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Touched by an angel

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BerichtGeplaatst: 26 Apr 2007 20:57    Onderwerp: Touched by an angel Reageer met quote

Touched by an angel

Matthew Fynes-Clinton

April 23, 2007 12:00am
Article from: The Courier-Mail

IN THE field hospitals of World Wars I and II, the scene was not uncommon: semi-conscious soldiers, ravaged by wounds or disease, lifting their eyelids and asking: "Are you an angel?"

It was always, of course, a case of mistaken identity – but not by much.

In their voluminous, full-length uniforms and starched white veils, the divine appearance of Australia's pioneering military nurses was matched by a saintly devotion.

And fleshed out by old-fashioned grit and guts.

Time and again, the women were unflinching as they buzzed between patients, bombs raining down, in the face of impossible caseloads.

In one 24-hour period at a World War I casualty clearing station in France, 3000 patients were admitted. During the same conflict, in the Middle East, Australian nurses lived in underground shelters infested with bugs and endured, on the one hand, dry heat and desert dust storms and on the other, the bitingly cold climates of Palestine and Syria.

In World War II, and under attack, they threw themselves over injured infantry to save them from further damage, and probable death. Some nurses became prisoners of war. Others, murdered in cold blood by the Japanese, died without a whimper.

In spite of the hardships, Australian-trained nurses roundly won acclaim for their deft therapeutic skills. But as patient advocates, they were even more valuable: listening, comforting, soothing away the ills of war.

"They were the epitome of the care-giver," says Wendy Taylor, state president of the Defence Service Nurses RSL sub-branch.

Without knowing it, they were also beacons of hope. "Soldiers saw in the nurses their mothers, their sweethearts, their sisters, the women they'd left behind," Taylor says.

"The men put them on pedestals . . . they were worshipped."

The trail was blazed in the Boer War (South Africa, 1899-1902) by a melange of about 60 women. The New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve (formed in 1898 as the first official military nursing division of the Australian colonies) supplied 14 of the contingent. The rest were civilian nurses, either privately sponsored, raised through public appeal or volunteers who paid their own way. Only one of the group, Sister Frances Hines, from Victoria, did not return home. She died of pneumonia.

By World War I (1914-1918), the post-Federation Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) had been established as a component of the Army Medical Corps. More than 2100 nurses were posted overseas, many serving on the front lines of the battlefields. Seven were awarded the Military Medal for bravery under fire. Twenty-five were killed.

Sadly, says Taylor, World War I nurses are not exactly on the radar when most Australians call the Anzac legend to mind. The right foundations were never there – the women were denied badges of rank and paid no more than a private soldier.

"And when they got home, a lot of them discharged and never nursed again," Taylor says, "because of the injuries they saw, some of the things they had to do. They were traumatised and couldn't cope."

Nevertheless, World War II – spanning six years from 1939 – would involve 3477 Australian army nurses in service at home and abroad. Seventy-one lost their lives.

In 1940-42, air force and naval nursing services were also instituted, though they were initially far smaller entities (616 and 60 personnel respectively). Two flying nurses, Sister Verdun Sheah and Sister Marie Craig, died in separate air crashes in Papua New Guinea in late 1945, after the war had ended.

Two years earlier, at 4.10am on May 12, 1943, the Centaur, a clearly marked Australian hospital ship with lights ablaze, was infamously torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the southern tip of Moreton Island.

Although no patients were being ferried, only 64 of the 332 crew and passengers (including 75 navy seamen, 149 men of the 2/12th Field Ambulance, 12 nurses and 52 other medical staff) lived through the disaster. Just one of the nurses, Sister Ellen Savage, heroically survived.

"The other girls were sucked down – didn't have a chance," says Pixie Annat, honorary secretary of the Centaur Memorial Fund for Nurses.

"The ship sank, from top to bottom, in three minutes."

Between 1952 and 1955, 30 Australian army nursing officers served in Korea (AANS members were brought into commissioned ranks in 1943). Twenty RAAF nurses flew on crucial medical evacuations to hospital bases in Japan.

Over the course of the Vietnam campaign (1962-1973), the longest war the nation has participated in, 43 army nurses performed tours-of-duty and more than 100 of their RAAF counterparts tended the wounded on medical evacuations back to Australia, usually via Malaysia.

"A bad day was about 36 to 40 hours (of surgical casualties) straight," says Mackay-raised June Naughton, 66, an operating theatre nurse (1969-1970) with the 1st Australian Field Hospital in Vung Tau.

"There were a lot of blast wounds from mines, gunshot wounds, a lot of amputations, penetrating injuries to the abdomen, chest and head. Rather than any political thoughts, my feelings were that this shouldn't have to happen. It was just so futile."

Nurses in Vietnam earned only two-thirds the pay of any male army officer with the same rank. Throughout the army, women and men did not receive equal wages until 1979.

Female army doctors also saw active service for the first time in Vietnam, while women physiotherapists have been an element of military hospitals in war zones since World War II.

In more recent times, Australian military nurses have been deployed to a diversity of hot spots: Kurdistan, Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, Bougainville, East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Men, increasingly, are among their ranks – the army having accepted male nurses since 1972.

But for Wendy Taylor, a 56-year-old retired lieutenant-colonel and one of four Australian army nurses to go to the Gulf War, it's her World War II sisters – their number dwindling at the rate of about 10 a year – who set the benchmark.

About 24 of them remain in Queensland, the "baby" of the group aged 90. Many are in aged care, but a few insist of hanging on in their own homes. Most are alone.

"They had to be single and a minimum age of 25 to join the army," Taylor says. "So when they came back, a lot never married because they were older. And also because the average (returning) soldier could find somebody who was fresh, rather than marry somebody who had the same problems that he had."

The irony is that these women may well have turned into exceptional partners. Why wouldn't they?

Says Taylor: "They are strong, resourceful and caring – still.",23739,21600192-3102,00.html#
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