Margaret Ewart, A Nurse and Fundraiser in the Battle for Australia.
Early January, 1941 I was called up to join the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) and was immediately sent to Bathurst where some of the 8th Division were training. This was a most interesting experience learning about army ranks and procedures.
Already some of the battalions were embarking for overseas and my excitement was running high. Imagine my disappointment when four Sisters were posted to Darwin and I was one of that group. We called on the Principal Matron, pleading to go with the 8th Division but she informed us, in no uncertain manner that we were in the army now and must do as we were told.
During April, 1941 we embarked on the ‘Katoomba’ to join the male members of the 119 AGH who were to set up a 1200-bed hospital in Darwin.
The 119 AGH was to take over from 19 AGH at Bagot, an ex-aboriginal compound, with 150 beds in huts and under canvas; poor drainage; faulty septic system. Also our equipment hadn’t been unloaded from ‘Katoomba’ owing to a wharf labours’ strike – not a happy start. By the end of December part of the new hospital being built for us at Berrimah, 15 miles from town, was ready for use. I was one of the group being sent to the new facility.
The day of the first large raid, 19 February 1942 I was a patient suffering from dengue fever, a most debilitating illness. I had lost 2 stone (nearly 13 kg) in weight but that morning had felt a little better so decided to have a shower and wash my hair. As I was returning to my room, everyone was looking up into the sky where lots of planes were flying in formation, so high up they looked like silver moths. We all thought that they were USA planes when all of a sudden there were white puffs in the sky and someone called out ‘ack-ack fire’. Then things moved quickly; patients and staff went out into the bush or into the few slit-trenches. The patients too ill to walk were lifted on the mattresses and placed under their beds with other mattresses placed round for protection and a Sister or an orderly stayed with each patient.
I hastily slipped into my uniform and tin hat with wet hair dangling down and jumped into a nearby trench. It was heart-breaking to watch these planes diving down over the town, harbour, RAAF and civilian aerodromes knowing there was no way they could be stopped. Huge clouds of black smoke filled the sky and we were worried about our friends at Bagot which was situated between the two aerodromes. All of a sudden two fighter planes swooped down over our hospital, so low we could see the pilots although we were crouched down as far as possible and they proceeded to strafe the wards. It was a frightening experience, that rat-a-tat-tat just above our heads; I felt a bullet would go through me at any minute. Unfortunately one of our patients under his bed was killed. After the initial large raid we had smaller ones on and off all day and for days to follow.
Matron didn’t think I was well enough to resume duty, but said I could take the place of home Sister, which turned out to be a busy job. The RAAF Sisters, in a shocked condition arrived, their ‘drome had been completely destroyed; their padre found the girls in a trench and hailed a passing truck to bring them down to us. The civilian nurses and any women left in Darwin came too. They all had to be fed, watered and beds found for them. Often the Sisters coming off duty in the early hours of the morning would find their bed occupied, so had to hop in with another Sister.
Very soon the wards and verandas were filled with casualties. Some doctors and men from the 2/12 Field Ambulance came to help. Many of the cases were severe burns and our facilities for treatment were pretty poor – we used ‘tulle gras’ made from mosquito-netting soaked in petroleum jelly given to us by the RAAF.
The day after that horrifying experience I took myself on duty to help get patients ready to be evacuated on the ‘Manunda’, sailing that night. Thirteen of the staff on that hospital ship had been killed, including one Sister and many wounded which necessitated four of our 119 AGH Sisters transferring to augment their staff.
Our matron accompanied the patients in the ambulances to the wharf and when she returned told us of the utter destruction to the town and harbour where many ships had been sunk. Others were badly damaged and still smouldering and troops were collecting bodies from the water…
Following her experiences during the Bombing of Darwin, Sister Margaret (Meg) Ewart went on leave in May 1942, after which she worked for a short time at the 119th AGH (Australian General Hospital) Concord.
During this posting Meg says… "I was sent with a member from each service to travel around the factories to tell of our war experiences (censored of course), which the Government hoped would encourage people to invest in the Austerity Loan Bonds." Having never been required to do public speaking, Ewart found the experience daunting and a challenge.
She continues her story… "On the December 24, 1942, having been posted as a reinforcement to 2nd/9th AGH, I boarded 2/1 AHS (Australia Hospital Ship) Manunda arriving in Port Moresby 29 December 1942.The Kokoda Track Campaign was in progress; all our wards were very busy.
"The hospital had 1200 beds under canvas but at the time had 2000 patients, the overflow were on stretchers under the beds. It was a hectic time. The medical wards were as busy as the surgical wards, lots of all types of malaria, scrub typhus, pneumonia, and dysentery. The ENT (ear-nose-throat) and Psychiatric wards were busy too."
On the 3 February 1943 the Sisters were admitted to the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) with NXF numbers, and also given a rank.
"On one occasion the Japanese bombers dropped their bombs on the hospital, fortunately no one was hurt. I was sent on leave on November 10, 1943 sailing on Canberra, and disembarked in Cairns; it then took 2 weeks by troop train to reach Sydney. I returned to 2nd/9th AGH arriving 21 December 1943, and remained in New Guinea until 24 April 1944"…
The 2nd/9th known as ‘Seventeen Mile’ in New Guinea.
