(Jessie Eaton-Lee)
J.J. Blanch – 2/10th AGH
Interviewed 6th May 1998. 

Another "Brave Women" page...
During the Japanese invasion of the Malayan Peninsula in 1942, Blanchie as a young nurse was caught up in the mass evacuation of Singapore, shipwrecked, then taken prisoner by the Japanese. She spent three and a half years in the hell camps of Sumatra.

My relatives call me Jessie and all my nurse friends call me Blanchie. I was with the 2nd 10th AGH, the 8th Division. We were stationed in Malaya, 1941. Before the war I was nursing at the Brisbane General Hospital. I put my name down for the AANS (Australian Army Nursing Service) and was called up eventually. Matron didn't want us to go. So many had gone and they were getting a bit short of civilian nurses. Anyway I said, "If they don't let me go I'll resign anyway." I sailed on the Queen Mary in January.

We thought we were going to the Middle East but after we left Fremantle we were told we were going to Singapore. We were in a convoy with three other ships. I said, "What're we going to Singapore for? There's no war there and no thought of war." Anyway we were taken up to Malacca, north of Singapore in (then) Malaya. We had an English hospital there which was very well equipped and quite good. That's where we nursed for 12 months before the war broke out. 65 of us started, and then we had some reinforcements later. This gave us another hospital. We were the 2/10th AGH (Australian General Hospital) and then the girls from the 13th AGH arrived much later and their hospital was in Johore. We arrived on 19th February 1941 and the Japanese war started 9th December, so we were nearly 12 months in Malacca and we had quite a nice time. Plenty of leave, and we didn't have much nursing to do – but the boys did have accidents and they needed attention. A lot of malaria, of course, from the mosquitoes.

War breaks out:
When war broke out we were quite a way up in Malaya and they decided to move us in case the Japanese came down. So we were sent onto Singapore Island.

For a more complete description of the 2/10th AGH
hair-raising retreat down the Malay Peninsula
Click Here
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The Japanese came and bombed the causeway, then (their planes) got over to the island. We were posted to what had been a girls' school. We soon set up the hospital there and it wasn't long before we started to get a lot of wounded. I was in the theatre so we worked all night and all day sometimes. We were in No Man's Land and their shells went over our hospital and our shells went back the other way. It was horrific. The plaster in the hospital started to crack and break from the vibration. The boys were walking in from the front lines. We were that close to the enemy. One day I went out onto the verandah to collect yet another patient to take to the theatre, and a British officer came along and said, "Why are you still here Sister?" The day before they'd taken 65 of us off the island because they thought they'd better get them home. We were to stay because there were no ships.

A few days later they came and said there was a ship for us. We didn't want to go. We argued, we didn't want to leave our men. I asked where we were going and they told me Java. I, being "smart", said, "Java? We'll never get there!" Anyway we didn't want to go and Matron (Paschke) said to them, "If we don't go, what's going to happen?" and they told her, "You'll be Court Marshaled and probably put in gaol." So we went. Foolishly. We shouldn't have gone.

The Vyner Brooke:

That afternoon they took us down to the wharf. It was a real shemozzle. There were people trying to get on to ships that weren't there. And they were running their cars into the water to stop the Japs from getting them. We were eventually taken over to a little tub of a thing, the Vyner Brooke. We started off that night. Very slowly. They next day the Captain didn't want to go out into the open sea because the Japs would see us. We hid behind an island. I've flown over that area since, and there's no use hiding behind an island because you can see everything! Anyway that was Thursday, 12th. Next day was Friday 13th. And everybody said we'd better keep our fingers crossed. We got through Friday 13th, then at night we went on a little bit further and hid behind another island. About a quarter past two in the afternoon we heard a plane coming over. Jap reconnaissance. The Captain told us we 'd been spotted. He said, "There's nothing here on this little island, but there is an island about 12 miles away. We'll make for that." So we started off. Flat out, the poor little thing, and it wasn't long before 6 bombers came.

For Blanchie's account of the
sinking of the Vyner Brooke
Click here

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Soon after being washed ashore following the sinking of the Vyner Brooke, Blanchie and her comrades surrendered to the Japanese. She recalled, "They put us out in the back yard, and on the ground there we found quite a few of our girls who had come in before us. We were there all day without a thing to eat or drink, and we'd been in the sea, and we hadn't had much to eat on the ship because there was very little food. Then at night they (the Japs) came with a bucket of water which the girls said had rum and sugar in it. It was quite nice. And a bucket of rice, which we just had in our hand. And they told us that Singapore had fallen. That was 15th February."

