Research & Articles by Lt. Col. Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (Retired), JP
Research, Interviews and Articles about the Prisoners Of War of the Japanese who built the Burma to Thailand railway during world war two. Focusing on the doctors and medical staff among the prisoners. Also organised trips to Thailand twice a year.
    free hit counter
 

TROTTER, FLORENCE ELIZABETH (Married name Syer)
Lieutenant Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) 2/10 Australian General Hospital (AGH)
 

Florence Trotter was born in Eastwood, New South Wales on 4 October 1915. She trained at the Brisbane General Hospital and over the period 1939 to 1941 she was a Staff Nurse in that Hospital. Early January 1941 she enlisted into the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) in Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) and in February that year boarded the "Queen Mary", as a nursing officer of the 10th Australian General Hospital (10 AGH) for movement to Singapore, arriving on 18 February 1941. The 10 AGH was situated in Malacca occupying a large section of a British Hospital, in those early days before the Japanese aggressive intentions became obvious. When I had a talk with the late Pat Darling (nee Pat Gunther) she told me that in these early days, the nurses enjoyed quite a social life. The following article provides some detail of her experiences, mainly as a Prisoner of the Japanese. I am grateful that Doctors Jim Dixon and Bob Goodwin (both former POWs) chose to publish the following story some years back.

The nurses' story: Told by Sister Flo Syer (Trotter), OAM, AANS. 2/10th Australian General Hospital (10 AGH), in consultation with her fellow survivors, and as first published by the Returned Sisters Sub-Branch R & SLA (Queensland) in a series of stories entitled "We too were there" and later in the book "Medicos and Memories, published by Drs Jim King and Bob Goodwin.

Flo Syer

I enlisted with the AANS just after World War II broke out, was called up on 17 Jan 1941 and sailed from Sydney on Queen Mary on 4 February in convoy with the New Amsterdam. On board were 10 AGH and the men of the 8th Division AIF. We were joined by Mauritania off the west coast of Tasmania. We berthed in Singapore on 18 February and travelled by train to Malacca on the same day. Here we set up 10 AGH, taking over a large section of the British Hospital.

Life changed dramatically on 7 December 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. We were now right in the thick of it. As the Japanese advanced towards Malacca, the hospital was forced to evacuate and was re-established on Singapore Island in Oldham Hall, Manor House and other private homes as owners evacuated. Here we nursed the wounded under very difficult conditions of continuous daylight bombing raids and shelling. The situation grew worse daily until 10th February when six of our nurses left at very short notice on the Chinese Hospital ship Wah Sui taking as many of the badly wounded as they could. That same day Matron Paschke was informed that the Japanese had surrounded the hospital and we might be taken prisoners of war. Even with this threat there was no sign of panic. The nurses simply carried on with the work they had to do.

The next morning the order came that half the nursing staff must leave immediately. It was a dreadful decision for Matron to have to make since she knew that none of us would want to leave. So she simply divided us into two groups - one to go and one to stay. By this time, there was a constant stream of wounded men being brought in; our 200 bed hospital was required to accommodate 1000.

During the afternoon of 12 February those of us who were left were ordered to leave since headquarters had heard of shocking atrocities being committed by the Japanese against women. There was no alternative. Reluctantly we had to leave the men who were in our care. Ambulances took us to Singapore where air raids were still raging.

We were joined in St. Andrew's Cathedral by the remaining nurses of 13AGH and 2/4 CCS. We numbered 65. When the All Clear sounded we were driven to the wharf where hundreds of men, women and children were trying to leave Singapore.

Eventually a tug took us to Vyner Brooke owned (in peace time) by the Rajah of Sarawak, Sir Charles Pembroke. We got underway as darkness fell leaving behind a scene that we would never forget. Singapore was ablaze; thick black smoke billowed high behind the city. There were 200 aboard - far too many for the size of the ship.

