The POW experiences of two Launceston nurses

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Second World War nurses Sister Jessie Elizabeth Simons of Nunamurra and Sister Shirley Gardam of Youngtown both trained at the Launceston General Hospital before serving together in Malaya in 1941.

With the advance of Japanese forces on Singapore the two Tasmanians evacuated the island on board the Vyner Brooke, with other nurses and refugees, for Batavia on 12 February 1942. On February 13 the Vyner Brooke was attacked by Japanese aircraft and on the following day dive bombed and sunk. Many of the passengers and crew drowned.

After hours and sometimes days in the water some of the survivors, including many of the nurses, made landfall on Japanese occupied Banka Island.  All but one who came ashore on Radji Beach were massacred by their captors. Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, being the sole survivor.

Others survivors from the Vyner Brooke, including the Launceston nurses Sister Simons who swam for 18 hours, and Sister Gardam, made it to shore on a different part of Banka Island.

Ultimately, sixty-five nurses were made prisoners of war in Palembang, Sumatra. 

After an incarceration of three and half years The Courier-Mail War Correspondent A. E. Dunstan was travelling in Sumatra with matron-in-chief of the Australian  Military Forces, Colonel Annie Sage, and Sister Jean Floyd of Caulfield when they received news that the Australian nurses were being assembled at Lahat.

During the flight to Lahat Sister Floyd expressed her excitement at the prospect of a reunion with girls she had trained with for the nursing service. Dunstan described the moment of reunion:

“I have never seen such joy as when Sister Floyd was met by a little group of Australian nurses at Lahat airfield. They dropped their tiny parcels of belongings to rush her and hug and kiss her”.

Colonel Sage also spoke of the experience:

“I shall never forget the sight of them… waiting at Lahat in their old, carefully preserved grey nursing uniforms with the rising sun badges”.

Twenty-four Australian nurse POWs survived incarceration, including Sister Simons but not Sister Gardam who died in April 1945. From Lahat they were flown to Singapore to recuperate. Three weeks later they boarded the Australian Hospital Ship Manunda destined for Australia.

Portrait of Sister Dora Shirley Gardam.

Sister Dora Shirley Gardam prior to her departure for overseas service. Sister Gardam died in Malaya in 1945 while a POW of the Japanese.
Source: Australian War Memorial, collection P00781.001.

Sister Simons was interviewed by The Mercury on her return to Tasmania in late October 1945. On speaking of her experiences as a prisoner of war in the Loevoek Lingar camp in Sumatra she said:

“There were things you couldn’t imagine, and I wouldn’t want you to know… It seems 1,000 years since I left Launceston”.