Eye Witness, Margaret Hamilton, O.A.M. (nee Setchell)
Empire Star evacuee and member of the Australian Army Nursing Service.
On 12th February 1942, sixteen vessels of various type and size left Singapore carrying evacuees including many women and children. The Empire Star was one of only two ships that were not sunk.
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Margaret Setchell Hamilton's eye witness account:
"During the second world war I was stationed with the Australian army in Malaya. Our hospital (13th AGH) was established in part of the Johore Mental Hospital. The Japanese marched down the Malayan peninsula and it became necessary for us to be evacuated from Johore Bahru onto Singapore island. At the time we had approximately 700 patients in the hospital, but this evacuation was carried out in a period of 48 hours and very shortly afterwards the theatres were working at our new site in St. Patrick's School, Katong.
"As the Japanese advanced, allied troops were brought onto Singapore island and the causeway was blown up. The "powers that be" decided that all the nursing sisters and physiotherapists should be evacuated. On 10th February, 6 sisters plus 450 patients were evacuated on a ship called the Wah Sui which went first of all to Jakarta and later on to Ceylon where the wounded were transshipped and sent either to Britain or back to Australia."
"On 11th February Matron Drummond drew up a list of half the members of the staff and said 'These girls will go onto a ship today.' I think we were given something like an hour in which to get ourselves ready. I was on night duty at the time and so was hurriedly wakened and packed just a little case about 18 inches by about 12 inches (47 cms by 31 cms). A very small suitcase.
"We did not sail on the 11th because by the time everyone was on board (the ship had accommodation for 23 passengers plus the crew and there were 2160 on board) it was too dark for the captain to sail through the mine fields. The light buoy was missing from the entrance and it would have been far too dangerous to sail without the guidance of that buoy so we waited until first light on the 12th. We sailed as soon as it was daylight."
"Around about 9 o'clock, the Japanese found us and from then till about 3 p.m. they did all they possibly could to sink the Empire Star. At one stage I remember the bombs were such large ones that the ship seemed to jump out of the sea. Down in the hold we really felt the reverberation. In fact one of our girls, both her ear drums were ruptured. Afterwards we learnt that they had dropped 2 bombs simultaneously and due to the skillfulness of Captain Capon one fell on either side of the ship.
"We had 3 direct hits. Had one of the bombs that hit the ship fallen just 10 feet in one direction, the master told that it would have meant complete destruction. We wouldn't have had a chance of being saved, being down in the hold with one ladder for an exit. During the bombing and shelling, 13 men were killed and 37 others were badly wounded."
|Decorated for bravery:
||"Two of our girls, Sisters Margaret
Anderson and Veronica
Torney were up on deck
when the Japanese came over and were machine gunning. When they saw the
boys were wounded, they threw themselves over the soldiers' bodies to
them." (For their action, Margaret was
awarded the George
Medal (far left)
and Veronica was made a Member
of the Most
Excellent Order of the British Empire (near
was awarded the George Medal
"I do not remember
having anything to eat. With so many on board it was impossible for the
crew to feed us, but I do remember drinking tea from a Players
tin. I also remember during the worst of the bombing, one of the air
personnel who was on board passed around a bottle of whisky which we
just drank neat."(Regarding the
food supplies, Captain
Murray's report states: "The ship did not carry anywhere near the
of food necessary to sustain such a large number of people, so the crew
were ordered to go ashore and salvage what they could from the
"During the bombing there was absolutely no sense of panic or anything. In fact we sang.... we sang, and sang, and sang, and sang. A lot of the wartime songs but mostly "Waltzing Matilda" which is more or less an Australian national song.
"We arrived at Tanjong Priok, the port for what's now Jakarta (then Batavia) we were taken off the Empire Star and put onto a Dutch ship for the night. It was absolute bliss because we were able to have a shower and also a meal. We remained in Tanjong Priok for nearly 48 hours while some repairs were made to the Empire Star. Then we were put back onto the ship again, this time sleeping on the deck, and we continued our voyage."
"When we arrived in Fremantle we were met by members of the Australian Red Cross who gave us a change of clothes and a few necessary things like that. We were held up in Perth for 3 weeks. We were waiting for the other girls. Alas, it was three and a half years before we found what had happened to them.
"After this we went by train across to our respective States and were allowed to have some leave to re-equip ourselves before being posted to various units."
Good-bye to Captain Capon.
