Joan Midgley – Voluntary Aid Detachment (Red Cross) Royal Navy
Joan was born in April 1923 and as war loomed large in 1939 she had just left school.
Motivated by a sense of duty Joan attended Red Cross lectures and passed the exam with a mark of 100% which allowed here to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) as a Red Cross nurse.
As it was not permissible to join the navy before the age of 18, which was Joan’s ambition, she began her nursing career in the geriatric ward at the Forest Hospital in Horsham in Sussex and remembers well that dealing with the complex needs, and laying out the deceased, was quite the formative experience for a 16 year old girl.
With the outbreak of war, and the threat of a German invasion, the Canadian army took over Horsham Hospital in 1940 and after a short spell at the nearby Dorking Hospital in Surrey Joan eventually achieved her objective of joining the Royal Navy and found herself stationed at the naval hospital in Sherborne in Dorset – a facility entirely made up of Nissen huts.
After Joan’s older brother, a Hurricane pilot, was shot down and killed in action near Tobruk she was transferred closer to home and found herself working in the sick bay at the top of Grand Avenue in Hove which was entirely taken over by combined operation forces and Wrens.
Joan remembers her time there fondly and says it was a wonderful place to be stationed with the proximity to the facilities, clubs and pubs of Brighton and she recalls the terrific activity in the area in the build up towards D Day.
But Joan had volunteered to go overseas. Eventually she was offered the options of Ceylon and Australia and for various reasons she chose the latter and on the 21st December 1944 she set sail for Sydney on the Athlone Castle. She recalls the trip through the Panama Canal with the access to fresh water and the opportunity to wash without the need for sea soap after so long on board and the excitement of eventually catching sight of the fantastic lights of Sydney Harbour.
The naval hospital she was stationed at was just outside Sydney at a place called Herne Bay which had been previously occupied by the Americans but they had left moving to a more strategic position close to Brisbane. Joan recalls that they hadn’t left much behind, even taking the light bulbs, and although there were beds she and her comrades had to find their own furniture.
Some 350 VAD’s were stationed at the hospital, supplemented by some SRN’s, working shifts on wards of 35 beds. One morning, coming off a night shift, Joan was summoned to the Matron’s office and told that she had been chosen, along with five other VAD’s to go “she knew not where” but that they would be leaving within three days and would only be allowed to take one kitbag of uniform. Six trained nursing sisters were also chosen and as they packed up all their belongings they had no idea if they would ever be returning to Sydney.
The group of twelve were flown by Dakota transport plane via Townsville in Queensland to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea and from there they sailed on the Vasna to Manus in the Admiralty Islands. Divided into two groups, Joan found herself in the party on the hospital ship Gerusalemme while the other group sailed on the Vengeance to nurse in Stanley Prison Camp, Hong Kong. Joan and her team remained at Manus for a while waiting for the aftermath of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima on the 6th of August 1945 and Nagasaki three days later before setting sail to pick up prisoners of war.
Their ship remained anchored in Hong Kong harbour and there was still fighting going on in the Peel area. From Hong Kong it had been intended that they would move on to pick up POW’s from Manila, but owing to a typhoon – and their ship having been reported as lost! – they were redirected to the island of Hainan in the South China Sea where they began the task of picking up Australian and Dutch POWs who had been held in captivity for three and half years.
Joan remembers the appalling physical condition of the men as they brought abort and recalls one officer being determined to make the gangway on his own, which he did, only to collapse into the arms of a sick bay attendant as he attempted to salute. A total of 27 men were brought into Joan’s ward, only nine of who could stand, and she explains that they all had beri-beri, dysentery, malaria and malnutrition with hardly any flesh on their bones. She says that they were almost afraid to touch the men in case they broke.
The memories had clearly stayed with Joan all these years on and she recalls how when the ships padre did his rounds he said that “there isn’t a dry eye on this ship – some for joy and some for sadness.” The medical staff only lost one man as they worked exceptionally hard in terrific heat attending to the former POW’s in their care.
The legacy of the brutality and starvation that the men had endured is illustrated in the fact that one of the staff had to stand duty by the pig bucket in the galley to stop them pulling the bones out of it as their years of deprivation ingrained a fear that they may never get fed again.
The ship returned to Honk Kong and Joan recalls that it was dirty and war torn with the great mansions derelict and stripped bare of wood for fuel. The streets were teaming with hawkers who could source anything at a price – alcohol, silks and other luxury goods that had been hidden away in the hills for the duration of the conflict.
The evil of what had happened during the war years was brought home to Joan as she was told by a Chinese carpenter of the atrocities inflicted by the Japanese. If a Chinese man didn’t bow to the Japanese he was beheaded on the spot and if they talked too much while working hard for a few pounds of rice they would have skewers put through their hands and were thrown in the sea. There were reports of children being hung up for bayonet practice and Joan was told that when the naval hospital was overrun patients and staff alike were murdered and the Chinese nurses taken as sex slaves.
Eventually the Dutch POWs were transferred to a home going ship and Joan and her colleagues returned to Sydney with some of the Australian POWs who weren’t fit to fly on the ferry carrier HMS Slinger. After some well-earned leave Joan learnt that all British Naval establishments were to be closed down and they awaited their instructions for the return to the UK and civilian life.