I held their hands as they died

War nurse HAZEL BRYCE, 99

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS -

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

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