by Colin Burgess

Simon & Schuster Australia, 2023

ISBN 9781761109089

RRP $34.99


Reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald

This fine book, Sisters in Captivity, is dedicated to “the heroic nurses who lived this story but never made it home”.

Most educated Australians know of Sister Vivian Bullwinkel. But until the release of this lengthy and scrupulously researched study, my guess is that, as with me, not all that many readers of The Sydney Institute Review of Books were aware of the very similar story of Sister Betty Jeffrey.

After escaping Japanese bombing raids on Singapore, in February 1942 both Australian Army nursing sisters survived the sinking of the SS Vyner Brook. In the ensuing chaos, Bullwinkel and Jeffrey were separated.

Sister Bullwinkle was captured by a Japanese party who forced her, and another 21 nurses, into the ocean off Banka Island, where they were machine-gunned from behind. Of all the Australian nurses, Bullwinkel was the sole survivor. A British civilian, Carrie Rose, who had remained on the island with her husband, was also butchered by Japanese soldiers. As the Australian author of Sisters in Captivity, Colin Burgess writes about Mrs Rose, “She bravely walked into the water with the nurses, knowing her fate.”

In the case of Sister Betty Jeffrey, having spent three days in the ocean, she and her close friend Iole Harper were also captured after reaching Banka Island. There they were reunited with Vivian Bullwinkel and a group of other Australian nurses who had survived the sinking of the steamer SS Vyner Brook.

As Sisters in Captivity reveals in graphic detail, Jeffrey and Bullwinkle, along with their brave nursing comrades, spent over three years at various Japanese prison camps, mainly in the mountainous wilds of Sumatra.

During those terrible times, living in squalid, unhealthy conditions, Jeffrey secretly kept a daily diary. After the war, this was turned into a book, and then a 52-part radio series, White Coolies, which was broadcast throughout Australia in the mid-1950s. In turn, this hugely popular radio program helped inspire the writers of Bruce Beresford’s 1997 film Paradise Road, starring Glenn Close, Frances McDormand and Cate Blanchett.

Prolific Sydney-based author Colin Burgess has written 40 books, a number focusing on the experiences of Australian and other Allied prisoners-of-war. As an accomplished writer of non-fiction, the work of Colin Burgess is in my opinion hugely underrated. A prime example is Destination Buchenwald. This fascinating survival story about Australian and New Zealand airmen in a Nazi death camp, originally published in 1995, did not receive the critical acclaim and wide readership that it deserved.

Peter Rees’s Anzac Girls, published in 2009, does cover similar territory to Colin Burgess’s latest enthralling offering. But in Sisters in Captivity, Burgess adroitly uses Sister Jeffrey’s diaries, and also her detailed drawings from the prison camps, to re-create the perilous years the nurses spent under the cruel tutelage of Imperial Japan. A number of Jeffrey’s pencil sketches are usefully scattered throughout this compelling multi-layered history.

Although Jeffrey, Bullwinkle and other members of the Australian Army Nursing Service lived precariously from hand to mouth, Burgess highlights the powerful sisterhood that evolved as the POWs took strength from each other. As Sisters in Captivity reveals, while they were detained, some of the Australian nurses even formed an orchestra that occasionally performed for other detainees.

Featuring well-produced photographs and Jeffrey’s drawings, this illuminating book explains how Jeffrey’s early influences encouraged her at age 27 to pursue a lifelong carer in nursing. It also outlines the outstanding work of service that Jeffrey pursued after the war. This was despite the fact that, when she returned to a lengthy hospitalisation in Australia, Sister Jeffrey suffered from severe tuberculosis and weighed a mere 30 kilograms.

Sisters in Captivity is a powerful survival story that illustrates the extreme inhumanity practised by some Japanese commanders and soldiers, as well as the resilient strength of many of the Australian and Allied POWs – women in particular.

As with Sister Vivian Bullwinkle, whose intriguing story Colin Burgess also describes in captivating detail, Sister Betty Jeffrey is one of the most important Australians of the twentieth century.

It is fitting that, among scores of striking black and white photographs, two of the most arresting shots feature both women who had endured much together. The first features Betty Jeffrey and Vivian Bullwinkel at a 1950 dedication ceremony to the fallen servicemen and women of World War 11. In the second, Bullwinkel looks on as Jeffrey opens a first edition of her prisoner-of-war diary, White Coolies, which was published by Angus & Robertson in 1954.

For the record, Vivian Bullwinkel died of a heart attack on 3 July 2000 in Perth aged 84. Betty Jeffrey also died of a heart attack. In her case this occurred in Melbourne on 13 September 2000.  Jeffrey was aged 92.

It is pleasing to report that Sisters in Captivity not only contains some useful maps and bibliography, but an extremely detailed Index of names. This will help avid readers to negotiate the text of this fascinating and extremely lucid history, which focuses on the remarkable stories of two of the bravest Australian women, ever.

Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History & Politics at Griffith University. His most recent books, all published by Hybrid, are Fifty Years Sober: An Alcoholic’s Journey and the co-authored Grafton Everest political satires, The Dizzying HeightsThe Lowest Depths, and Pandemonium.