It was August 14th 1945, the Japanese had surrendered, and the long WAR HAD FINALLY ENDED.
I had been working as a nursing Sister in the AIF (Australian Imperial Forces ) 2/2 AGH (Australian General Hospital) but was transferred south to Holland Park on the outskirts of Brisbane as was told they were short staffed. Back in 1942 we returned from the Middle East our hospital was sent up to Watten Siding 18 miles from Hughendon in Queensland, reputedly the front line of communication for sick troops from Darwin, Brisbane and Townsville if Australia was invaded. After nine months there a cyclone and floods hit our hospital. The hospital was all tents, our lines were demolished and the patients in the wards (bigger tents) sick and all had to get out of bed and hold down the centre poles. We were right on the railway line, but were isolated for five days until the powers-that-be decided to move our hospital even though builders had started to build a new hospital. We were sent up to Rocky Creek on the Atherton Tablelands in Far North Queensland where a big tent hospital was ready for us. We were there for two and a half years.
Holland Park had been an American hospital and, as I recall, it meant lots of walking with miles of ramps between the buildings and was very different from my wartime experience of the AGH, which was in tents when we were on the Suez Canal, Watten Siding and Rocky Creek. My indoor uniform of scarlet woollen cape, grey linen dress, starched white collar and cuffs, and white muslin veil was kept as crisp and clean as the climate and work allowed, but the memory of all of this is scarlet and is burned into my brain and I still love the uniform. On 14 August, 1945, I remember being on evening duty and hearing much noise in the streets, and asking what was it all about and was told that war had ended At the time I was very busy with many sick patients, and did not have much time to think about it.
Recently I was told that the 2/2 AGH was to have been moved overseas, probably to New Guinea, but the Japanese surrendered and we had wondered why many of our Sisters were moved to other hospitals some in other states.
A few days later, just as I was giving an enema to a poor chap, a Sister poked her head around the door and said she had a telegram for me. She said it was from my mother in Adelaide, and read it out to me. The telegram said that my mother had received a letter and a cable from Manila, and requested could I ring her straightaway. All I could think about, and hoped, that it was news about Lance, my boyfriend. My brain froze and I just felt that I couldn’t go on with my work, and I just could not concentrate. I was conscious of my patient, the poor man, but I immediately knew the news had to be from Lance, who I had learned some time earlier was a Prisoner of the Japanese, but we had no other news about him for three and a half years.
I knew he was a Prisoner of War and one day, late in 1942, I had just arrived back in Adelaide on leave from Hughendon at 9 am and my Dad, a news addict, told me that shortwave radio would be broadcasting names of Japanese Prisoners of War at 11am. I was relieved to hear Lance’s name read out as this was the first time we’d heard his name mentioned. I immediately rang his people in Victoria who invited me to visit their farm, which I later did a couple of times in February and November 1943. This was good of them as they didn’t know me at all.
Lance and I had met in Adelaide and travelled to the Middle East together before the Japanese entered the war and before I was sent to the 2/2 AGH. He had been captured in Java and I had written to him three times a month for the three and a half years he was in captivity as letters could be sent twice a month through the Red Cross and once through the Vatican (which I did regardless of our religion). I later learned that he had not received any of them, and of course I received none. If the letter and cable was from him at least now I knew he was alive.
I said to the Sister “Please take over even if you are not in this ward”, which thankfully she did, and I raced over to my room, changed, and hitched a ride in an ambulance to the Brisbane GPO, only to find there was an eight hour delay to make telephone calls interstate. I was frantic and in tears, and rang my dear little Aunt Elsie in a suburb in Brisbane who reassured me and said not to worry as she was sure that my mother would contact me. She was quite right and at five thirty next morning before I went on duty my mother rang me and read the cable. The cable was from Lance and suggested cryptically “I will be off where I think you are about your birthday”. I was elated and overjoyed, and it really sank in then that war had finally ended.
Half of the Holland Park hospital medical staff was from the Australian Army and half was British Navy. One of the British Naval doctors had been a house surgeon at the Adelaide Hospital when I did my nursing training. I showed the cable to George and he said “Give it to the boys and tell them the date of your birthday”, and within half an hour I was told he would be coming home on the aircraft carrier, HMS Formidable, and that is exactly what happened.
