Our Vietnam Nurses by Annabelle Brayley

vietnam nurses
I’ve moved slightly out of order.

I read Our Vietnam Nurses before I started Minefields and Miniskirts. Originally I’d intended to writer a single article combining details of Sharon Bown’s speech, and the books I’ve read recently about military nurses. However I found there was too much for one post, so I decided to split that intended post into three.

The disadvantage I’m now facing is that my memory of this book isn’t as clear as I’d like it to be to do it justice.

Each chapter of Our Vietnam Nurses concentrates on a different group of nursing staff who served during the Vietnam war. The story is told more or less through their own words by the author, based on interviews she conducted with both military and civilian nurses.

This link gives access to a radio interview with the author that gives far better insight into the book and its content than I could give. : http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2016/06/09/4478666.htm


Minefields and Miniskirts by Siobhan McHugh

minefiledsRecently a friend closed down his second hand bookshop specialising in military books. I asked him if he had anything about military nurses. One of the books he recommended was Minefields and Miniskirts, a book about the experiences of thirty five women from various backgrounds who were  involved in the Vietnam War, including entertainers, journalists and consular staff as well as nurses.

In addition to inevitable references to the brutal human cost of battle, this book shows another dark side of a war zone; one of racism, gang rape and torture. Where women aren’t safe in their own camps , and even performing on stage to entertain the troops can be fatal.

…a young Australian had only been two weeks in-country when she was shot dead on stage.

A GI killed her by mistake. He was actually shooting at his commanding officer, and she came into the line of fire while she was performing and died instantly.

The book  also looks at the post war experiences of women, from health issues (PTSD, high rates of cancer, chronic illness, infertility, still births, early menopause…) and the lack of recognition of their service throughout the war.

Helen [Keayes] ran into Dr Peter Edwards, Australia’s official historian of the Vietnam era.

‘I said to him, “I was there. I was there for two years”, and he said, “That’s interesting”. And I said, “Well, aren’t you going to talk to me about it?” And he said, “oh no, I’m writing the official version of the war”.’

If the experiences of those in a war zone weren’t confronting enough, the families left at home have some of the saddest stories to tell.

Fom the loneliness of being left behind in military housing where the known absence of the “man of the house” could encourage prowlers intent on disturbing the wives and children of serving soldiers; to the changed personality of returned servicemen. Once gentle and amiable men turned violent and withdrawn, their newly expressed hostility often being picked up and mirrored by their children.

At first the children shrank from Tom’s outbursts, but the, Beryl realised to her horror, they started imitating him.
‘Instead of living with one Vietnam veteran, it was like I had three…’

As a Christian, I was saddened by one of the experiences described in the book, where some of those affected by the war in Vietnam confess to a loss of faith and an inability to continue believing in God.

“…I don’t believe in God anymore after my personal tragedy…”

While I can understand that loss, I see it results from an inadequate understanding; based on a belief that God’s primary function is to take care of us and keep us all from harm – that He should be at our beck and call to ensure the well-being of mankind. That in some way His existence is conditional upon the beneficence of the world around us. In other words, if terrible things happen, then God can’t exist.

But I see things in a different way. It’s up to us to conform to GOD’s ways and not for Him to dance to our tune, fixing the problems mankind causes. And it is mankind’s abandonment of God (as He GENUINELY is) that lead to the atrocities of war as well as the everyday, more mundane risks we face throughout life.

“I have worn their blood”

The words of a military nurse inspired my year and a half interest in the wars of the past century. I saw them at the Australian War memorial when I visited for the first time since the 1980s

They were printed on the wall near to a large painting by Ben Quilty  in the Afghanistan exhibition. I’d gone to the memorial primarily to see that painting. I’ve now been back many times, and those words haven’t lost anything despite becoming so familiar.