Our progress was very slow and we hadn't got very far when, at about 2 pm on the 14th, we saw six enemy planes approaching. We donned life jackets and tin helmets and took up our positions lying on the deck of the ship. The planes grouped in two formations of three and flew towards us but the ship zig-zagged and the bombs missed their target. They soon regrouped, however, flew in again and scored three direct hits. We felt as if the last bomb had landed right beside us. Then there was the dreadful noise of smashing glass and timber. The ship shuddered and came to a standstill.

We had been given instructions what to do if we were bombed or torpedoed. Each nurse had been given a job to do and now we all hurried about the deck doing the work we had been assigned. We were carrying morphia, dressings etc. in our pockets. But the Japanese hadn't finished with us yet. They returned yet again and machine gunned the deck and lifeboats. On our side of the ship they had severed the ropes holding the lifeboats which dropped into the sea and sank. The oldest people, the wounded, Matron Drummond and some of our girls with all the first aid equipment were put into the remaining lifeboats on the starboard side and lowered into the sea. Greatcoats and rugs were thrown down to them and the two boats quickly got away as the ship was listing badly. When a final search of the ship had been made to make sure that all the wounded had been taken off and that nobody remained on board, it was finally our turn. We were told to remove our shoes and get over the side as soon as possible. Our side of the ship was way up in the air so one of the crew told us to climb on to the railing, swing our and jump into the sea. We were then able to swim away from the ship as quickly as possible. The Japanese came back and machine gunned us in the water. Our tin hats came in handy! We watched the ship roll over and sink. She broke up very quickly but five of us managed to grab on to a piece of railing and hold on tightly. One of the girls was quite a wag and started singing We are off to see the wizard. We all joined in and took off at a great bat. It didn't take long to realise that we couldn't keep up that pace. Bangka Island was 10 miles away and just visible in the distance. We tried all night to get into the beach where two lifeboats had landed. The girls had built a fire but we had to go where the currents took us. After 18 hours in the water, we were swept around the lighthouse into a sandy cover. It was wonderful to feel sand under our feet.

A native climbed up a coconut palm and gave us milk to drink but we had swallowed so much oil during the night that we were all violently ill. We told him we wanted to get to the other girls but it was impossible to get through the dense tropical growth. He suggested that we go in the other direction to Muntok, so we set off and were walking through a small stream when some Japanese approached from the other side.

They realised who we were and ordered us out and up into the clearing. Obviously they intended to shoot us. They lined us up our backs turned. Suddenly they changed their minds, walked us into Muntok, herded us into the Customs House and took us prisoners. Some girls were already there as well as civilians and naval men. Apparently many ships had been sunk in the Bangka Straits on the same day as the Vyner Brooke. Many more people were brought later and soon overcrowding forced them to move us. As we went out the gates they gave us a little cold rice in the palm of our hand and enough meat to fit on a sixpence. There was still nothing to drink and we were all feeling dehydrated.

We had three moves in the two weeks on Bangka Island. Food and water were always scarce and conditions were very primitive.

A few days before our next move Vivien Bullwinkel came into our camp. She told us of the massacre of 21 of our nurses.

On right see paper cutting from 1945 which reports of the massacre committed by the Japanese on the Australian nurses.

Massacre of Australian Nurses

On the morning of the move we were woken at 3 am and told we were moving to Sumatra. We were given a small bowl of rice for breakfast then handed some cold rice wrapped in a banana leaf and two tiny biscuits as our ration for the trip. We walked in a long line through the village to the pier where we waited for hours until two small launches arrived and ferried us out to a dirty-looking old barge. It was a dreadful trip. On arrival at Palembang we were herded into cattle trucks and driven at great speed through the native village where the locals booed us. We stayed overnight in a Dutch school and next day marched off again.

