While History Passed, by Jessie Elizabeth Simons

Knowing that I love to read, whenever I visited Gloria’s family, her dad would hand me one of his very few books.

He’d served in the RAAF in Borneo towards the end of WWII and as a result disliked the Japanese.

I always thought he wanted me to read the book so I’d know why the Japanese were so contemptible. The book was White Coolies by Betty Jeffrey.
As politely as possible I resisted his attempts to “indoctrinate” me, so after a brief flick through the book I handed it back unread.

220px-paradiseroad1997posterFast forward a couple of decades, and not long after his death, I realised the book was probably something worth reading. By that time I’d heard more about the events it described. Unfortunately no trace of it could be found among his possessions and I regretted the lack of interest I’d shown over many years. If only I’d foreseen the interest I now have in the lives of military nurses.

White Coolies is Jeffrey’s account of her time as a prisoner of the Japanese, captured after the sinking of the ship, SS Vyner Brooke that was taking her and other nurses away from Singapore and its imminent capture by the Japanese army.
The story was adapted into the 1997 film Paradise Road

I haven’t yet obtained a copy of Jeffrey’s book. Maybe I need to get over the realisation that I could have obtained a hardcover copy, old but in good condition, that also had a few relevant, period news clippings slipped between its covers.history But I have come across other accounts of the same events such as On Radji Beach by Ian Shaw, a book I’ve had for a while but haven’t yet read and While History Passed by Jessie Elizabeth Simons, who was part of the same group of nurses held prisoner by the Japanese. I came across a second-hand, ex-library copy a few weeks ago. Until then hadn’t been aware of the book’s existence, so was willing to overlook its condition. (It seems a child decided a lot of the pages were too plain without their addition of colourful scribbles).

Simons tells her story of evacuation from Singapore as the Japanese were moving in, of the sinking of the ship taking her to safety and of her subsequent capture and imprisonment by the Japanese after surviving some time afloat at sea.

Others weren’t so lucky. Many drowned and those reaching shore first were rounded up and murdered by the Japanese. Men were taken into the jungle and bayonetted. The nurses were forced into the sea and machine gunned.

Simons survived three and a half years of the malnutrition and disease that claimed the lives of many of those imprisoned with her. She wrote:

“…the death rate soared to a new record, daily broken.
We had to dig graves, construct rough coffins and bury our own dead, often at the rate of three a day in our own circle of acquaintance. For mothers who had sacrificed from their own rations for the past two and a half years to give their children a better chance of coming through, Muntok camp was a grim, never-to-be-forgotten last stand against their children’s starvation. Far too many of them fought a losing battle; one woman saw four of her five children die within a week from the accumulated effects of malnutrition. Total war!

Somehow there were always a few flowers for the funerals, pathetic little processions of a few friends paying respects to one who had “gone before” – a banal phrase that leapt to new life and meaning as the half-dead wondered whose turn would be next.”

This was posted on 12th February 2017. I had intended it to be on  the 75th anniversary of the Vyner Brooke’s sinking, but somehow along the way I mixed up the dates. The anniversary was the 14th.

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7 Responses to While History Passed, by Jessie Elizabeth Simons

  1. Marleen says:

    Thoughtful ruminations and observations, Onesimus. In think current views on Japan could be similar to those on Germany. Germany was really messed up during WWII, as did Japan have real issues to an extreme. Since then, both have really reviewed themselves. I heard a Republican operative recently pop-poo criticism of Russia from Germany “because of Germany’s history.” So, never mind continuing and recent Russian history? Japan looked at their situation and has been our friend for an established time.

    Sadly, Japan has current difficulties of their own. But none of it is (generally) in the same realm of human rights abuses or any of that sort of thing.

    Not saying you don’t know that. I’m just commenting.

    I appreciate that you didn’t want to be prejudiced. I also can feel the pain over not being receptive to your father-in-law’s experience and offerings.

    • Onesimus says:

      While I can see how brutal the Japanese were to their prisoners in WWII, I’ve also read stories of how badly the Japanese troops were treated by their own country. As usual, it is the “little man” in the hierarchy who suffers for the ambition of those at “the top”. That’s the story of most, if not all wars.

  2. Marleen says:

    Thank you for the link to that series. It looks very interesting, and just knowing of it is informative. I’m not sure I’ll be able to access the recordings, but I’ll try further.

    I guess to some extent I was a little bit off topic earlier. I was largely thinking of how the leadership of Japan had been callous toward their own people at that time.

  3. Marleen says:

    I guess I felt like it would be an extension, an attitude toward people.

  4. Marleen says:

    I’ve seen a number of interesting documentaries on Japan before and during WWII and even with the dropping of the bombs there. I really wish I’d bought them as soon as I saw them (like on PBS, The History Channel when that channel was newer, Discovery, etc.). I’ve gone looking for them more than once and can’t find them. They don’t seem to be readily available if available at all any more. One I only caught part of, but it was conveying that the general public was being deprived of fair access to food and so on. Experiences of the bombs were portrayed through children’s art. I don’t think I’ve heard of this particular aspect of the whole matter before though; thank you for the audio piece.

    Also, so true… that “the little man” suffers when big dog wants him to or doesn’t care or pushes for the grasping at ambition.

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