They come from a predawn service address given by Wing Commander Sharon Bown on Anzac Day 2104 at the War Memorial.  The full quote from her speech is:

I have awaited their return and tended their wounds, never able to fully comprehend the darkness of man that they encountered upon their journey.  I have witnessed their adrenaline fuelled highs of survival and their immense depths of despair at the loss of a mate.  I have laughed reservedly at the often black-humoured stories of soldiers who photograph their legs before a patrol, just in case they never saw them again; and faced the reality of their need to loosely wear a tourniquet on each limb, ready to stem the almost inevitable haemorrhage that could end their life.  I have been privileged to hear of unimaginable acts of bravery and self-preservation; and I have stood by silently to attempt to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart.

I have worn their blood.

So many of us have worn their blood.

Those last two sentences still give me goose-bumps in their graphic, yet poetic simplicity in summarising the personal cost and horror of military conflict. The cost to the combatants, but also to those tasked with (literally) putting the human pieces back together again.

My experience described above happened in the lead up to the Anzac centenary. It initiated my curiosity about the meaning of the commemoration and set me on the path to satisfy that curiosity. My journey through the Anzac story has regularly taken me back to that starting point and the experiences of those who “wore” the blood of others. (see  https://outshadows.wordpress.com/category/nurses/)

I’m now impatiently awaiting release of Sharon Bown’s book One Woman’s War and Peace : A Nurse’s Journey Through the Royal Australian Air Force due for release towards the end of the year.


one womans war

The full speech by Wing Commander Bown can be read here:



The Other Anzacs, by Peter Rees

Other AnzacsThe Other Anzacs is the story of some of the ANZAC heroes of World War 1, who weren’t given the official recognition they deserved.

They are the nurses who travelled across half the world to do what they could for the “British” war effort. Unable to take up arms, they dedicated themselves to saving the lives of the victims of battle and disease, and were confronted daily by countless deaths and unspeakable battle wounds.

The book draws heavily on the personal accounts of the nurses, using their diaries and letters to find a way into their experiences and their emotions.

The book was adapted into a recent TV series Anzac Girls, and a paperback edition of the book was released under that new title. I bought the paperback edition and then watched the series before reading the book. Before I was able to get around to the book I found a hardcover edition, signed by the author, in an antiques and collectables shop. I bought it and gave the unread paperback to my mum.
anzac girls
The series chose to concentrate on only five of the nurses from the book, but they gave a good representation of the general nursing experience throughout the war. Watching the series didn’t detract at all from the later reading experience.

One aspect of the book that interested me was finding out the many local references. I found several of the nurses had links to nearby places I know. That gives me some interesting possibilities for further study. I even found that one of them lived nearby after the war and is now buried in the cemetery less than half a kilometre from my home.

While the men they nursed recognised the worth of their work, from the beginning the nurses had to contend with a bureaucracy that didn’t want women involved in that kind of war work. And yet the women soon had an effect, at times having to literally build up hospital facilities from scratch with very limited supplies.

Grace Wilson's medals

Grace Wilson’s medals

Matron Grace Wilson (see photo on book cover) found patients having to lie out in the open on the Island of Lemnos when she and her nurses were transferred there to establish the closest hospital to the Gallipoli battle front. The nurses even had to resort to tearing up clothing to provide bandages.

Peter Rees writes that on Lemnos “The conditions were probably the worst experienced by any nurses during the war.” But despite that Wilson and her nurses were able to create a hospital that was able to keep death rates to a minimum.

Despite their essential work the sacrifices they made and the dangers they faced, the nurses (considered officers in rank) were only paid a fraction of what the orderlies working for them received. Likewise, after the war they were denied any of the entitlements that were offered to returned servicemen which included financial help with housing loans. Rees writes ” Authorities in Australia saw the nurses’ role as secondary to that of the soldier.” He later adds “Australia was slow to acknowledge the nurses who served in the war. This was belatedly rectified in October 1999 when a memorial to Australian nurses who served in all wars was unveiled on Anzac Parade in Canberra.

nurses memorial, Canberra

nurses memorial, Canberra