Group of nursing sisters who boarded the Vymer Brook.
Group of nursing sisters who boarded the Vymer Brook.

Nurses learn how to survive torment together

WE HAVE all heard of our nursing sisters killed or captured during the Second World War - names like Vivian Bullwinkel, Betty Jeffrey, and our own Jessie Jane Blanch.

These women had to endure years of torment, privation, lack of food and medical supplies.

Even so, most of them survived by helping each other and using their training and skills as required.

Many had come from country areas including another local girl, Captain Janet Patterson Gunther of Piora, near Casino.

Janet was born at Casino in 1913, the daughter of Arthur and Jane Gunther (nee Thomson).

The Gunther family had come to the Richmond from Nowra about 1907.

They settled at Casino and had several children. Besides Janet, her brothers Arthur and Kenneth also enlisted in the armed forces as well as her sister Sybil.

Janet had been educated at Casino Primary and High Schools and then trained as a nurse at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney.

When she enlisted in 1940 she was posted to a military camp hospital near Tamworth.

In many respects Janet Gunther's story echoes the story of Jessie Blanch.

It is not known whether the two women knew each other before they were both posted to the 10th Australian General Hospital but it is possible.

They were a similar age and perhaps Jessie also trained at PA in Sydney. Whatever the case, they found themselves on the "Queen Mary" in January 1941 sailing for Singapore.

They were sent to Malacca on the west coast of Malaya where there was a large civilian hospital of 600 beds.

However, there were few patients and life was good. This all changed when the Japanese invaded Malaya in December 1941.

At first there was some confusion as increasing casualties began to arrive and then everyone, and all the equipment, had to retreat to Singapore.

In early February 1942 the order was given to evacuate all Australian nurses to Australia and both Jessie Blanch and Janet Gunther found themselves on an old vessel called the "Vyner Brook".

When their ship was bombed most of the nurses found themselves on life rafts.

However, because of the continued bombing Janet and some others considered it safer to start swimming to the nearby shore.

It was not easy as the strong tidal currents kept sweeping the swimmers away from the land.

Eventually they were rescued by some Japanese sailors who treated them well. They were landed on Banka Island.

For the next three-and-a-half years Janet and other survivors spent most of their time at Palembang, the second-largest city on Sumatra Island. In the 1940s it had many Dutch colonial bungalows.

However, the nurses were crammed into garages, sleeping on concrete floors. Food rations were minimal.

They had to perform work for the Japanese such as chopping wood, cleaning, cooking, and carrying water.

Janet sketched on scraps of paper and even was able to embroider from scraps of cotton. These items are now in the War Memorial in Canberra.

She also sang in a choir organised by the Dutch nuns who were also prisoners. On returning to Australia Janet nursed at Concord Hospital and in 1949 she married Major George Colin Darling of the 2/5 Infantry. She died in 2007 aged 94.

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