The powers that be, probably the Matron and Commanding Officer, would not give me leave to meet him and I was told we were too busy. Lance finally went ashore in Sydney and then went on to Melbourne by train, and home to the family farm at “Brookdale” in Northern Victoria. It was another two months before I was discharged from my hospital at Holland Park and was returned to my home state of South Australia.
Lance and I of course made contact by letter and we wrote to each other frequently and he told me that he had been putting on weight at two pounds a day for some time and was very flabby fat. In one early letter he wrote that he had changed. I rang my dear little Aunt Elsie again and wailed, “Has he got one eye, one leg or what?” I was so worried. Again her advice was calming and wise and she said “Why don’t you ring him, it would only cost five bob on a Sunday and you being in the Army.” It was wonderful to hear his voice, but how had he had changed? The words came back over the line, “I have a moustache!” Later when he came over to Adelaide to meet my people it soon came off. I did not like it.
After my discharge from Holland Park in November, 1945, I had to pass through Melbourne to reach Adelaide and Lance met me at the train in Melbourne. I was reminded that I had to report to the Matron in Chief. We were all terrified of her, but when I reported to her, she surprised me and said, “You poor girl, engaged to this POW, you shall have home leave. Go round to Swanston Street Army offices to get the papers”. Imagine my relief and joy when I was given a fortnight’s leave to go and meet Lance’s people with him and see his home in Victoria. We could not afford a car, so Geoff Mitchell offered to take us as he was taking his fiancée to meet his people in Echuca and could drop us off at “Brookdale”.
In 1939 when the war broke out, we nurses were very keen to join up but nurses had to be aged twenty-five to be eligible to go into the army as nursing sisters and go overseas. Because I was only 23 I had to wait first for my 25th birthday in October, 1940 and then to be called up so I did not join the Army Nursing Service until June 1941. Once I enlisted I was sent up to Woodside Camp Hospital, which was located in the hills north of Adelaide. Many of the troops were sent there on their way to the Middle East.
Lance Gibson and Jack Prentice were two nice looking young Lieutenants who used to go down to Adelaide each weekend and take out girlfriends. This particular weekend, even when their funds were pooled, they did not have enough money, so they had a bright idea and rang the Matron of our small camp hospital to see if they could take a couple of Sisters to the local free picture show. Jeannie Read, my best friend, and I were the only two Sisters off duty at the time, so we duly went along. We subsequently went out three or four times together, but Adelaide was full of army and air force men to take us out, and we did not go to the same night clubs, and they had many girlfriends. So I didn’t expect to see him again. We all went on pre embarkation leave then worked for a while in a suburb of Adelaide, in the area that is now the Adelaide Showground.
Eventually we nursing sisters finished up at Concord Army Hospital in Sydney doing what was called staging or waiting to go on board a ship. We were allowed out of the hospital at 9a.m. each day and had to report back at 11 p.m.at night. Every other day we would see either the Queen Elizabeth or the Queen Mary sail into the harbour as both could not fit in together at the same time.
One morning when we reported, all leave was cancelled, and we were loaded into trucks and driven down to the wharf where we were taken onto the Queen Elizabeth, and straight down to Boat Deck and given boat drill with all our equipment. I fainted, some thing I have never done before or since. I was taken straight up to my cabin and slung up in my two tiered bunk (six bunks to a cabin). Jeannie who was a plump boisterous person went off down to dinner and came bounding back to tell me she had met Lance. Said she slapped him on the back and said “Hello Lance” and he said “Hello Jean, where’s Mary?” and she never let me forget it. Lance and I had three wonderful weeks on the Queen Elizabeth. I was working every other day and Lance was working four hours on and eight hours off supervising and training sessions on the “ack ack” anti-aircraft machine guns on the sundeck.
Eventually we reached Port Tewfik, Egypt at the bottom of the Suez Canal. The Sisters were taken off first, but we had no idea where we were going, as things were very secretive in those days. We were put on a freezing cold dirty sooty rattley little old steam train and rattled up over the Suez Canal to Gaza where we stayed at 2/1 AGH for about a fortnight.
