Jane Patterson (Gunther) Darling

Janet Patteson Gunther was born in 1913 and was among the AANS Nursing Sisters who survived the sinking of the Vyner Brook. She was captured and held prisoner at Palembang, Muntok and Belalau. She survived captivity and died in 2007 aged 94.

The following is taken from the website: Prisoners of War of the Japanese 1942-1945 by Peter Winstanley.

Pat Darling was born in Casino, New South Wales on 31 August 1913. She was educated at the local primary and high schools. In the 1930s she trained as a nurse at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. After 3 years of training she did private nursing.

It is not clear from the records what her enlistment date was. But, it is likely that it was in 1940, as on 27 November 1940 she was posted to a military camp hospital in Tamworth. Then in January 1941 she was posted to the 10th Australian General Hospital (10AGH). In February this unit proceeded to Singapore via Fremantle on the Queen Mary. On boarding the Queen Mary the passengers (troops) had no definitive idea of their destination. However, when a convoy of ships left Fremantle, the Queen Mary broke away and with a burst of speed headed for Singapore.

10 AGH was located at Malacca on the west coast of Malaya. The AGH, commanded by Colonel E.R.White, was established in a large civilian hospital. Initially the AGH had a 400 bed facility, but, was later expanded to 600 beds. For some time Pat and her colleagues enjoyed a pleasant life. The British Government had promoted the concept that Singapore was the “Impregnable Fortress”. There were not a lot of patients and the nurses had quite a full social life, with invitations to dinners and dances. Pat had a three month detachment to the 2/4 CCS (Casualty Clearing Station), which was located at Kajang close to Kuala Lumpur. The 2/4 CCS had travelled to Singapore on the Queen Mary with the 10 AGH.

The Japanese invasion of Malaya on 8 December 1941 changed everything. The 10 AGH, being positioned on the coast was not on the main evacuation route for casualties. The 10 AGH was forward of the 13 AGH which was located in Johore Bahru. A move by a General Hospital is not easy as they have around 800 tons of stores and, it is obvious, they are not able to move without assistance. It was necessary to clear 10 AGH of its patients and they sent all sick and wounded to 13 AGH at Johore Bahru. Some Medical Officers and Nurses were also sent to 13 AGH.

Ultimately, in mid January 1942, 10 AGH moved into Singapore and established a hospital at Oldham Hall. Later the unit expanded into the nearby Manor House. Both 10 and 13 AGH were full and overcrowded. The nursing staff was working in the wards around 13 hours a day. In the non working hours, sleep was hard to come by as the Japanese were bombing Singapore on a regular basis. The nurses were instructed to go to the dug outs when bombing took place. They refused to leave their patients and stayed in the wards. Finally, the order came that “all nurses were to be evacuated to Australia”. One lot of 30 sisters left on the Empire Star and the next group boarded the Vyner Brook and left on 12 February 1942.

On 14 February the Vyner Brook was in the vicinity of Banka Island when it came under attack by Japanese bombers. The nurses were actually able to view the bombs as they fell. The bombs straddled the ship and as the bombs went into the sea great water spouts rose into the air. One round actually went down the funnel of the ship and then all had to abandon the vessel. Some who slid down ropes had dreadful friction burns with loss of skin and flesh from fingers and the palms of their hands.

Some of the nurses and others were in the life boats, on life rafts or in the water. The stronger swimmers took to the water. Pat was in company of Win Davis, who was a strong swimmer. They were in the water for many hours. Several times they were close to shore, only to be swept away by the strong tidal currents. Eventually, they were plucked from the water by Japanese sailors. Pat noted that the Japanese sailors were quite gentle and it was hard to realise they were the enemy.

They were taken ashore on Banka Island and 3 years and 6 months of life as a Prisoner of War began. They virtually, only had what they stood in – their uniform, no head wear and no shoes. During the time Pat was a prisoner she was moved to Palembang (Sumatra), back to Banka Island, and finally, back to Sumatra (through Palembang) to a camp called Lubik Linggau. The camps were very basic and the nurses slept on the floor. One of the first camps that they were placed in consisted of a lane along which were Dutch colonial bungalows. Most of the nurses were crammed into the garages and slept on the concrete floor. Below is Pat’s drawing of the house that she occupied. The camp became known as The Irenelaan camp named after where it was located in Palembang.