"We were kept there for some days," Blanchie continued, "All herded into a dreadful camp, in which I got a dreadfully sore throat. I'd picked up a wog in the sea and I was sick. And I was miserable. Anyway the Dutch had been on that island, and the Japanese took some tablets from a Dutch doctor and gave them to me. Which did help. I think it was M&B. But I was lying on the concrete in the sun, and the Japanese, every time he passed, he'd give me a kick. And we had a few sick people."

The prisoners were moved to a collection of Dutch houses at Palembang, where they were placed under guard. This was the camp that also housed massacre survivor Vivian Bullwinkel, also White Coolies author Betty Jeffrey and the dedicated and compassionate Wilma Oram. "Matron didn't arrive, and we were terribly upset about that," Blanchie said sadly, "She was such a wonderful person. We thought everything'd be all right if Matron was there. It was my birthday. We'd been there for a few days and the Japs called to our house where we were and said they wanted 3 Sisters to go and "discuss our living". So we thought we'd better go, there might be something. We were very foolish, we should never have gone. I've never had a birthday like it since!

The "Officers' Club":

Three of us went up to the house where they (the Japanese) were. Sr James, Winnie May Davis and me. They asked for us by name, to go and discuss our living. I went in and here was a Japanese sitting at a table, who could speak perfect English, and an officer lounging in an easy chair next to him, with his sword well bared. He told me to sit down at this table. He gave me a piece of paper and told me that they wanted me to sign it. I read it, and as far as I got was, "The Japanese want you to work for the Japanese." I refused to sign. And he said "N.O. or K.N.O.W?" And I said, "I K.N.O.W. – and the answer is N.O!" I yelled at him, and he yelled at me, we argued about this, and I said I wouldn't sign. He said, "If you don't sign, you'll starve to death. We're going to starve all the Sisters." And I said, "As far as I'm concerned I'm not signing it. I'll die first." He said, "How will you die?" I said, "I'll lie down and die!" which was so stupid because I was so well at the time." Blanchie laughed at this memory. "There were other people in the camp too, by this time, and they said, "Don't worry, if they come to you again, let us know and the whole camp will go and protect you." So that was a wonderful relief. Eventually the Red Cross in town heard about our predicament and we weren't troubled again."

We were asked many times to go out and nurse their soldiers, but we wouldn't.

We were very disorganized (at that time). We'd never been in this predicament before. They'd call for volunteers if there was any work to be done. But we found out that the same ones were volunteering all the time. So the Doctor said, "I'll examine the girls –" (there were Dutch and English and all sorts of nationalities) – "and see what they can do." I was very strong, I really was strong. Christmas came and Flo (Trotter) and Sr James and I were the cooks. We'd saved up a little bit of extra.

The First Christmas:
We used to pound the rice and make bread in a tin. We got up very early in the morning and made "toast" out of this awful bread before they went to church. They were going to early morning church. The men had sent in some meat, and we were able to make a bit of a stew with a few vegetables and things, and we had to have a Christmas "pudding" so we pounded the rice and made flour, then we had some brown beans which we cut up, and they looked a bit like raisins. We had a little bit of coconut, so we milked those and with the milk we thickened it with rice and made a custard.

We started to do things to try and forget where we were. We pulled part of the house down and made mah jong sets out of the wood. Del and I made a lovely mah jong set. A lot of work. We only had a big knife to cut the wood. And we used it like a file. Del was quite an artist. She carved the things on the mah jong set. And we raffled that, and a nun won it. And with that we bought extra food. We didn't have anything and so we had to work.

We did try to entertain ourselves. Jeff and I had a queer sense of humour, I think. We used to try and make things funny, to fill in time. And next thing, in come the Japs. Because we were roaring laughing, and they were always saying "Why you laugh? Why you laugh?" Because they didn't think we should be laughing. So it wasn't too bad at the time because we thought we'd be out next month. I always lived from one month to another. I couldn't think of anything further than one month. One month would come and then I'd think, oh well, then there'll be another month. But we were in that camp for quite a while and then we were moved to the Men's Camp.

"The Men's Camp" (18th September 1943):

The men had left if filthy, deliberately. But they were terribly upset when they knew that we were going to that camp because they'd purposely left it untidy and dirty. We were a bit annoyed at first but then they apologized later.

