I held their hands as they died
War nurse HAZEL BRYCE, 99
In the early 1940s, the so-called Kenmore Insane Asylum in Goulburn was handed over to the army and Hazel Bryce was one of the first nurses to care for soldiers returning with from the war with what was then known as combat fatigue.
Now the treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would be very different but, then, many of the soldiers were given electric shock treatment.
“I had to stand there and when they opened their mouth I had to put a peg in it in case they bit their tongue off,” she remembered. “It was awful to watch. It was the first time I had ever seen that treatment.”
But, even in their trauma, the lads always saved a smile for the nurses. “One of them took a fancy to me,” she laughed. “He said to the boys on the ward: ‘Here’s my girl, we’ll get married’, and the other boys would say: ‘What about your wife?’ ”
War nurses had to be 25 years old to enlist, so even the youngest are now in their late 90s. Mrs Bryce will turn 100 later this year and was too frail to make it to
The Sunday Telegraph’s shoot. To the troops arriving in military hospitals throughout World War II, many of whom had seen neither a woman nor a kind smile in years, nurses were like angels — albeit angels who wore khaki and shared tents in the mud.
“The boys all loved the nurses,” Mrs Bryce said. “One said as he was waking up: ‘Hello sister, will you marry me?’ They’d all ask that, the minute you walked into the ward. We had special ones. But I didn’t marry any of them. One asked me genuinely. But I said no, I want to go to New Guinea.”
In 1943, having worked in Goulburn and at Concord Hospital in Sydney, Mrs Bryce was posted to Morotai in Papua New Guinea. She was among the youngest; many
of her fellow nurses had served in the Middle East. She would soothe fevered brows, hold hands and often sit with patients as they died.
“Many of them were so ill, they died without talking,” she said. “Many talked about what they would do when they went home. But a lot of them didn’t get there.”
It wasn’t all work. They’d have dances, even though everyone, nurses included would need to wear their boots and trousers after dusk to keep the malarial mosquitoes away.
Sometimes, their suitors would take them on drives into the bush (but only if it had been confirmed as clear of enemy). Flirting became frenetic when the Americans arrived in the area. But woe betide any nurse who overstepped the line. If anyone was found to be inappropriately fraternising with a soldier, they would be sent home in disgrace.
One woman tried to drown herself when she fell pregnant. Another became hysterical when she found out her beau had a wife at home.
If they married, they would be sent home too, as women who were engaged or married were not allowed to serve.
While Mrs Bryce has many fond memories from Papua New Guinea, there are many sad ones, too.
“It was a terrible thing, really,” she said. “Wars are cruel. They shouldn’t happen.”
Hazel Bryce. Picture: Tim Hunter