disabled the ship completely they would have drowned, as most were in the hold. Two nurses were on deck, and threw themselves over the wounded. Both sisters, Victoria Torney and Margaret Anderson were awarded medals for their valour. There were three direct hits in which 37 men were badly wounded, and 13 men killed. It was one of these men my mother nursed until he died.

“What did you do during the attack?” I asked.

“No one panicked. We sang. Waltzing Mathilda mainly. Over and over.”

There was very little food on board. Mum remembers an empty tin of Players cigarettes being used as a tea cup, and someone had a bottle of whisky. The Empire Star eventually made it to Batavia (Jakarta) where everyone was moved to a Dutch vessel for 48 hours while repairs were made. “It was heaven. We had hot showers.”

It was overcast when they left Tanjong Priok and, feeling safe aircraft wouldn’t be able to find them, everyone slept on deck as they sailed for Perth. Disembarking, Captain Capon saluted the Australian nurses, saying it had been a privilege to know them. By the time the nurses arrived in their home states, about a month later, the fate was known of those aboard the SS Vyner Brooke.

Some of the nurses, including my mother, were met at train stations by people waving white feathers. Because these brave and selfless women had survived.
Sister Ida Morse was a pragmatic woman, not given to sugar-coating or dramas but was softness personified to babies, and those who were sick or injured, whether two or four legged.

After that initial telling, my mother rarely spoke of her wartime experiences, either in Singapore or later in New Guinea. She gave me a book, White Coolies, by Betty Jeffrey, a friend from the 2/10th Australian General Hospital, which told of the nurses internment in the camps in Indonesia.

Mum’s story unwittingly taught me a valuable lesson.

Those of us lucky enough not to be directly impacted by war or terror should, I sometimes think, emulate the courage of our parents and grandparents. Our relocations, or dislocations, pale in comparison and are, for the most part, merely inconveniences.

Distance Perceived

October 4, 2016 — 1 Comment

Distance has never been an object.

Sharing the back seat of a station wagon with Cottage, a dog of varied parentage, was the norm. None of the occupants wore seat belts, and cigarette smoke curlicued around the interior before finding its way out the open windows. The roads we travelled were mainly dirt and emerging many hours later at either a rest house or our destination, we must often have looked like the Asaro mudmen of the Papua New Guinea highlands. We were though in Nigeria.

My father always took the pre-dawn shift behind the wheel and would last until sun up when my mother, a hardy Australian, would take over and drive the majority of the trip. We sang – I’m pretty sure some songs would not be considered suitable for a little girl – songs from the hill stations of India where my father had been stationed prior to Partition in 1947. One still floats into my head when I’m in the car sometimes. The chorus ends with the stirring words “Queen Victoria very fine man” – which rather dates it. The back seat of that car, and others in my childhood, is where I also learnt Australian ballads – Waltzing Mathilda and The Wild Colonial Boy are two I remember.

Singing passed the time. It was difficult to gauge, even for my parents, just how far we travelled unless close attention was paid to the odometer. Mile signs were non-existent. Instead directions were given by poles. Eighteen poles to the dead tree with a crooked branch. Seven poles to the hut with a broken door. And so on. All very well, but it took a certain amount of concentration to count telegraph poles, spaced randomly, along a dusty road. It was on those interminable journeys to Kano, or Jos, or Enugu that I learnt to count – poles, camels, goats.

The trip would be broken up with coffee, warm juice and sandwich breaks, often on the outskirts of a village so we could refill water bottles from the standpipe. The car would be surrounded by children and I would have new friends to play with for fifteen minutes or so before we piled back into the car and continued on. Distance was no object.

A few years later and on the other side of the world, we relocated from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. Two dogs and a cat were also be transported. We had two cars by then and my father opted to take the cat, a decision he bitterly regretted a couple of miles into the, in those days, seven hour trip. Pusscat yowled the entire time. It was a toss up as to who was more stressed on arrival at our new, temporary, home – I do remember Dad pouring whisky from his hip flask not long after unpacking the cars. Many other road trips followed up and down the Malay peninsula. Dodging vast lorries hauling logs, we drove through lines of regimented rubber trees or jungle so thick the possibility of carving a way through it seemed inconceivable – visiting places my parents had lived during their courting days in the 1950s, during the euphemistically called Malay Emergency.

Then Australia and boarding school. Vast distances travelled for half-terms and holidays when I did not return to whichever country was currently home. We thought nothing of driving a hundred miles for a woolshed party and be home for breakfast. Roos and emus waking those of us slumbering in the back seat.

Papua New Guinea was my next stop. Ahh, youth! My boyfriend and I would leave Lae, on the Huon Gulf on Saturday to drive along the world’s most uncomfortable road – miles and miles of corrugated dirt which rattled the teeth and nerves. Lalang grass threatening the shred any unwary arm hanging out of a window. Air conditioning was not a luxury we had.
Our reward would be breakfast of coffee and egg and bacon sandwiches at the Kassam Pass – if they hadn’t been forgotten on the kitchen counter. Views stretching to the edge of the world before we advanced through Chimbu territory. Many Chimbu are delightful but I would hold my breath hoping we would not break down amongst these stocky, tough men wearing little more than an arse-grass, a penis sheath and carrying a spear. We’d arrive in Mount Hagen or Mendi in time for a party and drive ten hours back the next day in time for work on Monday morning. We were young, and distance was no object.

Based in The Netherlands, we criss-crossed Europe either in a not always reliable, shamrock green VW Variant named Murphy, or by train. A few more countries in between, wherein we continued our road tripping with our own children in the back seat – belted in of course – and we found ourselves in Texas. It takes a long time to get out of a state 900 miles wide but Los Angeles, Baja California, Florida Keys called – places not to be ignored.

All adventures which have formed the backbone of our family memories – the songs sung, the games played, the middle-of-the-night stops in strange places. All have continued our theme of ‘distance, who cares?’ And the wonderful thrill of going somewhere.

So why, now I spend a quarter of each year on a 28 mile long island in the Caribbean, do I quibble about driving 15 miles from my home in Christiansted to Frederiksted, nestled on the western shore?

Distance, it’s a funny thing. I guess we fit our perceptions to our surroundings!