This page is based on an interview between Barb Angell and Thelma Bell McEachern, videotaped in the latter's home on 28th January 1999, plus extracts from Mrs McEachern's war diary for the year 1942
Out of the total number of Australian nurses who were caught in Singapore during the Japanese advance in WW2, six were evacuated with their patients aboard the Wah Sui, a further 63 plus 3 physiotherapists boarded the Empire Star which, after a hair-raising journey, finally made it back to Australia and 65 nurses boarded the ill-fated Vyner Brooke, which was sunk by the Japanese off the coast of Sumatra. The following story is about the fate of the nurses who left Singapore aboard a non-naval Chinese vessel called the Wah Sui.
Thelma Bell McEachern
One Saturday, 14th February 1942, six young Australian Army nurses came to a stark realization. After going through hell and high water to save their patients - 450 severely wounded Aussie and British soldiers on the rust bucket Wah Sui, their British allies had deserted them. Having already survived the evacuation of Malacca then Singapore, here they were again in the direct path of advancing Japanese forces. Batavia (now Djakarta, Indonesia) was where they found themselves abandoned.
The Malacca hospital stood like a beacon on a hill above the village. It was a large edifice known locally as The White Elephant, but though it was built to be a hospital, Thelma commented that it did not come anywhere near to Australian standards. Facilities were primitive and the unit was poorly supplied. The nurses were challenged, improvising, making do with local materials and equipment, but when they tried to deal with the locals they met an alien culture unacquainted with their ways. The nurses were unprepared for this and none of them could speak the language. Misunderstandings were inevitable.
Their general health deteriorated from working in the tropics, but the nurses kept on because there was too much to do. Maybe to fill in time or possibly to guard against later problems, Thelma wryly observed, the medicos performed tonsillectomies and circumcised any man who still owned the applicable bit of anatomy. Hundreds of operations meant hundreds of patients for the nurses. Resultant tropical infections and other complications kept the women busier than they should otherwise have been. Skin diseases developed and the soldiers fell victim to malaria, dengue fever and other bugs. "I once saw a tape worm a metre long, " said Thelma.
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Not everything was hard work of course. Off-duty nurses were invited out by the colonial "gentry" as well as by the military. They partied as much as any group of nubile young Aussies from any era. The parties helped to cushion the women's stress - but nothing in their wildest imagination could prepare them for what lay just ahead.
On Christmas Day 1941 the nurses in Malacca got news that the Japanese were coming through Burma. It was claimed that hospitals had been attacked there and nurses raped. Patients had been murdered. Colonel Albert Coates (commanding officer of the AIF 8th Division which the nurses had accompanied aboard the Queen Mary) expressed an opinion that the Malacca nurses would be "trapped like flies" during a Japanese advance. But to the higher authorities the hospital seemed ideally placed just far enough away from Singapore, the expected Front Line, for the wounded to be moved up there for treatment. Evacuation from Malacca was therefore delayed until bombs and shells were actually falling.
During their retreat the 2/10th AGH kept stopping to establish field hospitals and attend to increasing numbers of wounded only to pack up again for a further move. Sleep was nearly impossible. "At night the whole place shook. I was doing night duty and you couldn't sleep during the day for the bombing and you couldn't work properly at night because we didn't have enough staff." Thelma and colleague Vi Haig were woken one day from a rare rest to find the side of the house missing and themselves trapped under the wreckage. This trauma might have cracked the nerve of lesser women but they soldiered on, though Thelma admits that from that day it was hard for her to go into any confined space. "Once we were caught in an air raid shelter with the dust all coming down on top of us," she shuddered, "After being in that house when it was bombed I couldn't stay inside."
They reached Singapore and became involved in the shambles of the evacuation. "Our group nursed in a girls school in Singapore, the Methodist School, we set up a hospital there. I was on night duty and had 150 patients in that night and only one orderly. I was so tired I wasn't game to sit down." Things were really hotting up. "You'd see the men coming off the road from battle, holding their hands or their arms where they'd been hit. Half the time it wasn't ambulances bringing them in, they were coming in by themselves." Between them the 2/10thAGH (Army General Hospital) and their comrades in the 13th AGH and the 2/4th CCS (Casualty Clearing Station) were nursing around 10,000 men.
Thelma's diary records that on 7th February, a Saturday "The Japanese blitzed the island with their long range artillery. Worse than any bombs. The noise and vibration was terrific, earth torn up in all places. 4 casualties at B Section: 1 orderly and 1 Private killed, 2 others injured. Dot Freeman had a narrow escape." (Sr R.D. Freeman was to die later in a Sumatra POW camp). Quickly the nurses established additional casualty stations. Thelma was involved in opening up "a lovely home just left to the mercy of this world" which became C Section and immediately admitted 50 more patients.
On the Monday they got news that the enemy had landed on the northwest coast under cover of heavy shelling. "Casualties came rolling in, some pitiful sights, 350 of them. I worked to a very late hour and slept on the ground. More shelling during the night."