Finally we came to a group of empty houses which was to be our new camp. There was no furniture but at least there was an electric stove. Since there were no beds we slept on tiled floors. This was a difficult period since the Japanese officers decided they needed a Club for their entertainment. We soon learned the part we were to play when the Club opened. First we had to clean out the houses in the street opposite the Club and make up the beds. Then the Japanese wanted us to sign on the dotted line, agreeing to entertain them. Our firm answer was No. They replied that the whole camp would starve for four days.

We knew we had no choice but to go to the Club on opening night, but we decided that all of us would go even though the Japanese wanted only four women. We felt there might be safety in numbers and we were right. Even though four girls were kept behind in the Club, we all got home safety. None of us, not even the four girls kept at the Club, was harmed. Fortunately, a Dutch doctor who had a practice in Palembang and whose wife and family were in the camp, reported the matter to the Japanese military authorities and the Club was closed.

Food was always scarce, so we learned to be creative. Privet hedge and hibiscus leaves are quite tasty when made into a soup with a little rice!

There was another move on 1 April 1942. The men were separated from the women and marched off. We walked for hours in the heat, barefooted and without hats to protect us. Eventually we reached some empty houses and were told to go in and wait. We were there for 18 months! The houses only had three rooms but there were at least 24 people in each house; a number which increased when ever more people were brought into the camp.

Again we slept on tiled floors and there were no cooking utensils or wood to cook with.

We overcame the latter by knocking down doors and moving facia boards. We also retrieved some Mobil Oil cans for cooking and several photograph albums from a fire heap in the backyard. Later we used the photos to make playing cards.

Our rations consisted of one cigarette tin of rice per person per day and rotten vegetables; cabbage and carrot or kang kong which grew in the gutters and sewers. Sometimes there was a small piece of wild pig which the guard would cut up with his penknife. Each house would get enough to cover the palm of one's hand.

Margaret Dryburgh, a missionary, teacher, and pianist, wrote the music and words of the Captives' Hymn during our stay here. It was sung for the first time in July 1942 and at our church service every Sunday from then on. It is a wonderful hymn. The words are very moving and it is being sung by choirs throughout the world today.

For most of our time in this camp, the sick were taken by ambulance to the Charitas Hospital in Palembang and nursed by the Dutch nuns, so we acted as district nurses. There was plenty to do since women and children were always getting sick. The open drains in the camp didn't help the situation even though many hours each day were spent sweeping them. The poor diet, malnutrition, and lack of vitamin C soon began to undermine everyone's health. Food, water and wood were always short and we would go for days when the water was cut off. We would be given permission to carry water from a tap at the bottom of the hill which gave only a trickle!

From one of the houses at the end of our road, the women discovered they could catch a glimpse of the men as they went out to work. As Christmas drew near it was decided that everyone would gather and sing O Come All Ye faithful. The men stopped and listened and we could hear an echo of thank you. Two days later they stopped in the same spot and sang the same hymn in both English and Dutch. Everyone wept!

On Christmas Day we attended church. The missionaries took the service and then we invited friends to morning tea. We had saved up some rice and ground it down to make cakes and biscuits to offer them. We even had some real tea that we had been saving up for this occasion. During the day the Japanese brought in a type message of Christmas greetings from England, America and Australia. Ours was from the Prime Minister, Mr. Curtin, and read: Australia sends greetings. Keep smiling. Curtin.

The men's camp sent our camp a piece of beef, some tiny onions and real potatoes. We were able to have a meal without rice and that foul vegetable weed we called kang kong. What excitement there was! I wonder if they realise what a boost they had given the whole camp! Goodness knows where they got it from.

In March 1943 we were allowed to write our first card home. It was dreadful to realise that they had not heard any news of us as yet.

In August 1943 there were bombing raids every night and we were on permanent blackout. This was good news. In September 1943, Japanese Officers came to our house and gave us one hour's notice to pack up. We were ready in ten minutes. We loaded all our treasured possessions on to an old truck and went to the men's camp about one mile away.

