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.
Fast 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. 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.