As Japanese forces advanced on Singapore in early 1942 and the city was on the brink of falling, Fr Edward Rowles, senior Catholic chaplain at the Malaya Command Headquarters, visited Alexandra Road Hospital on 10 February.

There he found ‘the sick and wounded strewn all over the place. The electric power plant was already blown by our Sappers and the hospital was without proper sterilising facilities and then in the middle of the turmoil, the Nursing Sisters were ordered away to the centre of Singapore to await a ship to prevent them falling into the enemy’s hands. Many of the Sisters were in tears at leaving the wounded … I told them they must obey orders and go. The Authorities knew only too well that anyone falling into Japanese hands would have a rough time’.

Among the nursing sisters reluctant to leave Singapore and her patients in those final chaotic days was Irene Drummond, a dedicated and much-admired 32-year-old Australian army matron.

Many of the Sisters were in tears at leaving the wounded … I told them they must obey orders and go.

From a devout Catholic family, Drummond was educated at Catholic schools in Broken Hill and Adelaide, and went on to serve as a surgical sister before the war, earning a reputation among her colleagues for competence and compassion—qualities that would stand out during her later service with the Australian Army Nursing Service.

A ‘mother hen’

Drummond had been stationed in Singapore for a year by the time the city fell to the Japanese early in 1942. In the hectic conditions that prevailed in those final months and weeks, she distinguished herself by her steadfast dedication to her job. In January 1942, when the 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital was hastily moved away from invading Japanese forces in Johore Bahru, Malaya, to St Patrick’s School, Singapore, her calm, efficient leadership helped to ensure that the relocated hospital was operational again within 48 hours.

Describing his war experiences to the Catholic Weekly in 1945, Catholic chaplain Fr Lionel Marsden SM would recall an encounter with Drummond, using it as an illustration of how ‘Catholic medical personnel were always of great help to the hospital priests’:

On one occasion I had done one of those hurried emergency rounds, and was about to go to some other part of the hospital, when Matron Drummond drew my attention to one man who, she said, was a Catholic. I thought I knew my Catholics, so I checked the casualty lists, and found that he was not a Catholic.

However, Matron insisted, and based her assertion on the fact that the man had a Rosary round his neck. That settled all argument. The man was unconscious, so he was given Conditional Absolution and Extreme Unction.

Some time later he regained consciousness for a few moments, and on being questioned, in a whisper replied that he was not a Catholic, but his wife was, and had given him the Rosary before sailing from Australia.

When asked about his own affairs, he said he would like to become a Catholic before he died. That ‘operation’ was only a matter of minutes, and although he gave us many anxious moments during 15 months of convalescence, he eventually did get well, and came home with other survivors …

Drummond’s patience and kindness during these anxious times also endeared her to her fellow nurses, who would later remember her as a ‘mother hen that would fuss over her chicks’.

Paybook photograph of Major Irene Melville Drummond, taken on enlistment. (Photo: Australian War Memorial.)

A tragic evacuation

Throughout January, as the Japanese forces advanced, nurses were gradually evacuated from Singapore, and by early February, there were only 65 nursing staff remaining, including Drummond. Despite their pleas to stay with their patients, the nurses were forced to depart on the steamer Vyner Brooke on 12 February, along with 116 other passengers, mostly women and children. With no Allied air cover on the perilous voyage, the vessel was attacked by Japanese aircraft on 14 January off the coast of Banka Island, east of Sumatra.

As the boat began to take on water, Matron Drummond and Matron Olive Paschke of the 2nd/10th Australian General Hospital—the two most senior nursing staff on board—instructed the nurses not to abandon ship until they had first helped all the civilians to evacuate. Scooping up a small Chinese boy, Drummond eventually escaped in a lifeboat minutes before the Vyner Brooke sank. Twelve of the nurses (including Paschke) and some of the civilians died on board or were drowned as a result of the Japanese attack, but 150 passengers eventually made it ashore at Banka Island, which was already in Japanese hands.

Chin up girls. I’m proud of you all, and I love you all.

Drummond and 21 of her nurses were among those who came ashore at Radji Beach, along with a group of civilian women and children from the Vyner Brooke and 20 British servicemen from another sunken ship. While one of the ship’s officers walked to nearby Muntok to negotiate their surrender to the Japanese, Drummond convinced the civilian women and children to leave on foot for Muntok too, rather than wait for the Japanese to arrive at the beach—her foresight would save many of their lives.