See sketch on right done by Pat Darling (nee Gunther). See video interview with Pat Darling on website www.pows-of-japan.net , also her book "Portrait of a Nurse"
ISBN 0 9585418 1 7

Sketch by Pat Darling

What a mess! It was a filthy place built on a swamp. The camp was a rectangular open space with two thatched-roofed huts each, with a mud path down the centre, wooden platforms on each side and a shelf above our heads for our belongings. There were sixty to a hut and the bed space was 20½ inches by five feet 6 inches. Bugs, rats, lice and mosquitoes were our constant companions.

There were two bathrooms, one for the Dutch and one for the British. A tong in the middle, but once again water was a problem. One of the women cut a hole in the roof to let the rain come in. Lavatories were just one long cement drain with no privacy at all. The conditions were simply shocking.

We certainly were white coolies. They brought in Chunkels weighing 20 lbs for us to dig up all ground both inside and outside the camp to plant sweet potatoes and tapioca. When this job was finished we had to carry water. The whole camp would be lined up for tenko. We would stand in the mid-day sun and then move out of the camp carrying whatever utensils we could find, walk about half a mile down the hill to a pump beside the road, fill up with water and carry it back to water the vegetable gardens. Goodness knows how many trips we made each day. We were not allowed to keep any for ourselves, so when it rained all stood under the leaking roof to have a bath and wash our hair.

One very good thing that happened in this camp was the birth of the camp choir, later to be known as the vocal orchestra. There were thirty of us who joined - Dutch, British and Australians. The talented missionary, Margaret Dryburgh, who, from seemingly hopeless conditions, gave the world the Captives' Hymn and Norah Chambers, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, London, were the driving forces behind this endeavour. Margaret, who had a most retentive memory, wrote down page upon page of classical music. Together she and Norah rearranged the scores for choral singing, condensing a fifteen-minute symphony to a five minute work without losing the sense of balance and flow. The orchestra was divided into four parts. We each copied our part on to any paper we could find and, on practice nights, we would meet in a little room behind the Dutch kitchen. The music was absolutely wonderful. It was so good for the soul and lifted our spirits immeasurably.

We put on our first concert on 27 December 1943 and performed the Largo, Andante Cantabile, Mendelsohn's Song without Words, a Brahms' Waltz, Londonderry Air, Dubussy's Reverie, Beethoven's Minuet and To a Wild Rose. It was a glorious concert. All the women put on their best dresses, curled their children's hair and dressed them as best they could for the occasion. That concert did wonders for the camp. The women said it helped to renew their sense of human dignity and feeling of being stronger than the enemy. That night, everyone forgot about the rats and the filth of the camp. We did several more concerts, but sadly they ceased when half the choir died.

The Japanese had tried to stop our first concert but Norah, our conductor, took no notice and soon the music worked its spell even on the guard who sat and listened to the entire concert.

So much happened in this camp. The military took over again and we seemed to have constant inspections by high officials. More British, including the matron of the British hospital in Malacca and a Scottish doctor, were brought in from a little further north.

In April 1944, the Japanese decided to pay us four guilders a month which worked out to about two shillings a week. As they allowed a shop to be set up where we could buy the odd banana, sweet biscuits, the occasional egg or some gula, this money soon went. Suddenly the pay stopped.

We were allowed to write home again and in August 1944 we received our first letter from home. Even though it was two years old, it was marvellous to have news of families and friends.

By this time there were bombing raids every night. In this camp, we were all given injections - probably typhoid and cholera. We also had a visit from a dentist and abscessed teeth were extracted without any injection. The patient, seated on a kitchen chair, hung on grimly while the guards stood by and laughed at us.

More and more people were dying now. We seemed to have funerals every day. These were our responsibility. We had to carry and bury our own dead. Two of the women in the camp made wooden crosses and engraved the name and date with a hot wire poker. Most of us were earning some money and could buy food such as an egg, banana, fresh coconut or gula. Two of us did all the hair cutting for the camp with a pair of nail scissors and a comb with very few teeth. We also washed for the Dutch who had been able to bring some money with them.

