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lip top 10: extraordinary wartime women

sister racheal pratt circa 1918

Sister Rachael Pratt, c.1918

There were some extraordinary women who were a part of Australia’s wartime effort. With ANZAC Day upon us, and the media saturation of stories about the men lost at Gallipoli and Kokoda, I thought I would take a look at some women who may not have fought on the frontlines, but did a little more than nurse wounds.

1.Olive King
Olive King was born and raised in Sydney and served as an ambulance driver during World War I.  She started in Belgium, where she converted a lorry into an ambulance herself. In 1915 she joined the Scottish Women’s Hospital and was sent to a field hospital in France, then was moved to the Macedonian front in Greece. In 1917 she joined the Serbian army, again as an ambulance driver, and was awarded the Serbian silver medal for bravery for driving 24 hours straight to save people during the Great Thessaloniki Fire in August, 1917.

2. JoiceNanKivell Loch
Loch’s wartime work actually began in 1922 as an aid worker (with her husband) in Poland as part of the Quaker Relief Movement, moving from there to Greece to run a refugee camp. That work alone earned her medals from the President of Poland and the King of the Hellenes, but I promised you war stories, so here it is. She was awarded more medals from the governments of Poland and Romania for just casually saving a thousand Polish and Jewish children from the Nazis by leading Operation Pied Piper. No biggie.

3. Sister Vivian Bullwinkel
This is more a story of survival. During World War II she nursed in Malaya, but had to evacuate for Singapore as the Japanese troops advanced. Along with 65 other nurses she boarded a ship which was sunk. Twenty-two nurses survived, and they made it ashore along with others, and joined another group of people who survived a sinking. Japanese soldiers found them soon enough and killed the men. They made the nurses wade into the ocean, only to shoot them from behind. Bullwinkel was shot, but the bullet managed to miss all her internal organs. She played dead until the Japanese left. After hiding for 12 days with a gunshot wound, she was captured and spent three and half years as a prisoner. When did she die? The year 2000.

4. Sister Betty Jeffrey
Jeffrey was on the same boat as Bullwinkel and wound up in the same prison camp. Where her story differs, though, is that after the ship was sunk she and other nurses drifted in a life raft. But the raft was too heavy so she and three others jumped out and swam alongside it. The raft was caught in a current and taken out to sea but didn’t take them with it. They spent three days swimming through swamps and the ocean before being captured.

5. Sister May Hayman
Hayman had been in Papua since 1937, teaching at the mission school. She took charge of the hospital there in 1939. She managed to beat the Japanese advance in 1942 and went into hiding, but the story goes that she was betrayed and killed by the soldiers.

6. Sister Alicia Kelly
This woman wins a high five for ingenuity during World War I. She needed to find a way to shield her patient’s heads as bombs fell. A bedpan did the trick nicely.

7. Sister Joyce Tweddell
Joyce Tweddell was on the same ship as Vivian Bullwinkel and Betty Jeffrey, and also spent three and half years as a prisoner of war. Kind of in the same vain that Bullwinkel couldn’t be killed, no matter how hard people tried, Tweddell returned with an impressive list of diseases that couldn’t get the better of her – malaria, beriberi (which affects the nervous system) and chronic amoebic dysentery (yes, that’s as gross as it sounds). She returned, recovered, went back to dedicate a memorial in 1993 and had a building at the Royal Brisbane Hospital named after her.

8. Sister Sylvia Muir
Sylvia Muir is another who was on the sunken boat, the island and the prisoner camp. I would happily add another 20 women who experienced the same set of circumstances to this list – it’s a fantastic story of survival.

9. Sister Rachael Pratt
If you’re thinking about calling in sick to work because you have a touch of the flu, Rachael Pratt may have told you toughen up. While serving at a casualty clearing station in France in 1917, a German bomb exploded near her tent sending fragments of metal into her back and shoulders, puncturing a lung. She kept looking after her patients until the moment she collapsed. She survived, too.

10. Nancy Wake
Okay, I’m not sure if Nancy Wake is technically Australian, but she lived here from ages 2 to 16, so I’m claiming her because she’s awesome. She was living in France when World War II broke out and became a courier for the French Resistance. By 1943 she was number one on the Gestapo’s ‘Most Wanted’ list, so she must have been doing something right. She escaped France, trained as a spy for the British and went right on back.

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