Australian Army Nurses
Australian Army Nurses
Interview by Gwlad McLachlan for the radio program ‘Sentimental Journey’ recorded at 3YYR studio, 10/11/1995
Available for download for personal use.Copyright
Three and a half thousand women served with the Australian Army Nursing Service during WW2, Betty Cornford and Mirth Jamieson talk about their experiences treating soldiers, including some at Changi.
Gwlad McLachlan: I’ve got an important programme coming up this morning, I’m going to be speaking with Betty Cornford, and Mirth Jamieson, both of whom were nurses during the Second World Wars. Betty, in 1941 I understand you were Betty, Duval, you were a young nursing sister from Yea?
Betty Cornford: Mm.
Gwlad McLachlan: From up country? And you’d recently completed your training at Epworth, Hospital, would you like to tell our listeners how you came to enlist in the Defence Forces?
Betty Cornford: I think it would be the same feeling as a man joining up, that, you had, in the nursing case you had something to offer, I think something that was perhaps unique, at that particular time, that a woman, woman could volunteer.
Gwlad McLachlan: Mirth, what was your experience, where did you train, and how did you end up in the Army nursing service?
Mirth Jamieson: I trained at Warrnambool, and I joined up in 1942, and I served in many units, the main highlight was going to Singapore, at the end of the War. We were given a, talks all the way over, on what we might find when we got there, the conditions of the boys that had been prisoners, their Berri-Berri, the malaria, what we mustn’t give them to eat, they mustn’t have chocolates, they mustn’t have anything rich like that; however, we arrived at Singapore, we were not permitted to go ashore, but within a very short time these boys came down to the wharf, they’d walked from Changi, and they had heard that there was an Australian ship, in, and there were nurses on it.
And they streamed down, and they were, didn’t have any shirts, some of them had their old digger’s hats, which had been tied up with bits of flax, and what have you, they might have had footwear, some of them had a thong type of footwear, that they’d made out of coconut fibre, and they were, had all been issued with what in those days we knew as barber-towels, they were just small white towels, which they had around their necks, I suppose like a sweat-rag.
And they, and they just kept coming, and coming, and we were up in the top deck, shouting down to them, and they were shouting up to us, and nothing was intelligent, we were throwing them cigarettes, we were throwing them chocolates (laugh), and eventually the captain, of the ship, said: “Put down the gangplank”.
Now this went on all day, and they kept streaming on board, and we sat, on the floors, in the salons, saloons at least, and they just talked, and talked, and a lot of it didn’t make any sense at all, but they were just so thrilled to be talking, to somebody, and I think it was, we were like their kinfolk, very much, it was a very emotional time, and that’s when it really hit me, how wonderful it was to be an Australian, you just oozed with a pride, their humour, their determination, their, their, it was just so wonderful, it really was, it’s very hard to describe, but we all felt this, and that went on, ‘til late into the night, and then eventually they wandered off, and then we were allowed to go, and visit Changi, and that again was an amazing thing.
We visited what they called the hospital part of Changi, and these men were very emaciated, they had suffered, all sorts of things, malaria, Berri-Berri, they had tropical ulcers, they had had ulcers, gastric ulcers, they had no drugs, they had humour, they had determination, and their orderlies were wonderful, they showed us pieces of gauze that they had been using, for a long time, washing, and reusing, it was the colour of mud, the size of a postage-stamp, frayed at the edges, but it was still being used, every little thing was precious, they wasted nothing.
And uh, I remember being there, when Brigadier Blackburn, a VC, came in to say goodbye to the boys, he was being flown home, he didn’t want to leave his men, and they didn’t want him to go, and it’s very hard to describe it, but it was something one will never forget, you just felt it, you felt the atmosphere, I don’t think it could ever be reproduced, I wouldn’t think that’d be possible, but they had great admiration for their officers, and it was very obvious that the discipline that they had, was what helped to carry them through.
When we were walking, this is outside the hospital section of Changi, when you were walking just amongst the other POW’s, they knew their officers, they saluted them, and what’s more, every time they passed us, we were saluted, one felt very humbled, but it was the discipline that held them together, I am sure.
Gwlad McLachlan: Mirth, do you want to tell us about Matron Sage, she’s a very famous, Australian nurse?
Mirth Jamieson: Yes, Matron Sage, was our matron in chief, and she was an um, a remarkable person, Miss Sage, and she was an outstanding nurse and an administrator. She was a very tall, handsome woman, she had a strong face, but she had beautiful blue eyes, they were warm, and they were observant, and she had a slow, endearing, smile.
She did simple things, for instance when we had the hospital set up, in Singapore, and she told us, she said: “You won’t be able to cure these boys, they’re waiting to go home, but just talk to them, you can sit on their beds, you can even have a cigarette if you want to”, now that of course was really something different; but you’d go on night duty, and the boys’d keep coming in all night, and you’d be making many, many cups of tea, on a Primus stove, for them, and they would sit, and talk to you, and they would have a cigarette, and you’d have a cigarette, and in the mornings you would feel, not physically exhausted, but you were rather emotionally exhausted, from, they just outpoured everything, to you. And then you learnt to turn off from it, you had to, and they talk about a counselling, and I think this is what was going on, but we didn’t have a name for it, it was just, they were talking it off to us, telling us things that no doubt, they weren’t going to tell anybody else.
And also, Miss Sage, she went to get the nurses out, who had been POW’s, at Palembang, and you can just imagine the great thrill it was, when those girls saw the plane arrive, and the door opened, and these two women came out of the plane, in grey uniforms, but they were wearing slacks, not skirts! And it was Miss Sage and Floyd, and they were just overwhelmed, by being welcomed, and you can just imagine the emotional scene that was.
And, there wasn’t enough room on the plane, to take Miss Sage, and Floydy back, they decided they would stay, with the 30 remaining women, the nurses were to go back to Singapore, and they would stay with these others until another plane came the next day, and the Japanese people were still there; and that’s the sort of thing that Miss Sage did, she was a human, understanding, compassionate woman, and she was loved by us all, and she will not be forgotten, ever, we remember her with warm affection, and gratitude. There were many matrons that I served under, and they were all very fine women, but Miss Sage was somebody very special, to us all.
Gwlad McLachlan: Talking about the nurses, many of whom died, in captivity, Betty, you mentioned in the diary that you gave me, about the fact that, of some of the nurses, you went on a different ship, and they were the nurses that became prisoners of war, some of the…?
Betty Cornford: Yes, well we were on the Mauritania, and another hospital was, was on the Queen Mary, and at one stage the Queen Mary, oh she was so much faster than the rest of the convoy, that she did a complete circle, of the convoy, and then disappeared on the horizon, but as she left us, all the ships were lined completely with, everybody and well, saying goodbye to them, but, if we’d realised what was happen, going to happen, to them, I’m sure we would have, oh well, nobody knows what’s going to happen in wartime, do they?
But oh, of our 65 fellow nursing sisters, aboard the Queen Mary, 21 would be murdered by Japanese, as they came ashore at Banka Island, 12 drowned, and eight were taken prisoner of war, and only 24 of the 65 nurses, sisters, would ever return, to Australia alive.
Copyright Gwlad McLachlan Available for download for personal use.