The Australian girls were marvelous. Morale was high. Some of them dropped their bundle a bit but the majority thought, I always felt I'd be out in a month. Now, looking back, we weren't bored. There was always something to think about and always something to do. And somebody to talk to. You could go and see a sick person or something. And we were very tired at night. Goodness me, we'd sleep.

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Physical deterioration:
In that time we were again given our own jobs to do. The strong had to do the hard jobs, and Flo and I were strong so we were the wood cutters and the wood carriers. They'd dump the wood at the guardhouse, which was quite a way from the cookhouse, and we'd carry it down. It was during that time that I felt very weak and my heart was going hammer and tongs. We had nurses attend to us if we were sick in the barracks. The nuns had a little hospital, but you couldn't go there unless you were very ill. I was lying there, my pulse was going, I felt awful. Winnie May Davis was the nurse on that day. She came in and said, "We'll have to get the doctor." So the doctor came and she said… (you see, we used to sleep with our heads up the top) and she said, "Come down so I can examine you." Well I went down asnd that was too much. I thought my heart had turned inside out. It was racing, then all of a sudden it went way down to about 20 or so. She said, "Oh my goodness, lie down! Your heart has dilated. Don't move!" Winnie May Davis looked after me all that night and they wouldn't move me until my heart settled down. Then they took me over to the hospital where I eventually got stronger. But I could never do any hard work after that.

They'd weigh us. I was 12 stone when I first went into camp, which was a big weight for me. I went right down below 6 stone, then they stopped weighing us. So we really don't know how thin we were. But I know I could fit my hands around my waist. We had shorts and every now and again I'd have to take a tuck in them. And it (the waist) got smaller and smaller. You are actually skin and bone. I don't know what happens to the muscle. Some of them were terribly thin and weak.

The Guards:

This little Jap guard used to come and talk to us. He asked us if we were Christians, and told us that he was a Christian too. He was good, but the good ones couldn't do anything for us. Some of the guards were nasty. Some were cruel. But some of them were good. Like the little Christian fellow. "Rasputin" was awful. They'd hit you for the fun of it when you'd do something. One woman had lipstick on one day and he smacked her over the face because she had lipstick on. But I used to do what they wanted, bow to them, and do as they asked me to – up to a certain point of course. They did kick me when I was sick that time. We had names for them all. "The Snake" was awful.

One day we were told to have the camp tidy because we were going to have visitors. It was a high ranking Japanese officer with a Japanese nurse, come to inspect us. We had to stand outside our huts and bow. And she went around the camp with a hankie to her nose. But we lived just like pigs so I suppose we smelt like pigs, but apparently she couldn't stand it.

Blanchie's Health:
I used to get these throats. It (the throat infection) flared up again. When we got salt, I'd never put it on my food, I'd gargle with it to try and stop my throat infection. Anyway one day it flared up and it was dreadful. Doctor came and told me I'd got quinsy, which is an abscess in my throat. Oh dear I had dreadful pain. Dreadful. Anyway one day it burst. The infection went to my ear and (the doctor) said you'll have to go to hospital. So there they were able to give me some powder for my throat, but I've been deaf in the left ear ever since.

Dr Goldberg was always very good to me. And I don't think the girls ever knew that I had a very high temperature one time and she said, "You're getting malaria, and we don't want you to get malaria because you're the only one that hasn't had it." And she said, "You're not to tell anybody." And Sr Mittelhauser was very loyal. And she knew. And she gave me from a tin of patent groats –  that was what our mother used to give us as children when we were ill. But when we opened it, it was full of grubs. The grubs had got in first. But anyway we didn't take any notice of the grubs, we boiled it up and it was wonderful. But I don't think the girls ever knew I had that, because they'd all want it.

The Captives' Hymn:
That was where we learnt The Captive's Hymn, too, in the Men's Camp. Margaret Dryburgh wrote the Captive's Hymn. A beautiful hymn, and we used to sing it every Sunday.

The nuns were good to us. There was a group of nursing nuns and teaching nuns – and they looked after the children. There were quite a few children in camp. Mother Superior was marvelous. They knew when Easter was. We couldn't work it out, we didn't have a calendar. She came and gave us a large tin of herrings in tomato sauce, and it was the best thing we ever had. It was so tasty. We only had a teaspoonful on our rice.

