Jennifer (JC-S)'s Reviews > White Coolies

White Coolies by Betty Jeffrey
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it was amazing
bookshelves: australian-womens-writers-challenge

‘This is a story of women who fought in the last war.’

In 1942, a few days before the fall of Singapore, a group of sixty-five Australian Army nursing sisters was evacuated from Malaya. They were evacuated on the SS Vyner Brooke. Two days later, on 14 February 1942, the SS Vyner Brooke was bombed by the Japanese and sank. Fifty-three survivors made it ashore. Twenty-one survivors were shot and killed by the Japanese at Radji Beach on 16 February 1942. The other thirty-two were taken prisoner.

Betty Jeffrey was one of those nursing sisters, and she kept a record of their imprisonment. Using an exercise book she found and a stub of pencil, she kept a diary which she kept hidden. This diary, first published in 1954, entitled ‘White Coolies’, is an amazing story of courage, determination, ingenuity and resilience.

‘With these women, it was a different kind of war.’

Betty Jeffrey and her colleagues were held prisoner in and around Sumatra for over three and a half years. They lived in crowded and unsanitary conditions – thirty-two people in a small three roomed cottage, in October 1942 – on a diet of rice contaminated by dirt, bugs and rocks, and rotting vegetables. Occasionally, they might receive a sliver of meat. Many of the nurses had literally the clothes on their backs, and no shoes because they had removed their shoes before diving off the SS Vyner Brooke.

Amid the cruelty and despite the hardship, the nurses organised themselves. They established a routine, designating cooks, cleaners and gardeners. They also organised entertainment: establishing a choir, playing cards, making gifts for celebrations from what they had. Their guards were cruel: forcing the women to stand for long periods in the sun, requiring them to walk long distances to collect clean water for the guards’ sweet potato crop, when their own water supply was often contaminated and limited. Their Red Cross parcels were also withheld.

By the 18th of August 1945, there were only twenty-four survivors. On the 24th of August 1945, they learned that the war was over. On the 17th of September 1945, they were flown to Singapore.

‘We were out at last.’

I found this book deeply moving. I saw the movie ‘Paradise Road’ many years ago, but had not read the book. Betty Jeffrey’s account of events reminds us of events we’d prefer not to think of, of an ugly protracted side of war. These women were brave, courageous, and inspirational, and we should continue to remember them.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Reading Progress

June 16, 2016 – Started Reading
June 16, 2016 – Shelved
June 16, 2016 – Shelved as: australian-womens-writers-challenge
June 18, 2016 – Finished Reading

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message 1: by Lian (new)

Lian Tanner Nurses are by and large amazing people. I'm looking forward to reading this.


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