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.