"We said good-bye to the master of the Empire Star and thanked him. He told us that his ship had been in the evacuation of Crete and Greece, but he maintained it had never been in such a tight spot as it was coming from Singapore. We knew that it was only by the mercy of God and the good seamanship of the ship's master that we managed to get home. As we said good-bye to Captain Capon he asked us to do two things every day of our lives: we were to thank God we were alive, and never to forget the Merchant Navy - as if we could!"
Sadly, some of the girls were given white feathers by people in the street
when they returned to their home states. Presumably this happened because
they survived the home journey whereas some of the Nursing Sisters on the
Vyner Brooke lost their lives.
Margaret Hamilton returned to Singapore from Labuan, Borneo, in 1945 to assist in the repatriation of "our girls and boys".
fate of the Empire Star:
The Empire Star was torpedoed north of the Azores and sunk on 23rd October 1942 by submarine U615. Captain Capon and 38 others were in a lifeboat which was not seen again.
Submitted by Derek Emerson-Elliott
I was aboard the Empire Star when she left Singapore
just before the surrender. I was two-and-a-half at the time, but have three, possibly four memories of the voyage. The probable memory is of seeing an ack ack gun firing, and then going into a sandbagged shelter with my mother and brother,
and sitting on the floor listening to the sound of diving aircraft. I
remember all the women in the shelter were fanning themselves
with Chinese paper fans. They all looked frightened except my mother, who smiled a me.
I was told that this happened on No. 4 wharf just before we
boarded the vessel, but otherwise cannot conect it
with the Empire Star.
I am certain that
the other three memories are of
The last memory is
of my mother, father (who was a lieutenant
My mother, Tony and
I had been put on Empire Star by
We remained with Empire Star until disembarking in Fremantle on 23 March 1943.
I was at RAF AIR HQ in the
centre of Singapore Island.
The Japanese were less than half a mile away and there was the
noise from enemy shelling and one of our Bofors guns banging away close
by. "Get in this truck" someone shouted. We boarded the truck which had
a machine gun mounted midway in the front and careered off down to the
docks where everyone was crowding onto a ship called the Empire
civilians, British and Australian servicemen, with and without their
Civilians had abandoned their large luxury cars on the dockside and
clouds from the burning oil refinery filled the sky.
Soon after we sailed on the 12th February, we were attacked by a formation of Japanese bombers, perhaps the same ones who had so recently sunk the Prince of Wales. When the bombing started I went down the nearest hold, which I found was full of vehicles, many obviously with petrol in them. I felt very vunerable so each time the noise lessened I attempted to escape up the metal ladder, only to be driven back by a hail of bullets from the planes and the noise of our own machine gun manned by soldiers and mounted on a wooden turret. Eventually after several hours the mayhem ceased, when I looked out of the hold again the machine gun turret had disappeared and presumably the soldiers with it.
The following day was Friday the 13th and we thought that surely they would come back and finish us off, but it did not happen. A small service was held and the bodies of those killed in the attack were slid down a shoot covered by a flag, to be burried at sea. We continued on our way to Batavia with no other troubles, other than lack of food and toilet facilities. Due to the skillful action of the captain in zigzagging and taking avoiding action, the damage to the ship seemed remarkably little. One bomb had hit the front end and another had hit the raised cabins in the middle, the top of which had been opened up like a tin can.
Once ashore (at Batavia, now Jakarta) we spent some 2 weeks sleeping on the concrete floor of a school performing various tasks. Amongst others who had managed to escape from Singapore were soldiers and sailors who had not been as lucky as us; their ships had been sunk and they had spent days in open boats or rafts and were very badly sunburnt. Some unlucky ones were posted to Java to help the Dutch, who it was thought would put up a much better fight than we had done. How wrong they were ! Eventually we are put on a train to Tjilatjap, here we got on another merchant ship and sailed uneventfully to Colombo.
I consider myself very lucky to have been on the Empire Star, and for me Friday the 13th is a lucky day!
ANOTHER MEMORY IS RECORDED:
My father, who was at the time a 21 year old airman was on the Empire Star. In his diary he writes of the tremendous courage of the nurses and their skill at helping the wounded after the ship had been bombed. He was 'proud to be the same race as them'. He was one of the airmen manning the guns on the ship. He writes of the aweful overcrowding, the fires, the relief at getting away, the hunger, the behaviour of some of the women evacuees, the difficulty in relieving oneself and of the immense skill of the ship's captain and crew. I very much enjoyed reading your account. Well done. God Bless you for your work well done, Irene Croly
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