We used to watch the Japanese unpack Red Cross parcels, help themselves and then bring the leftovers to the camp some days later. By the time it was divided among the whole camp each person got about one inch of chocolate, four tiny loaf sugars, a spoonful of coffee essence, a spoonful of butter, an inch of cheese, half a cup of powdered milk, a half tin of jam, one small tin of meat and one of salmon for fifteen of us, a small packet of soup powder for three, and twenty cigarettes. Those who didn't smoke were able to trade them for an egg, gula etc. It was wonderful to taste real food, even in such tiny amounts.

We were still having concerts whenever we could. Our vocal orchestra performed, as did the glee singers, and groups of women put on plays and individual performances. As time passed everyone was gradually becoming weaker. We simply tried to take every day as it came. In October we were moved again to a new camp. We had a shocking grip packed like sardines in a coolie boat, with no food and little water. We were all hungry and ill when we arrived, but were not allowed any of the food prepared for us until the next day. For a change, this camp looked brand new and spotless. There was much more bed space and as it was built on top of a rise, we even got the benefit of a little sea breeze.

Many more civilians from a camp at Benkoelen came with the first arrivals. Now we numbered seven hundred. It was not long before Bangka fever was rife in the camp and our four doctors were kept very busy. Except for one oil lamp for each housing block of one hundred and forty persons, there was no lighting. We were all still getting malaria but were not given any quinine treatment - just a bit of bark to chew on every now and then. For those still on their feet, the work of caring was constant. Hundreds were down with the fever and victims were dying every day. By the time our third Christmas in captivity arrived, things were getting worse. There were funerals every day. Even the younger ones were dying - usually from a combination of malaria, dysentery, Bangka fever and of course, malnutrition. Beri-beri was bad too and some of our girls were desperately ill. Four of our nurses died as well as many civilians.

In March 1945 we were told that we were to return to Sumatra, to a camp outside Loebok Linggau. The three-day journey claimed many lives. It was all too much for the very ill patients and an ordeal for everyone. Very soon after we arrived at this camp, Margaret Dryburgh died. She had organised all the music for our vocal orchestra and been an inspiration to everyone. Our concerts too, had ceased, for everyone was far too weak to sing.

In this camp, we were given a few vegetables every three days, but only after they had been left in the sun and rain for a couple of days. We were constantly tormented by fleas and bugs. Malaria, beri-beri and amoebic dysentery were affecting us regularly. Meat was brought in from time to time. There were monkey, deer and tiger. They smelled absolutely rotten when brought in but, as the small disappeared in the cooking, we all ate it. Rations were always left outside to go rotten before they were given to us.

As time passed, rumours that the war was over persisted and increased but no one knew what to believe until, on 24 August, the Commandant of the camp announced that the war was indeed over. We were free women! What great excitement! We could hardly believe that we were to be rescued from this hell hole. The Dutch government sent a message saying that they would send in food and pay for it. Everything was being taken care of. The men took over the running and repairs of the camp, and even ran the kitchen. They did a wonderful job.

A little later, two young Australian paratroopers arrived at the camp. We plied them with questions and were told of the atom bomb and how it had brought the war to an end. On 16 September we were told to be ready to leave the camp at 4 am the next day. Hayden Lennard, an Australian war correspondent, Flying Officer Brown, RAAF, and Sister Beryl Chandler, RAAF had been searching for us for two weeks.

They finally contacted two Dutch paratroopers who had visited our camp at Loebok Linggau and in no time at all, they located us and arranged our liberation. We had breakfast at 1 am and the rain set in. We had collected our treasured possessions and said our farewells. In open trucks, sixty of us left the camp that morning headed for Linggau station. Hayden Lennard and Flying Officer Brown were there to meet us and accompany us to Lahat. Once in Lahat, we waited impatiently for our plane to arrive. When it did, out stepped Colonel Sage, our Matron in Chief, Sister Floyd and Beryl Chandler who had trained with us Queenslanders. It was so wonderful to see them.

