Heroines of the Empire Star
The perilous journey
Another "Brave Women" page

Blue Star Line
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.

Empire Star nurse
The Empire Star was a Blue Star cargo ship, one of many co-opted into service for the evacuation of Singapore. Her master's name was Capon and she had arrived in Singapore carrying supplies. An article written by Captain Murray of the Merchant Navy, who had been an Able Seaman aboard  HMAS Hobart during the evacuation,  states:
"The Empire Star went alongside a wharf to discharge her supplies, for what they were worth at that stage. The sheds on the wharf were already reduced to rubble and the wharf labourers had fled long beforehand. The ship's crew worked all day and through the night unloading guns and lorries." These details were given to Murray by DEMS rating Bert Boys, an eye witness who felt that the supplies were virtually being given to the Japanese.
Margaret Setchell Hamilton
In winter uniform, 1941.

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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."


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SITE MAP Oblivious to danger...
"From the day of evacuation to the present day my recollection of events on the actual day we left Singapore are hazy. I and one of the Tasmanian nurses were both on night Troops with nurseduty, and the days were full of bombing and shelling. Even when our hospital was hit some days before we were evacuated it didn't seem to make me fully aware of the danger we were in. We just kept on looking after "our boys". There was damage to the hospital building but fortunately no casualties. Working all night, and between the daily bombing and shelling we had very little sleep and had reached the stage of such exhaustion that we were like zombies, just too tired to be aware of our surroundings.

"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.

Nurses - Empire Star
Back row: Betty Bradwell (Pyman), Pat Gunther (Darling)*
Middle row (L to R): Bess Taylor (Muldoon), Nell Bentleigh (Dollman), 
Bettie Garrood (Forwood), ? Seabohm, Jean Ashton*, Jean Floyd (Allen)
Front row (L to R) Phyl Pugh (Campbell), Wilma Oram (Young)*, Betty Pump (Clarke)
*POW nurses, not Empire Star.
That was all we were able to take, just what we could carry. When we got to the wharf, an air attack was in progress and we were not able to go on the ship for some time. When we boarded the ship we were told to go down into the hold, which was to be our home until we arrived in Java.

"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."

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A miracle of seamanship...
"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:
George MedalMBE
"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 protect 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 left)).


Margaret Anderson (O'Bryan)
was awarded the George Medal
Margaret (Setchell) Hamilton continues: "The rest of us who were down in the hold did all we could to set up a camp hospital on the ship. We had very little equipment but we looked after the 37 wounded as well as we could.

"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 cigarette tin. I also remember during the worst of the bombing, one of the air force personnel who was on board passed around a bottle of whisky which we all just drank neat."(Regarding the food supplies, Captain Murray's report states: "The ship did not carry anywhere near the quantity 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 bombed-out waterfront warehouses.")
Empire Star hold

"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."

At this stage our second miracle occurred...
"On the day we left Tanjong Priok it was so overcast that the sky and the sea almost seemed to be one. There was absolutely no visibility for the planes. So we continued right to Fremantle without anything further happening to us."

Fremantle at last!
"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!"

Public Reaction.
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.

Return to Singapore...
Margaret Hamilton returned to Singapore from Labuan, Borneo, in 1945 to assist in the repatriation of "our girls and boys".

The 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 Empire Star.  One is of my brother Tony and I sitting on the floor with other children in a darkened cabin.  There was a lady (not my mother) lying on a bed looking at me.  The occasion was the giving of Christmas presents to children on the ship, and someone (I understood it to be the Captain) opened a sack and
handed out little presents.  The only present I recall was a comb
that I was very proud of.  My understanding is that the Empire Star had brought Christmas toys to Singapore in its cargo but had not unloaded them in Singapore, and that the Captain had decided to give some of them to the children on board.  My next memory was of looking over the rail and seeing the ship towing a large flat raft.  This may have been in Batavia harbour during repairs, but at the time I thought we were under way.

The last memory is of my mother, father (who was a lieutenant 
in the RNVR seconded to the ship as an 'additional officer') 
Tony and I going to dinner and finding the dining room absolutely packed out, with tables and chairs full of people in the lobby
outside the dining room.

My mother, Tony and I had been put on Empire Star by 
Bishop Wilson, the Bishop of Singapore.  Father - who had been a rubber planter and then businessman in Malaya before the war - had been the First Lieutenant of a minesweeper which was sunk, and had been given orders to join Empire Star by his CO, Captain Mulock, RN, Head of Extended Defences.  Father was in Naval
Intelligence, ending the war as Personal Assistant and 
Chief of Staff to the
Australian Director of Naval Intelligence, Commander RBM Long.

We remained with Empire Star until disembarking in Fremantle on 23 March 1943.


    My name is John R Gibbs and I was evacuated from Singapore on board 'The Empire Star', these are my recollections and also some photographs that I managed to take during the voyage.

    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 continuos 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 Star: civilians, British and Australian servicemen, with and without their rifles. Civilians had abandoned their large luxury cars on the dockside and black 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 bombingTroops on deck 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!
 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

Jean Floyd flew to the unpaved Lahat air strip (Sumatra) in 1945 with Anne Sage to meet the newly released POW nurses and get them back to hospital in Singapore.


Other related Links
Vivian Bullwinkel  .  The Wah Sui Incident  .  Wilma Oram Young  . The prisoners of Rabaul  .  J.E. Simons  . 
Jessie Blanch  .   Betty Jeffrey  .  Tributes  . Lest We Forget  .  Vunapope Mission  . 
The Vyner Brooke sinking  .  The Bangka Island massacre  .  The Tol Plantation massacre  . 
 Civilian nursing teams in Vietnam  .  Blue Star Line
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Further Reading:
"Guns and Brooches" - Jan Bassett (Oxford University Press, Australia, 1992)
"On the Duckboards" - Gwynedd Hunter-Payne (Allen & Unwin, 1995)
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