I found that we were only six miles from Lance and 2/3 Machine Gun Battalion, so Jeannie and I would hire a taxi and go out and collect Lance and another friend, Frank Burgess. One evening it was raining hard and the driver stopped half way out and demanded his money. We were so scared we gave it to him. But all was well in the end.
The four of us saw Jerusalem and Bethlehem together. We were not allowed to become engaged or married, as I would have been sent home so Lance bought me a ring in Jerusalem so he said we were unofficially engaged. He also gave me a half sovereign which an aunt had given him, put a hole in it and hung it beside my dead meat ticket, so I wore it all the time around my neck.
Once the Japanese attacked the Americans at Pearl Harbor all troops and nurses except for the 9th division was packed up to come home. We came home on the Strathallan. Lance and his men all went to Java, and were taken as Japanese Prisoners of War. After two years he and others were put on a rusty old ship filled with bauxite and set off for they knew not where. Their ship nearly turned over in a typhoon, so in Formosa they were transferred to a nice new merchant ship. There were eight ships in the convoy, and Commander Richard O’Kane of the United States submarine TANG sank four Japanese ships in eight minutes. Lance was on the second ship, The Tamahoka Maru, when it went down, he went down with it,came up and got caught in the rigging and went down again. It happened at midnight and they were in the water for twelve hours.
Seventy two Australians survived out of two hundred and fifty seven, and Lance was the only Australian officer to survive. They were taken into Nagasaki and he was there for about nine months .Then the three surviving English speaking officers were put on a ship, then a train, and found themselves in CampHoten in Mukden, Manchuria and were released by the Russians.
After they were released it was two months before he got back to Australia so I had a long wait before seeing him. When I returned to my home state of South Australia I was posted to 121AGH and found myself nursing a whole ward of 2/3rd Machine Gunners, Lance’s men. They had been told we were officially engaged. They looked me up and down and said “We know Lance and we don’t know you and he is alright”. Fortunately I knew their sergeant and so I was accepted.
We eventually married, and came to live on the farm. This was a trial at first as I was a city girl, first at boarding school at aged eight, then three years nursing training and three months at the Children’s Hospital, then nursing in the army. I could not drive and our farm was ten miles from the nearest town. . I couldn’t cook or do housework as pre-war in my childhood I had little experience of domestic home life. We always had a cook and housemaid as my father was a country doctor, and also I was seldom home from boarding school. As a newly-wed I found I had to cook for shearers so my sister-in-law said to make a sultana cake, which I did and burnt it a quarter of an inch all round on the awful old wood stove. I promptly cut the burnt off and took it down to the shearing shed. And the oldest shearer quite made my day as he said “Best b!! cake I’ve tasted”.
However I have survived and so has Lance. Counselling was unheard of in those days. Relatives were told on no account talk about the POW experiences to the POW’s, or let them talk about it .Lance and I did not know this and have always discussed it. Several wives brought their husbands to see Lance and encourage the men to talk about their POW days . In 1981 one of the POW’s from Queensland came to visit us so we decided to ask twenty local POWs for lunch. It was a wonderful day and so successful we held it for the next twenty three years .Up to 70 POW’s with their wives and sometimes children came from all states t o our farm, which was ten miles from the nearest town. We had a young local butcher, Gary Shaw, cook a lamb and chooks on a spit, with roast potatoes and gravy, and the local Hall committee would do salads and sweets( the usual wonderful country cooking). I was most amused when Gary said to me “ Mrs Gibson, those old boys they say I’ll have that bit of skin with the fat on and that bit of fat, and they pile the salt on”. Unfortunately they have grown older, or have passed on and unable to travel so far.
Lance and I will both be aged 90 in a month or two and have had a wonderful 58 years marriage. I now have a laptop in my kitchen on the farm and email people all over the world including the son of the chap who sank Lance and Yang Jing in Mukden, Manchuria who has done a documentary with Chinese TV on Camp Hoten where Lance was a prisoner in Manchuria. Lance tells people that the reason why he has lived so long is that he has been in bed with a nurse the past 58 years.
Written by Mary Gibson 2005