With the rapid advance of the Japanese between January and May 1942 it brought the threat of war closer to Australia. In early March, the Japanese landed on the northern shores of New Guinea, and proceeded to advance over the Owen Stanley Ranges. In August the enemy was moving closer, with large numbers of Australian and American troops arriving in Port Moresby. The six AANS sisters who were working at Murray Barracks in Port Moresby were sent back to Australia for safety. The first AANS sisters to return to New Guinea after this were those of the 2nd/9th AGH and the 2/5th CCS (Casualty Clearing Station).
The 2nd/9th AGH along with other AGH’s and CCS’s returned from the Middle East during February and March 1942 when the 6th and 7th Divisions were withdrawn to defend Australia.
In August 1942 orders came for the men of 2nd/9th AGH to move to Port Moresby. Because of the instability of the military situation the AANS sisters were not, at first permitted, to accompany the men. When the men arrived they were taken to a site ‘17 miles’ out of Port Moresby, near Rouna Falls and found all the hospital equipment dumped in huge piles where in an area of scrub had been burnt out. The hospital site was long and narrow (because of the hilly terrain) and spread out for over a mile. In less than a fortnight the hospital was admitting 46 patients per day. At the end of three weeks the men had erected 11 tented wards and had 600 beds equipped; the establishment of a General Hospital. The 2nd/9th AGH was the only General Hospital in New Guinea at that time.
By October there were 732 patients. Problems arose and were accentuated by the fact that the AANS sisters had not been permitted to accompany the men. In October a decision was made to send 68 AANS sisters to join the men.
They arrived on October 29 and commenced duty straight away. There was no time to acclimatise and most found, at first, the heat oppressive and tiring. Although the Japanese were being driven back the troops had to fight the enemy in a new type of jungle warfare in difficult terrain, they also had to deal with an array of tropical diseases. This was compounded by difficult casualty evacuation down the Kokoda Trail.
"By the time men reached the 2nd/9th they often had putrid fly-blown wounds, they were in states of extreme exhaustion and their clothes in tatters. Medical patients far outnumbered the wounded, almost ten to one, many had dreadful malaria rigors, they were debilitated and exhausted, with a variety of medical conditions including dysentery or scrub typhus which caused semi-consciousness and heart failure and required vigilant continuous nursing. "
Soon after the sisters arrived there were a large number of casualties from Buna, Gona and Sanananda, patient numbers soared to 826 bringing a shortage of beds so patients had to be nursed on ambulance stretchers under beds.
"The arrival of the wet season did not help. Tents leaked, wards became ‘bogs’ and beds sank into the mud at all angles. In letters home the soldiers wrote that ‘the sisters in their grey uniforms made them feel that they must be in a safe area’, which was good for morale. However, the grey uniform with starched veils, collars and cuffs was unsuitable for New Guinea so the sisters were issued with army boiler suits and boots until grey Safari Suits could be made."
By the end of 1942 there were over 2000 patients, 29 MO’s, seven Officers, 275 male other ranks, 112 AANS sisters and three female physiotherapists in the hospital. In September 1943, 96 members of the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service (AAWMS) were sent to assist the 2nd/9th.
"The 2nd/9th AGH was under the flight path of the Japanese bombers on-route to target airfields at 7 mile or the harbour. On one occasion bombs dropped on the hospital, miraculously no one was killed. The CO commented that the staff of the 2nd/9th AGH were heavily overtaxed, and that the organisation would break down unless reinforced, he recommended more accommodation be provided both in hospitals and convalescent units.
"In January 1943 a second hospital, the 2/5th AGH was established at Bootless Bay near Port Moresby. In March 1944 the 2nd/9th packed up and returned to Australia for rest before being sent to Morotai between March and June 1945 for the Borneo Campaign."
The great respect the doctors, sisters and staff had for those gallant men who fought against such odds on the Kokoda Trail, helped overcome many of the difficulties at ’17 Mile’. In October 1943 a group of AANS sisters, who were on leave from New Guinea, were invited by Major General V A Vasey, Commander, and men of the 7th Division AIF, to lead their March of Honour through Sydney. The 7th Division had just returned from New Guinea. For the AANS Sisters of the 2nd/9th who had diligently nursed so many of these men who fought so gallantly over the Kokoda Trail, it was a very moving experience.
The Manunda (originally a costal passenger vessel) had been fitted out in 1939 as a DEM Ship, a defensively equipped merchant ship but later requisitioned by the Defence Department on 22 July 1940 and fitted out as an hospital ship).
The AANS (Australian Army Nursing Service) name came into use in 1909 but the nurses were referred to by their civilian titles as Staff Nurse, Sister or Matron so when rank was conferred in 1943 it basically became Lieutenant, Captain and Major. Initially most sisters became Lieutenant but with seniority and length of service some were promoted to Captain and Major. A Major (Matron) was in charge of the Hospital/CCS).
