This woman’s war

Betty Jeffrey must have been destined to live a long life. It’s hard to believe luck alone could have seen her through so much. Take the time she was sterilising instruments on a primus stove in a marquee on a tennis court in Malaya, where she was nursing wounded Australian troops in 1942.

She’d delayed taking cover when shelling started because the instruments were about to boil. A piece of shrapnel came whizzing into the tent, heading her way. One of the men cried out to her and, because she turned her head to answer, the hot metal missed her skull and merely grazed her cheek. The resulting welt lasted weeks.

Later that day, she took the walking wounded to a trench for protection during shelling. She recalls, “They were there for quite a while, and I thought, ‘It’s quiet now; I’ll go out and do their dressings.’
“I was halfway across the lawn when this lone bomber came across very low, just above the tree tops, machine-gunning the ground all the way. I just held the instrument tray above my head; it had a cloth with a red cross on it. He turned the gun off as he passed over me and then on again.”

Jeffrey was one of a group of Australian army nurses and other women and children captured by the Japanese and starved in prison camps on Sumatra for three-and-a -half years. Part of her story is being retold in a new anthology, As We Wave You Goodbye: Australian Women and War, edited by historian Jan Bassett.

The anthology includes a chapter from Jeffrey’s 1954 book, White Coolies, in which she described her years as a prisoner-of-war. Bruce Beresford’s 1997 film Paradise Road is based partly on her diaries.

Jeffrey, now 90, is still living alone and independently (she never married) in her sunny flat in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. She is uncomfortable with this latest round of publicity, conscious that she was just one of many and reluctant to make much of things that, at the time, simply had to be taken in one’s stride. This was a group for whom duty and service were paramount. She says quietly: “Every one of those girls can tell you stories like this. We were really in the war.”

“Those girls” are the army nurses who served on Singapore with Jeffrey. Most were evacuated safely before it fell to the Japanese in February 1942, but Jeffrey and 64 others had to wait for a second ship, the Vyner Brooke. They were not so lucky. They were attacked two days out of Singapore.

Jeffrey remembers: “There were three (Japanese) planes. They (machine-gunned) the lifeboats before they attacked; they were close enough to see that the ship was full of women and kids.

“They got a bomb down the funnel and then the ship itself. The bridge burst open and it went down in minutes.” Jeffrey and her matron were last off the ship, helping others into lifebelts, lowering what was left of the lifeboats and throwing overboard those too frightened to jump.

She and another nurse who could swim, Iole Harper, spent the next few hours tying fellow survivors to bits of flotsam and teaching them how to paddle in the direction of the low blue line that was the shore, 16 kilometres away. Jeffrey remembers no fear, but looking back, she says, it’s clear they were all in a blessed state of shock.

Her matron and the women and children on the matron’s raft were swept out to sea and never seen again. “Matron could do everything except swim and row,” she says sadly. “Nobody knows how many drowned. There were no records in Singapore.”

Jeffrey and Harper made it to shore. They cursed the coastal mangrove swamps through which they swam and trudged for hours, almost eaten alive by insects. They struggled from one fallen treetrunk to another until one of the trunks slid into the water with a splash – it was a crocodile. Eventually they were found by locals who took them to a village, where they were picked up by a Japanese patrol.

“Something goes wrong in your mind; you remember the good bits and you forget the awful bits.”

It was much later that they heard of the slaughter of other Vyner Brooke survivors further up the coast. Japanese troops had ordered civilian women and children and 22 army nurses to walk into the sea. Then they machine-gunned them from behind. The lone survivor, army nurse Vivian Bullwinkel, later joined Jeffrey in a prisoner-of-war camp. A total of 32 in the camp of 300 or so were survivors of the Vyner Brooke.

Jeffrey had wanted to be an army nurse from the time she was 12; she remembers hanging out of a tree and telling a visiting auntie so. She says she had always been adventurous and sensed that nursing troops meant adventure. So she signed up for the army reserve the moment she completed her nursing studies in 1937, aware that war was looming and nurses would be needed. “I thought, if there’s going to be a war, I’ll be in it! And was I ever.” She was called up in 1941 and sent to Malaya and then Singapore.

Ask Jeffrey today what life was like as a prisoner-of-war and she remembers first the camaraderie, the laughter and the makeshift games and concerts the women invented to keep their spirits up. “Something goes wrong in your mind,” says Jeffrey, “you remember the good bits and you forget the awful bits.”

The bad things come back into focus after we sift through the physical mementoes of her war. They are packed away in a small leather suitcase tied up with string and include copies of the musical scores, photo albums and a small, stained exercise book she stole from the desk of a Japanese officer. She hid the book throughout her imprisonment, filling it with sketches of camp life, Malay words she was trying to learn and dozens of recipes: cheese croquettes, breast of veal, chocolate eclairs.

The recipes were an attempt to ease the hunger and thirst, she says: “You wrote the recipes, your mouth would fill with water, you’d swallow it and then you’d feel like you’d had something to drink. In one of the camps there were 300 of us and one tap; it had no handle and only dripped.”

The women subsisted on a couple of handfuls of rice a day, supplemented by vegetable rubbish left over from the locals’ market stalls. The Japanese would tumble the shovellings straight on to the dusty road outside the camp, leaving them there two or three days in the tropical heat. “They were rotten, absolutely rotten,” Jeffrey says. “No wonder we all got dysentery.”

Sanitary arrangements were, at best, primitive and, at worst, in the final camp, non-existent; the flowing river that delighted the women on first sight turned out to be the public latrine for the whole region – and they were at the end of the line.

They were refused medicines and there was death after death from malnutrition, infected tropical ulcers, beri-beri and tropical fevers. Nurses who were so ill they could barely stand nursed dying comrades, unable to provide them with even basic comforts. Of the 65 young army nurses who left on the Vyner Brooke, only 24 came home to Australia.

After liberation in September 1945, the women discovered a nearby Japanese storeroom was loaded floor to ceiling with Western food and medicines, and that fresh fruit was rotting on trees outside the camp.

Jeffrey returned to Australia gaunt, weighing less than 30 kilograms. She had “all the malarias” and tuberculosis. After having been separated from her family for four years, she was forced to spend another two in hospital recuperating. She was well for several years after this, but her health collapsed again in the ’50s.

What does she think now of the Japanese? Her face goes blank. “I don’t think about them. I just don’t think about them.”

She visited Japan as a tourist after the war: “I was told by one of the doctors who was also a PoW, ‘You’ve got to get this out of your system; go to Japan. It’s a beautiful country’. I went to Japan and loved it. It did get it out of me, the hatred.”
But, while her rational mental processes have been brought to heel, there are other avenues to memory she finds harder to block. Smells and sounds – cooking aromas and chatter from young Asian neighbors – can throw her back unexpectedly and most distressingly.

Looking back, she says, there are no choices she would have made differently, but there is one thing she would change if she could: “I would bring all those girls home, instead of them dying in the prison camp. Bonza girls, they were.”

First published in The Age.