An Australian hospital was ready in Singapore - a ward awaited us. We were all so tired and were longing for bath and bed. When we arrived in Singapore, however, cameras and reporters took precedence. Red Cross helpers from England and Australia were there to greet us with cups of tea and biscuits. All felt so dirty, shabby and untidy. The Red Cross people were wonderful and helped us with out few miserable belongings. Soon we were in the hospital surrounded by the familiar faces of nurses we knew so well. We bathed and put on the very pretty nighties these girls had given us. It was so wonderful to feel clean. When we finally got into bed we hardly slept a wink all-night because it was too comfortable!

The day after our arrival, we were interviewed again by reporters and were able to broadcast a message home. It was such a marvellous feeling to be able to make contact with our loved ones. We knew we would be in Singapore for a few weeks but it wouldn't be long before we saw them again.

Our departure date from Singapore was 5 October 1945, aboard the hospital ship Manunda.

Manunda
The AHS Manunda with the signatures of the POW nurses aboard

We arrived in Fremantle fifteen days later to a very warm welcome by the people of Perth. After a reception and luncheon on our honour, we sailed for Melbourne, arriving on 24 October, coincidentally my father's birthday. It was a terrific birthday surprise for him because I was actually able to speak to him. We sailed for Sydney next day and, once again, there was a wonderful welcome awaiting us. Our family was slowly breaking up and we knew we would miss each other very much. After a night in Sydney, six of us departed for Brisbane by train.

Finally we arrived at Clapham Junction where our families were waiting for us. Home at last! It was almost unbelievable. We were overjoyed to see our parents and brothers and sisters. From the station we were driven through the streets of Brisbane. What a welcome we were given! The streets were lined with people, cheering and clapping. We were quite overcome.

Those of who survived that camp together have remained a close knit group. The friendship we share is very important to us all. After all these years we still keep in regular contact. This enduring friendship has been the most precious thing to emerge from those dreadful years in prison camp.

The above account of Nurse Florence Syer's (nee Trotter) experiences as a POW has been reproduced from the book "Medicos and Memories" (ISBN0 646 33478 6) written by Dr Jim King and Dr Bob Goodwin, both of whom were POWs of the Japanese and both of whom became doctors of medicine post war. Jim King and Bob Goodwin have both kindly consented to the reproduction.

 

The following additional information was an interview conducted with Flo Syer (nee Trotter) 1 June 1994. I regret that the name of the interviewer is unknown.

EXPECTATIONS OF NURSING - "Some parts of it, like that (referring to nursing patients who had had backyard abortions) were a bit of a shock to me, because I realized what a sheltered life I had led."

REASONS FOR GOING NURSING - "My brother was doing medicine and my sister was already at the university and there was no way that there was money for me to go to university because you paid, you know. So I thought, oh well, I'll do nursing. That's the next best thing to it. That's looking after people. I would have liked . . . . I was very interested in medicine. I think it would have been good."

REASONS FOR ENLISTING - "Well, I felt that if there was a war on and people needed nursing I wanted to be part of that - I wanted to look after them."

CONDITIONS DURING BOMBING OF SINGAPORE - "Matron was very careful. She tried to sort of get people to have a bit of a rest. In the beginning we did . . . . we might have got a night's sleep there, excepting it was interrupted by the bombing, and you'd have to get out and go to the trenches. Then that ceased, and when the war was really on, and we were surrounded by the Japanese, you just kept going until you almost dropped. It might be days before you had a decent sleep. The theatre - they had the patients in the entrance hall of Manor House, and . . . . they'd all be lying on the floor and you just had to go along and see which ones - you know, the doctors would say which ones were first - emergency - and you would give them treatment until they got into theatre. But when you were working in the theatre, you didn't even take your gloves off and change them in between cases. You'd scrub with those gloves on your hands. That was the only way you could keep going, because we just didn't have the time . . . .
We had pretty good equipment really, I suppose. It was . . . there was so much to be done. You've got a couple of theatres going. You had to really improvise in lots of areas. Of course, we were only using . . . the sterilizers were on primuses, you know. I suppose you're not as badly off as people who were in the desert who were under canvas all the time. It was very heavy, really very hectic nursing."