Next day word came that six of the nurses were to be ready within 15 minutes to board one of the makeshift hospital ships. The six would eventually be Aileen Irving (Charge Sister), Veronica Dwyer, Vi Haig, Iva Craig, Molly Campbell and Thelma Bell (McEachern). Matron O.D. Paschke R.R.C gave clear instructions: they were to take as many men as they could, stay with their patients no matter what might happen and get them to safety. Matron Paschke was destined to die at sea only a few days later, one of the victims of the Vyner Brooke sinking - but those of her nurses who survived would continue to obey her orders.
LtoR: Molly Campbell, (Adelaide host), Von Dwyer, Thelma Bell 1942
At the time of Paschke's visit, Thelma was on duty with Sr "Mitz" Mittelheuser. Thelma asked Paschke whether her best friend Molly Campbell was included in the six. Molly and Thelma had enlisted together and were inseparable. When the Matron confirmed that Molly was on the list, Thelma turned to Mitz and asked if she would mind swapping with her so that she could be with Molly. They agreed to toss a coin. Mitz lost, a dreadful twist of fate for her, because Sr P.B. Mittelheuser was destined to survive the sinking of the Vyner Brooke and the hell-camps of Bangka Island and Sumatra only to die a POW at Palembang barely 3 days after peace was declared. Unaware of the terrible irony, she apologised to her colleagues in the camp for "taking so long to die".
Next day they were on the move. The ship was displaying the Red Cross and when a Japanese plane flew over the pilot waved and ignored them, respecting the insignia. In this and many other ways they were luckier than the Vyner Brooke. Later that morning they passed close to a floating mine. One of the British soldiers died that day and was buried at sea. Meanwhile the nurses began to recognize that trouble lay ahead and it was trouble that had nothing to do with Japanese or mines.
Their patients were seriously ill. The nurses had deliberately chosen the most urgent cases for the first evacuation. Many wounds were infected but the Charge Sister, Aileen Irving, first sensed unexpected problems when she reported to the civil officers asking for the release of Red Cross supplies. She was refused. Thelma remembers: "The men were fed mostly tinned food, which was no good for them at all because they were so sick. And we weren't allowed to change their dressings because we were told there was a shortage. The stench was terrible and the men were in a lot of pain." She cannot recall the names of the doctors, only that they were British civilians. When they were asked for supplies the answer was always, "You can't have any of those. If the British can put up with it, why not the Australians" Yet there were Red Cross supplies aboard: medical and food. The nurses had to watch helplessly while civilian passengers were issued with the supplies, ate the food and drank the beer.
They boarded a crowded cattle train full of evacuees and arrived safely to be taken onto the Orcades bound for Colombo, six older and very much wiser nurses. On the voyage they continued to do their duty, nursing both soldiers and civilians.
Through the passing years Thelma came to acknowledge that their experience aboard the Wah Sui and immediately afterwards was typical of the chaos of war. Her regret is that the very traumatised nurses were never given any help to recover from their experience, neither were they allowed to talk about the incident publicly for fear of upsetting the British allies. "These days people get all this help. We were told to get on with it," then Thelma adds philosophically, "It made me handle life a lot better, I suppose."
In an article printed in AWAS magazine** Thelma says: "Naturally after we returned home there were various social occasions where we were expected to speak of our exploits. I have the feeling that it was Sr Molly Campbell (now Mrs Stenburg) she was a pretty forthright sort of person, who spoke out. The next thing was, we were told not to say anything. We were silenced! We were instructed to no longer relate such incidents as it was considered it would do nothing to help our relations with Britain, or help the war effort. And we let it stay that way, and let it be hushed up, as we felt that what happened to the girls in the prisoner-of-war camps*, and what they had gone through, was more horrific than what we had endured."
*See the articles on "The
White Coolies" and "Never Be Hungry, Never Be
**Australian Women's Army Service and Albury Area, edited by Desmond Martin for the Army Women's Service Club, Bandiana, first published November 1988.
Thelma Bell McEachern commenced her nursing training at the Albury Base Hospital where Matron Charlotte McAllister (later to become matron of the 115th AGH) encouraged all her nurses to join the Army Nursing Reserve. Thelma was later transferred to the Heldelberg Military Hospital just outside Melbourne (the 115th AGH) as a member of the AANS and in this capacity she was called to join the 2/10th AGH in 1941 along with her best friend Molly Campbell. Although arguably more highly qualified than army medical orderlies (who held non-commissioned officer rank) in 1941 members of the AANS had no army status. This was not accorded to them until 1943 when they were granted the rank of Lieutenant.
© Angell Productions Pty Limited 1999
"Guns and Brooches" Jan Bassett (Oxford University Press, Australia)
"On The Duckboards" Gwynedd Hunter-Payne (Allen & Unwin 1995)
Top of page
The Bangka Island massacre . The Tol Plantation massacre . Civilian nursing teams in Vietnam . J.E. Simons .
The Vyner Brooke sinking . Betty Jeffrey . Wilma Oram . Vivian Bullwinkel . The prisoners of Rabaul .
J.J. "Blanchie" Eaton-Lee . Margaret Setchell Hamilton . Lest We Forget . The Empire Star .
Other recommended links
Australian Nurses' Memorial . Women in World History . Australian War Memorial . AHS Centaur
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