From the Men's Camp we moved to Muntok again.

Muntok (October 1944):

That was dreadful. A dreadful trip back. Several people died on the trip. And at Muntok they got the malaria which was a very bad type, leaves you with brain damage. If you got it, you couldn't fight against it. They had long dormitories and the nurses had to look after people in the dormitory. I was in charge of one. The Japanese were scared of fire, and we were in atab huts, and at night there was always somebody on watch, and you'd have to sit up all night. The Japs 'd come occasionally to see that you weren't asleep, and if you were asleep you were in trouble. Everybody was so ill and so tired that we couldn't do anything. Only look after the sick as best we could. And we were only there for a few months. Then they said we could go back again to Sumatra.

Loebok Linggau:
And that was a dreadful trip. So many sick. And the pier where we had to board the little boat, it was so long, and we had to carry these sick people. We had to carry them. The Japs never helped us at all. Then we had a dreadful trip over. I don't know how many died, but people were buried at sea.

Eventually when we got there we had a train trip then. Palembang up to the country, Lobok Lingau. And we wondered why they'd take us way up there.

But that was a different camp altogether, in a rubber plantation. Quite pleasant. There we had huts to live in. Twelve of us living in this hut. We had quite a big hospital there and we were the nurses for the hospital. It was difficult, and I couldn't do much because of my heart condition. I could do light duties, and the girls had a lot of malaria. And dreadful headaches and I'd be able to massage their head.

We were near a little creek. We bathed in the creek, when it was running. But then we had a flood and the water came up and we had wonderful swims in that creek. You see we never had a shower, only from the rain. We loved to see a storm coming because you could wash your hair. We had lice and parasites, and we had to have our hair cut. We'd line up for tenko every day, to be counted. Then when we were waiting for the Japs the one next to you would inspect your head. But then you couldn't pick anything out. We had nothing to put on them, so we would have our hair cut right off short. Flo and Jeff were the hair cutters.

There were all sorts of bugs, rats and things. One day they gave us corn for our ration. I had some corn in a little basket tied up on the rafter for my next day's meal. I looked up when I woke up and here's a rat in it. So I grabbed him and went off to sell him to the Eurasians. I said, "He's lovely and fat and a good healthy rat!" and he popped out of the bag and I lost my $2.50 – they were going to pay me $2.50 for a rat. But we used to eat anything.

The shoots on the ferns were lovely to eat. Val Smith and I, in this little creek were some shellfish like periwinkles. Val and I said we'd go and get some and boil them up. And we ate a few. But then along comes the doctor, and she had seen us getting these things, and said if we got sick after eating those things she would not treat us. We didn't do it again. You see, the toilets were over this creek above us, and you can imagine what was in there. But we were so hungry we'd eat anything, though I don't think any of our girls ever ate the rats.

The Wah Sui embarked on 10th February, the Empire Star sailed from Singapore on 12th February 1942, the Vyner Brooke also sailed on 12th February.

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The Captives Hymn
The above is the actual hand-written manuscript of the Captives' Hymn.
Crafted by Margaret Dryburgh in prison camp. She also wrote the words that appear below.
Father, in captivity,
We would lift our prayers to Thee,
Keep us ever in Thy love,
Grant that daily we may prove
Those who place their trust in Thee
More than conquerers may be.

Give us patience to endure.
Keep our hearts serene and pure,
Grant us courage, charity,
Greater faith, humility,
Readiness to own Thy will,
Be we free or captives still.

For our country we would pray,
In this hour be Thou her stay,
Pride and sinfulness forgive,
Teach her by Thy laws to live,
By Thy grace may all men see
That true greatness comes from Thee.

For our loved ones we would pray, 
Be their guardian night and day, 
From all danger keep them free,
Banish all anxiety, 
May they trust us to Thy care,
Know that Thou our pains dost share.

May the day of freedon dawn,
Peace and justice be reborn,
Grant that nations loving Thee
O'er the world may brothers be, 
Cleansed by suffering, know rebirth,
See Thy kingdom come on earth.


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Related links on this site
Betty Jeffrey  . Wilma Oram  .  Vivian Bullwinkel  . J.E. Simons  . Margaret Setchell  . 
The Vyner Brooke  .  The Empire Star  . The Wah Sui  . Vunapope Mission  . AHS Centaur
Prisoners from Rabaul  . Lest We Forget  . 
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