House 8 at Palembang by Pat Gunther
House no. 8 © Australian War Memorial licensed copyright

They performed tasks such as wood chopping, preparing their own meals, cleaning the latrines (for the Japs and themselves), cooking, water carrying, etc. Their clothing deteriorated, was patched and patched again and, sometimes, the patches were patched. They craved for simple things, such as, a toothbrush. They were using the husk from coconuts to clean their teeth.

Pat's sketch of the women carrying water
Pat’s sketch of the women carrying water © Australian War Memorial licensed copyright
Guard Box at Palembang by Pat Gunther
Pat’s drawing of a guard box © Australian War Memorial licensed copyright

Around Christmas 1944 Pat had a really bad attack of malaria. In her book, she records that on New Year’s Day she had the worst headache she had ever had. The British doctor, Dr Smith gave her 2 quinine tablets from her limited supply and said “Don’t bloody well tell anyone!” Following this she had great difficulty in walking. To traverse 6 metres to the cook house without anything to hold on to was an ordeal. When one reads accounts of what these nurses experienced it seems that many matters are left unsaid (and maybe better left unsaid).

A comment from Sir Adrian Curlewis (formerly Capt Curlewis) in the book “Of Love and War” referred to the Japanese treatment of the prisoners as “Man’s inhumanity to Man”. Captain Fred Stahl (8 Division Signals and a member of “F” Force) when writing an introduction to the story of Sister Mavis Hannah (one of the nurses with Pat Darling nee Gunther) said of the female prisoners “There is no doubt that our women folk had it worse, in many ways, than we did!”

There were 3 doctors in their camps. Two were British females – Drs Smith and McDowell and one German doctor of Jewish extraction. There were also some British nurses and civilians, together with Dutch women and some of their children.

It seems that death was a regular event in the latter stages of their captivity. Pat recalls that when there was a burial it needed a minimum of 20 people to complete the farewell service. There were 18 needed to bear the coffin to the burial site. It was exhausting. There were 3 poles under the coffin and with 3 bearers on each side of each pole. One other was at the head and another at the foot of the coffin. Usually one of the female missionaries would perform the burial service.

Pat said that the worst part of being a prisoner of war was the continual hunger. Her weight dropped to 33 kgs. Pat commented that she could join her thumb and middle finger around her upper arm (around the biceps).

Below depicts an embroidery, completed by Pat at Palembang, of a large eucalypt gum tree and surrounding landscape. Made from wool and cotton, this embroidery was woven from threads pulled from clothing at the prisoner of war camp. As the  conditions deteriorated, the women developed ways of surviving the harsh conditions, and of maintaining tenuous links with normality, however remote normality may have been. A silver jam spoon and pair of eyebrow tweezers came to signify the last vestiges of a civilised world.

Pat Gunther's Tree ART90951
Pat’s embroidery © Australian War Memorial licensed copyright

The most uplifting experience for Pat was the singing of the women’s choir. The choir was mainly comprised of Charitas nuns (Dutch) and some of the nurses. The quality of the singing was extraordinary. It was in this camp that the “Captives Hymn” originated.

When the war ended it was about a month before the nurses were recovered from Lubit Linggau. During this period the supply of food improved markedly and the nurses gained weight. The nurses were flown to Singapore and placed into hospital and had numerous tests. On arrival in Singapore their own POW doctors, two of whom were Lt Cols Cotter Harvey and Bill Bye were at the airport to greet them and travelled with them to the hospital.

Return to Australia was on the Hospital Ship Manunda whose first Australian port of call was Fremantle. After a series of other medical examinations in Sydney Pat returned to nursing at Concord Hospital.

She married Major George Colin Darling (NX101315 2/5 Infantry Battalion) in 1949. Pat stopped nursing in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Her husband Colin died in the early 1970s.

Article compiled by Lt Col Peter Winstanley OAM RFD JP following interviewing Pat Darling at her accommodation at “Manor House” Mosman May 2007 (note the 10 AGH was located in a “Manor House” in Singapore in January/February 1942.) At Pat’s invitation further information was extracted from her book “Portrait of a Nurse” ISBN 0 9585418 1 7.