FEPOW Memorial Church


Sister Pat Gunther, Australian Army Nursing Service (dec. November 2007)

Pat Gunther trained at the Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. Along with many of her companions who knew about the war in Europe she volunteered for the AANS, Australian Army Nursing Service, and was called up on 27th November 1940, transferring to the Camp Hospital in Tamworth NSW in early December. She returned to Sydney for embarkation leave preparatory to being posted overseas. She left Sydney on 4th February 1941 in a convoy which included the Queen Mary and Aquitania. They collected more troops in Melbourne and their nursing duties started. They called at Freemantle and continued the journey alone to Singapore arriving in February 1941 Ω.     

After arriving in Singapore they moved to Malacca, on the west coast of Malaya, where they set up their hospital, 2/10th AGH (Australian General Hospital) and a relatively pleasant existence prevailed. With the Japanese air raids on Singapore and Kota Bahru on December 8th 1941, they were evacuated to Johore Bahru near Singapore Ω.          

Casualties started arriving in large numbers. About the second week of January 1942, they were moved again, into Singapore, where the demands on the nurses increased again. In mid February, their principal matron received orders that half of the nurses were to be evacuated from Singapore. When she asked for volunteers to remain, as a body, they volunteered to stay Ω. The remainder were later ordered to leave on the ship Vyner Brooke. On February 14th, in the vicinity of Banka Island, Sumatra, they were sunk. Clinging to wreckage, later a life raft, the Japanese invasion fleet passed through them. Having seen the bonfire on the beach that signalled the arrival of the lifeboat, they were later picked up by the Japanese Ω. After being given their accommodation and food they were interrogated and marched into Muntok Ω.    

They were initially accommodated in the cinema with many others before being moved to a more permanent camp. Two more nurses joined them and then, wounded, Nurse Vivian Bullwinkel, the only survivor of the infamous Banka Island massacre. They then knew that of the original 65 nurses who had embarked on the Vyner Brooke, only 32 had survived Ω.

After some time at this camp, military personnel were transferred to Singapore. Details of what had befallen the nurses were given to an officer on the understanding that it should only be given to the nurses’ own CO. The nurses were very conscious of their vulnerability Ω. When the men had gone, the women were transferred to Palembang on Sumatra. Initially they were well housed since the Japanese were intending to use them as prostitutes. Using various ploys, they were able to avoid this. While visiting another house, which still had a radio, they learned that the other half of the original group of nurses, who had been evacuated to Australia, had arrived safely Ω. With the realisation that the nurses would not cooperate, they were moved to much poorer housing and slept on the floor Ω. In the permanent camp a routine of committees and organisation was established and Pat helped to earn a little from the drawings that she did Ω.

The following extracts have been taken from an incomplete audio tape entitled “Eastern Interlude”
ed: we have tried to make the tape more audible by electronic manipulation but in the process Pat's vocal characteristics have changed considerably.

After they arrived at the permanent camp, good news was mingled with the distress of searching for missing people Ω. The routine of camp became established and although difficult, life was manageable. The arrival of the Kempetai heralded the start of a much harsher regime Ω.

In September 1943, a message from the men’s camp warned of a camp move. In fact they only moved to the men’s camp and continued the routine of camp life, although the Japanese took all the best produce from their vegetable garden. In November, after a terrible sea voyage they arrived back at Banka Island Ω. With arrivals from other camps, lice and bed bug infestation became universal. Deaths began to increase from tropical diseases and malnutrition. They were later transferred back to Palembang and beyond to the “Coolie Lines” of a rubber plantation. Camp routine continued with burial parties becoming part of the established routine – four more nurses died Ω.

Of the 65 nurses who had assembled in Singapore in early 1942, only 24 were to return to Australia.

This recording was made by the Australian War Memorial in 1998 and we acknowledge our grateful thanks to them for permission to reproduce parts of it.

                                                   Listen to another recording