ON MEDICAL ORDERLIES - "Very good . . . very good indeed. Most of them were excellent. Some of them you had to help train a bit, you know, but they were good." (Says they were happy to take orders from the nurses.)

RELUCTANCE TO LEAVE PATIENTS IN SINGAPORE - "Half of them (the nurses) had gone the day before, and that was very difficult, because nobody wanted to go . . . . Matron Paschke who was our matron - she was a wonderful person - and she assembled as many as she could and then she asked for volunteers to go. Well, nobody . . . everyone just stood silent. They weren't going to volunteer to leave, and then she said 'Oh well, this is very difficult for me . . . you'll stay, you'll go, you'll stay.' She just did it like that. It was dreadful really. They just knew that the commanding officer of the army had said that 'You've been ordered to get them out', so they just had to go . . . . Then the time came, we all went back to work and we were all busy and the next thing we knew they said 'Grab your kit bags. You're leaving'. Well, that was terrible. We couldn't believe it. 'We can't go - you know - these men need caring for. We can't go.' They said 'Orders are orders and you've just got to go.' And with that they just lined the ambulances up and we had to get in, with whatever we were wearing and our kit bags." . . . . . . "They needed our care and we just felt that it was shocking. It was one of the worst things, I think, that we've ever done, we felt . . . walking out on those men who really needed us."

NURSING AS A VOCATION - "it was going to be my life. That was what I was going to do." (Agrees that she felt it was a vocation).

MATESHIP/BONDS - "There's a tremendous bond now between all of us (who were P.O.Ws), . . . the nurses - we keep in touch all the while."

IDENTITY - "When we were captured, we had the Geneva Red Cross on our arms and we all felt - I think I'm right in saying that all of us felt that we were nurses of the Australian Army and that the Japanese would perhaps recognize the Geneva Convention, but that came out very truly in the picture the other night (Guests of the Emperor) - 'We don't take nay notice of the Geneva Convention'."

BRITISH IDENTITY - "it was rather funny because we'd be lined up - 'Australee! Australee! - we'd have to get there . . then they'd have the British, and we'd say 'But we're British too!' (laughs)."

ATTITUDE TO WAR - "I don't think anybody ever gains anything by war . . . I don't think you really get anywhere. I always used to wonder why everyone couldn't just sit down and talk it all out. The only people who seem to win out of a war are the people who have these ammunition factories and everything don't they? But I felt that if, obviously there was a war on and our country would be threatened that you had to do what you could. But I still think that everyone should know just what happened about the Second World War, as well as the First . . . . So I think that it's a bad thing and I don't think - well I hope there will never be another one.

UNIFORMS - "They were very important. During our P.O.W. days, we kept our uniforms for funerals and for when we moved. Because we felt that as the years went on, that if they saw a group of people dressed in grey they were more likely to remember you than if you were all in just all sort of clothes - the tops and little teeny shorts we had to exist in. Actually it did help, because when one of the men came in when the war was over, they were trying to find us and the Japanese wouldn't tell them anything, then they did meet up with someone who said they had seen a group of nurses heading north but they didn't know where they had ended up."

NURSING IN CAMPS - "There was a group of us who did hospital nursing in all the camps, and the others did - what do they call it now? Blue Nurses, visiting in the huts and whatever they were sleeping in. That's how it was worked out. Some did the visiting and they looked after them like that and others did the hospital nursing . . . And you did night duty. In the end the nuns came into the camp too, you see, they were forced in, Dutch nuns. The Japanese closed the (Dutch) hospital. We had a Dutch nun always on with us at night.

