How would we cope if tested in this way?

Review: Vivien Horler

Sisters Under the Rising Sun, by Heather Morris (Zaffre)

My tears came at the line: “It’s time for you to have a break, Sister James, you’ve done your duty; your shift is over.”

To which Nesta James replies to her friend and colleague Vivian Bullwinkel: “It’s been a bloody long shift, Bully, a bloody long one.”

It had lasted three years and seven months, the time the members of the Australian Army Nursing Service were held as prisoners of war of the Japanese in Sumatra, ending on September 11, 1945.

Heather Morris is the author of the best-selling The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

I’ve read a few books on how Western women – Dutch, British, Australian – survived internment in South East Asia as prisoners of the Japanese. One of the first, Three Came Home, by written by former internee Audrey Newton Keith in 1947, and recommended by our high school history teacher, was a revelation.

Born just seven years after the end of World War II, I’d grown up with stories of the war in Europe and the privations of prisoners of war, such as in Eric Williams’s The Wooden Horse, a setwork.

But Three Came Home, the book, film and TV series A Town Like Alice, and later the British TV series Tenko, based on the non-fiction Women Behind the Wire, were descriptions of women’s suffering under the Japanese occupation of former Western Asian colonies. The Japanese were not kind.

This book, strongly based on real women’s experiences, begins in Singapore in February 1942, when the territory falls to the Japanese. Some of the women later interned had been living in Singapore, while others had been living in what was then Malaya and had fled the Japanese to Singapore, who soon followed.

Loaded with evacuees, including the Australian nurses, the merchant ship Vyner Brooke headed away from Singapore, only to be bombed and sunk. The ship went down not far from a small island and many of the passengers, including children, reached land in safety.

But the Japanese were on the island, and weren’t feeling particularly friendly to the several hundred people who crawled up on to the beach.

The stars of this novel, based on real people, are Nesta James, an Australian nurse who along with her companions had fled Malayia for the brief sanctuary of Singapore, and sisters Norah and Ena Hope, who were living with their husbands in Singapore.

At the beginning, Norah’s husband has typhus and she dares not leave him, but she persuades another sister to take their young daughter to safety. They will join little Sally in just a week or two, Norah assures her child, as soon as daddy is better.

But the Japanese come, and the the Vyner Brooke, the ship Ena, Norah, husband John and all the nurses are aboard, is bombed. The survivors somehow make their way, in dribs and drabs, to Banka Island, Norah and Ena having acquired a small girl, June, who has become separated from her mother.

Norah and Nesta’s group are collected by a platoon of Japanese and locked up, but others are not so lucky. Another Japanese platoon find Vivian Bullwinkel’s group, which includes the two Australian matrons. They are forced back into the sea and machinegunned. Bullwinkel’s survival is a miracle.

What follows are three years of courage, determination, desperation, hunger, and survival against the odds. Except of course they don’t all survive.

There are experiences of impossible situations, when the Japanese overlords of the camp demand the sexual services of some of the women, and they say they would rather die. Another experience is when they are encouraged to plant a vegetable garden, only to be told at harvest time the crop is not intended for them but for their guards.

The nurses, led by Nesta James do their best to help their patients in the absence of any medication or bandages, while Norah and another internee, Margaret, raise the internees’ spirits by forming a choir.

Norah, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, produces handwritten scores of Ravel’s Bolero and the Largo from the New World Symphony from memory, to create “an orchestra of voices”. Performances reduce the audience to tears, and also move the camp commandants who sit in the front row.

The war eventually ends, and the survivors go home, battered and bent. But there are remarkable reunions, and because this novel is based on fact, these are not just happy fairy tales.

A revealing author’s note at the end tells us what happened to Nesta, to Norah, Ena, little June and others after the war. One of them was Captain Seki, the camp commander, who was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment, partly based on the testimony of Nesta James and Vivian Bullwinkel.

Books like this always make me wonder how I would cope under conditions of extreme privation. Would I be a generous prisoner, sharing my tiny ration, or would I steal from others? Would I be one of the survivors, or would I soon sucumb?

Thank God, I have not been tested in this way…




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