The nurses stayed on the beach with the servicemen to tend to the injured, and not long after the civilians left, a Japanese officer and 20 soldiers arrived, separating the men from the women. The men were taken in two groups to a nearby cove, where they were shot and bayoneted. The 22 nurses and one remaining civilian woman were then ordered to walk into the sea, their backs to the soldiers. As they staggered into the waves, Drummond is said to have called out, ‘Chin up girls. I’m proud of you all, and I love you all.’ Matron Drummond was the first to fall as the soldiers gunned the women down.

Twenty-one nurses and the civilian woman were killed in the massacre. Nurse Vivian Bulwinkel, the only survivor among the women, was shot, but not fatally, and played dead until the soldiers had left the beach.

Three nurses of the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station evacuated on the Vyner Brooke. Only Sister Mavis Hannah (centre) survived the war as a prisoner of war in Sumatra. Matron Irene Drummond (right) was killed in the massacre on Banka Island, and Sister Dora Gardam (left) died on 4 April 1945 as a prisoner of war. (Photo: Australian War Memorial.)

Prisoners of war

After 10 days in the jungle, where she did her best to care for a seriously injured British soldier who had also survived the massacre, Sister Bulwinkel surrendered and was taken to the Palembang prisoner of war camp on Sumatra. There she was reunited with other survivors of the Vyner Brooke, including the 31 other nurses. Together they made a pact never to speak of what had happened on Radji Beach while still in captivity, so as not to endanger Bulwinkel, who was particularly vulnerable as a witness to the atrocity. (She would later go on to give evidence at a war crimes trial in Tokyo in 1947.)

But where are the rest of you?

Representing 27 different nationalities, the approximately 500 women imprisoned alongside the nurses at Palembang included nuns, doctors, teachers, and the wives and children of administrators and planters. Held captive by the Japanese for three and half years, the prisoners lived under gruelling conditions, suffering from tropical diseases and malnutrition. Eight more nursing sisters would eventually die in captivity.

In September 1945, when Annie Sage, Matron-in-Chief of the Australian Army Nursing Service, at last tracked down the 24 surviving nurses, she was shocked to find their numbers so depleted. ‘But where are the rest of you?’ she asked.

Australian Nurses 044480 1501
Nurses from 2/10th and 2/13th Australian General Hospital and one survivor (Sister Mavis Hannah) from the 4th Casualty Clearing Station, arrive—wearing their original uniforms—from Sumatra for repatriation in September 1945. They had survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke and three and a half years as prisoners of war. (Photo: Australian War Memorial.)

Throughout these difficult years, art and music—including sacred music—had become lifelines for many of the women, helping to lift their spirits and to bind them together as a community. (Their stories would later inspire the film Paradise Road.)

Give us patience to endure,
Keep our hearts serene and pure ...

Pat Gunther, one of the surviving nurses, was given basic drawing lessons by a Dutch religious sister. Gunther’s drawings are now kept at the Australian War Memorial, recording poignant images of daily life in the Palembang camp.

‘Dutch nun at the camp hospital, Palembang’, drawing by Pat Gunther. (Photo: Australian War Memorial.)

The words of the ‘Captives’ hymn’ also survive. They were composed by British prisoner of war Margaret Dryburgh, who with compatriot and fellow classical musician Norah Chambers formed and led the ‘vocal orchestra’ that rehearsed and performed new arrangements of orchestral works at Palembang as a way to lift the morale of their fellow prisoners and give them glimpses of beauty and hope in dark times. Women in the camp would gather to sing Dryburgh’s hymn each Sunday:

Give us patience to endure,
Keep our hearts serene and pure,
Grant us courage, charity,
Greater faith, humility,
Readiness to own Thy will,
Be we free or captives still …

May the day of freedom dawn,
Peace and justice be reborn,
Grant that nations loving Thee
O’er the world may brothers be,
Cleansed by suffering, know rebirth,
See Thy kingdom come on earth.

Banner image: (from left) Vivian Bullwinkel, Matron Irene Drummond, M Anderson and M Selwood enjoy a cup of tea on the verandah of ward C1 at the 2nd/13th Australian General Hospital, about 7 miles north of Johor Bahru. (Photo: Australian War Memorial.)