WAR’S END: Prisoner-of-war nurses who survived, (inset) Sister Jessie Jane Blanch.
WAR’S END: Prisoner-of-war nurses who survived, (inset) Sister Jessie Jane Blanch.

History: Prisoner of war survives bombing, infection

ON MARCH 18, 1910, a baby girl was born in Bangalow who was to become a wartime nurse and prisoner-of-war survivor.

She was Jessie Jane Blanch, the second of four daughters born to Edwin James and Florence May Blanch (nee Williams). The family later moved to Alstonville where their grandfather, William George Blanch, had settled some years earlier after arriving on the Richmond from the Williams River area.

It is not clear where Jessie trained as a nursing sister but it is possible it was at Lismore. On the outbreak of war in 1939, she was working at Brisbane General Hospital and many of her workmates soon began joining the Australian Army Nursing Service.

Jessie also wanted to join but there were staff shortages at her hospital. However on January 17, 1941, she joined up and was attached to the A.I.F.'s 10th General Hospital.

Almost immediately she found herself aboard the Queen Mary, sailing with other medical staff for the Middle East. However, much to their surprise, they travelled northwards and were landed in Malaya.

For nearly 12 months they had a good life. They worked in an English hospital which was well equipped. As there was no war in the area at that time, there was not a great deal of nursing to be done except for soldiers having accidents or contracting malaria. The situation changed dramatically in December 1941 when the Japanese entered the war. With continual bombing, there were many wounded and everyone was moved to Singapore Island.

Soon conditions deteriorated and the building in which they were working began to collapse. They were advised to leave and try to get a boat going to Java.

Some did not want to leave but they were hustled away to the crowded wharves and eventually boarded a small vessel named the Vyner Brooke. The ship started off, hugging the islands to avoid bombers which were continually heard overhead.

They were eventually spotted and the vessel was sunk. Survivors washed ashore and surrendered to the waiting Japanese soldiers. They were placed in a compound with no shelter, no food and no water.

At night they were given water laced with sugar and rum plus a bucket of rice and were kept there for days. Jessie soon found that she had a throat infection. Luckily a guard got her some tablets which helped but other guards were not so helpful. There were several other people who were ill. Eventually they were all moved to some Dutch houses at Palembang. There they met up with Vivian Bullwinkel, Betty Jeffrey and others who were to become famous for their wartime experiences.

Over the next three-and-a-half years, Blanchie (as she was known) remained a prisoner. They moved camp and were required to work. The Australian girls tried to make do with anything, even having a Christmas pudding and custard made from various ingredients which would have horrified their grandmothers! Those who could laugh made the others a little happier and, when someone was ill, they used their nursing skills.

Jessie Blanch was released in September 1945 and awarded a Royal Red Cross for her bravery. She married Albert Harold Eaton-Lee in 1950 and died at Alstonville in 1999.

Prepared by Geoff & Margaret Henderson for Richmond River Historical Society, Lismore.

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