SURVIVING IN THE CAMP - "That's why we came home, because we helped each other in the camp . . . . We kept each other going, and if one wasn't able to go out on a working party, as long as they had the numbers, they didn't care who went, so someone else would go . . . ."

PUBLIC PERCEPTIONS OF NURSING - "I think they thought it was a bit of glamour, sometimes. Because the Women's Weekly, apparently, my mother sent me the cutting out of the Women's Weekly. And in Malacca, just growing outside the hospital gates were these wild orchids, and, of course, we used to go and pick them and put them in our rooms, and here's this write-up in the Women's Weekly saying Australian nurses live like film stars. Orchids in their bedrooms, or mess huts. Orchids everywhere and they said they have servants to do their washing and all this sort of thing. Well of course in that heat and everything, and the way you work, all our starched collars and cuffs, until Matron got permission for us to have them cut them off, you had to have someone to do those sort of things, you know, it was just the normal thing. They did all the hospital washing. They had these amahs that came in of a morning and just swept your room and did your washing and ironing and it was ready for you when you went back on duty again. Because a stiff starched veil doesn't last very long in the hot tropics. Anyway, they made a big story of it - living like film stars. I laughed about it."

RELATIONSHIP WITH SERVICEMEN - "Well, we were really only nursing them as patients. They always put nurses on a pedestal. They always did and they still do. And they thought that anything we said or did, well that was right. And they were really very good to look after."

EMPIRE LOYALTY - "We were British. Yes, we used to keep telling the Japanese. They'd say 'Australee! There!' you know, and 'British there!' and we'd say 'but we're British (laughs) because we had British passports, didn't we? Yes, we are part of the Empire, part of the Commonwealth."

PARADISE ROAD - Paradise Road has been an extraordinary experience for me. Ever since the project began unfolding a few years ago, I have watched it develop, almost with a sense of unreality, asking myself if it was really happening. Who would ever have thought that our story would be told in this way?

When we returned from the war, it was very difficult to return to normal life, to begin again where we had left off, because those who had not been involved could not possibly understand what we had been through. Nor would you expect them to. So we only talked about our experiences amongst ourselves. I suppose that recently, we have talked about it more to others, especially since the fiftieth anniversary of the war. Since then, there seems to have been a revival of interest in what happened, and certain groups have expressed the desire for the story of the role that women played in the war, to be told. There were so many women involved in vital ways - women whose story may never be told. Ours was just one group whose story happened to come to the attention of a movie director.

Being confronted with vivid images of the past was a very moving and emotional experience for me. Although there is a certain amount of what we might call 'poetic licence' in the film, the essence of what happened, has been captured. The fear, the courage, the will to live, the great bond of friendship - are unmistakably conveyed to the audience. For three years and seven months, we battled daily for survival, and our music, when it was performed by the Peninsular Women's Choir, in America in 1983, was called 'The Song of Survival', which is exactly what it helped many to do. Its beauty reminded us that life was worth living.

Your reaction today will probably be different to mine, but whichever way it touches you, you will have a sense of what really happened, an insight into a small piece of history.

 

IT IS WITH MUCH SATISFACTION THAT I PRESENT THIS ARTICLE ABOUT ANOTHER OF OUR NURSES WHO BECAME PRISONERS OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE.

I am indebted to the daughters of Flo Syer, Libby Clarke and her sister Margy Rich for material and the images which they have made available and their encouragement. Also, as previously mentioned, Doctors Jim Dixon and Bob Goodwin (who themselves have made such a contribution in telling the POW story) for permission to reproduce material from their book "Medicos and Memories".
LtCol (Retired) Peter Winstanley OAM RFD JP
Website www.pows-of-japan.net

 


Article compiled by Lt Col (Retired) Peter Winstanley OAM RFD JP
email peterwinstanley@bigpond.com website www.pows-of-japan.net

   
ezFrog Web Design. Copyright 2004.