The whole unit returned to Australia and was sent to Tamworth, some of us were sent to 2/2 AGH and others 2/6 AGH at Atherton to help for 6 months, both units very busy. We returned to our own unit 18 October 1944. I was sent to Prince of Wales Randwick for a couple of months, then to 103 AGH at Baulkham Hills until the 2nd/9th reformed. On 26 May 1945 we embarked from Newcastle to go to Morotai: 2/5 and 2/9 AGHs looked after the casualties from the Borneo Campaign, all under canvas and again very busy. I was on night duty the time peace was declared in the acute surgical ward and felt so sad that these boys should have been so badly wounded when it was so close to finishing. Soon after we were receiving men, women and children from the prison camps, some of them I knew from the Bathurst Camp but didn’t recognise them they were so frightfully thin their features had altered. Some of us remained on the Island to gradually evacuate all the patients and close the hospital’.)
Bassett, J (1992) Guns and Brooches – Australian Army Nursing from the Boer War to the Gulf War, Oxford University Press, Melbourne
Crouch, J (1986) A Special Kind of Service– The story of the 2/9 Australian General Hospital 1940-46, Hedges and Bell.
Personal Interview with Sister Margaret Ewart AANS by Eileen Henderson RAANC (Ret)
This is a transcript of the War Loan Broadcast with 2UW on 12 December 1942 made by Australian Army Nursing Service nurse, Sister Margaret Ewart. Sister Ewart witnessed the first air raid on Darwin in February 1942 while serving with the 119th Australian General Hospital. Later that year she with three other servicemen, Navy, Army and Air Force visited many factories, Municipal Rallies meetings to raise awareness about the Austerity Loan as part of the National Savings Campaign.
War Loan Broadcast 2UW 12 December 1942 Sister Margaret Ewart AIF
And here is another visitor to our studio and she is doubly welcome because she wears the Rising Sun and her uniform is grey and I shall introduce you to Sister Margaret Ewart of the A.I.F. Good evening Sister Ewart.
Good evening everybody ... I have been asked to come along tonight and tell you something about Darwin. You have heard plenty and read plenty about Darwin. It is not a very pleasant place, but it is part of Australia. I was there when the Japs made their first air raid. I thought you might be interested in some of the things which happened on that day when for the first time in history enemy bombs landed on Australian soil, killing Australian boys – and Australian women.
It was shortly after breakfast one day when we heard the sound of a great number of planes …. many more than we were used to hearing. We were very excited because we had heard a rumour that we were getting more planes, so we all went out to have a look. It was quite a while before we could pick the planes up - they were flying at such great height – but at last we could see them high over our heads, and they approached just like a lot of silver clouds. We were trying to count them and saying how safe we felt with so many planes for protection when all of a sudden, our ‘ack-ack’ guns went into operation. We decided it was time for some action too.
Our first job was to get our patients out. The walking cases went into trenches or out into the bush, while the helpless cases were just lifted mattresses and all, and put underneath their beds. Other mattresses and blankets were placed on top and around them to afford a little protection. Some of the Sisters remained with these cases but those of us who were out in ‘funk holes’ as we called them, were able to watch the whole raid. The planes were disappearing behind the huge white clouds which we get up there during the wet season. Then, suddenly out they would come one after the other, diving at a terrific speed on their targets.
We saw them dive on the RAAF aerodrome, the Civil aerodrome and the Harbour, and all that followed were huge columns of black smoke which left us wondering just how much was left. Several planes dived down on the Hospital where we were, so we had to hop down to cover. Although we crouched down as far as we could get, the planes came so low that we could see the markings on them. We could even see the pilots as they flew up and down the full length of our Hospital, their guns blazing. We felt very annoyed because it was a new hospital, and our patients, and some our cobbers, were under their beds – but there was nothing we could do except call the Japs every name we could think of. Some of the words we didn’t know the meaning of, but we heard the boys using them, so we tried them out too.
The saddest part of the whole raid to us was when they commenced bringing in the wounded. I find it very hard to describe to people just what those boys go through. ... You really have to see them to believe it ... there were boys from our own ack-ack batteries ... just lads, who had done a marvellous job. They had stuck to their guns against terrific odds. There were lads too from the Air Force, and some very badly burnt cases from the harbour. Soldiers, sailors, merchant marine, Yanks, ... they were all in it. We were struck by their cheerfulness. Although they were so badly knocked about, they always had some funny story to tell us of something that had happened during the raid, and they did everything in their power to help us and keep our spirits up.
Those boys have not safe conditions to work and live in. They are very often called upon to work 24 hours a day ... sometimes they do not even have a day off a week, and they don’t even want it because the enemy is so close that they realise that their job is important and every minute precious.
I did not tell you these things because I like talking about them, but so that you will realise how very important your help is to the fighting forces. None of us can fully realise until we go into active service, just how much we depend upon the people at home ... you know the fighting services are just as dependent upon your support and your willingness to lend your money as you are upon those who are able to go out and fight. I think we can all take our example from the people of Great Britain, Russia and China. They have given up everything for the defence of their countries, and I am sure you will agree with me that our country is worth it to.
Margaret was thanked for her work: