Chapter 33

Lamp Ladies


Service Details

P.M. (Dita) McCarthy had thirty one (31) years continuous service in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) serving sequentially with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), the 2nd AIF, the Interim Army, the Royal Australian Army Nursing Service (RAANS) and the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps. She trained at The Sydney Hospital, graduating in 1939. ADF overseas service included Papua-New Guinea (WW2), Japan, Korea, Malaya and Vietnam. During her long career she held many important appointments within Australia and elsewhere. Her last appointment was as Matron-in-Chief of the RAANC retiring as Brigadier, the first and only female (to date) to attain General's rank in the ADF.


When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, I, along with a Detachment of other Army nurses was on secondment to the King George V Hospital at Camperdown, Sydney. In 1951, I was posted to Japan and took up duties at the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) General Hospital at Kure in southern Japan. I had been to Japan several times previously on the Troopship M.V. Duntroon that transported Australian military personnel, stores and equipment between Australia and Japan.

The hospital was well appointed and running smoothly as it had been established soon after the surrender of Japan in August 1945. During WW2 it had been an Imperial Japanese Naval Hospital . In the main, the medical and nursing staff (male and female) consisted of military personnel from Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, being members of the Royal Australian Army Medical Corps (RAAMC), the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC), the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps (RCAMC), the Royal Canadian Army Nursing Corps (RCANC) and from the UK, the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC).The staff of the three (3) nations worked efficiently and cohesively, as we all had similar training and standards. Sometimes different expressions and terminology did cause some confusion, but this was soon overcome or addressed. It would be fair to say that there were some nationalistic rivalries of a minor nature but this was never a real issue as there was in place a regular system of rotation of duties and responsibilities, with each nation taking turns. Mainly, our patients were casualties of the Korean War that was raging on the Peninsula, just across the Yellow Sea, but there were also a number of BCOF personnel who were sick or had been injured in accidents in Japan.

The Korean War casualties were usually flown in from Korea as Medical Evacuees (MEDEVACS). Many had passed through the 16th Indian Field Ambulance, which throughout the war, supplied a very valuable and significant service to the Commonwealth Brigades in evacuating the wounded from "the front". Most of our patients from Korea were very seriously wounded and we often wondered where the "minor" casualties and the walking wounded were. We later found out that many of those who had superficial flesh wounds and similar had been "dressed" at Clearing Aid Stations, slightly behind the "front" and then insisted on returning to their Battalions. Some, particularly Australians, would disobey Medical Officer's orders and make their own way back to their Companies and Platoons. The real horrors of the Korean War were "brought home" to me when I was allocated for duty in the Burns Ward of the BRITCOM Hospital in Kure. Tragically, a number of these casualties were burnt by napalm and phosphorous bombs inadvertently dropped by United Nations (UN) forces who had mistaken our positions for that of the then enemy. Sadly, a number did die. Many were bandaged from head to foot, with only slits for their eyes and mouths, and obviously in great pain, which we attempted to alleviate with what "pain killers" were available at the time. Rarely - if ever - did they complain. Their youthful eyes would "light up" as we bent over them to dress their wounds or to apply medication. Their eyes also revealed their suffering and pain, Their stoicism under such traumas had to be witnessed to be believed. As we approached the Burns Ward, to report for duty, the stench from putrefying flesh was overpowering, the memory of which remains with me to this day.

I returned to Australia for a month in 1952 to attend a Promotion Course and on completion was re-posted back to Japan

The first Commonwealth Nursing Officers to serve in Korea arrived mid September 1952 and consisted of two (2) Australians, two (2) Canadians and two (2) British. They had been detached from the BRITCOM General Hospital, Kure, which subsequent to the Korean War, was identified as the 130 Australian General Hospital (BCOF)(130 AGH).

They travelled from Kure to Iwakuni (Japan) by ferry. Iwakuni was the main Royal Australian Air Force Base in Japan, accommodating 77 Squadron RAAF, the RAAF Transport Wing (DC 3's) and the RAAF Nursing Service. From Iwakuni they flew (RAAF) to the Kimpo Air Base (Korea) (K16) and then by Jeep to the British Commonwealth Communications Zone Medical Unit (BCCZMU) which was located in a suburb on the outskirts of Seoul. These six (6) Commonwealth nurses were soon thereafter augmented by a RAAF Nursing Sister who organised and coordinated the medical evacuations by the RAAF. Additionally, there were three (3) female Red Cross Representatives. The "front" was approximately 35 miles to the North.

I was posted to the BCCZMU early 1953. The hospital was a "bombed out" two (2) storey building which prior to the war had been a school. Before the arrival of the Commonwealth Nursing (female) Sisters, the BCCZMU had been an all male bastion. There was a degree of opposition or resentment to our intrusion into their domain. Possibly it was an example of male chauvinism, circa 1950's. We attempted to justify their attitude by thinking that their concerns were based on our welfare in being so close to the "front". There were some very heated verbal confrontations and even the "pulling of rank", which is virtually unknown in Nursing Corps. Drastic situations demand drastic action. All we wanted to do was to nurse and care for our wounded. All problems were eventually resolved and we slowly became accepted as an integral part of the "team".

Our living quarters were spartan, being a very small cubicle, a bed or stretcher with just enough room for our military trunk. There were no doors to the cubicles but somehow we scrounged fabric and sewed curtains to hang over the door frames. There was no running water. The building was tapless. Showering, which was confined to one (1) hour a day, and was carried out by standing under 44 gallon drums and then pulling on a rope. No heated water. At first there was no internal heating in building, but later some "pot bellied" stoves were acquired (???) for the medical wards, barely sufficient to change the internal room temperature. Electricity was almost non existent. There was a generator but it rarely worked. Night "rounds" were carried out with the aid of a hurricane lamp or candles, hence the title of this article, "Lamp Ladies"

Despite the lack of facilities we were determined that "our hospital" was going to be the cleanest, most hygienic, germ and bacteria free establishment in Korea. This entailed the continual scrubbing and washing down of floors, walls, beds etc with what soap, detergents and antiseptics we could beg, borrow or steal. The Quarter Master (QM), a Canadian, and his store was located in the basement. There was no insulation between the floors of the medical wards (ground floor) and the ceiling of the QM's Store. As a result of our ongoing cleaning activities, excess water would run down into the store room. Regularly, the QM could be heard bellowing throughout the building - " those bloody Australians are at their cleaning games again"

One nursing sister is known to have commented - " Well girls we now have a better understanding of what Florence Nightingale went through in the Crimea (1854 - 1856)". The conditions under which we "nursed" were basic in the extreme. The old nursing expression - TLC - (tender loving care) took on a whole new meaning for us. We had precious little else. Sophisticated medical equipment was non existent. We did not even have an Instrument Sterilisation Unit, let alone General Anaesthesia equipment. Even though the Medical Officers (Doctors) and the nurses were all highly trained with a wealth of experience between them, major surgery was just not possible, except in emergencies, when local anaesthetics were used. The most commonly used drugs were penicillin and sulphur powder.


It was back to basic nursing. Being so close to the "front" the wounded came to us via a variety of transports including being strapped to the bonnets of Jeeps and in the back of trucks. On arrival, the casualties would have their wounds attended to and dressed. Then we washed and deloused our patients and kitted them out with pyjamas and dressing gowns - subject of course to availability. Due to the circumstances under which they served, many were filthy and their combat clothing infested with vermin. Some had been in the "line" for weeks or months under continuous combat conditions, with little or no opportunity to have a good wash or shower.

The washing and delousing process was the cause of much embarrassment, specially to the younger wounded. Many looked like school boys and indeed it is known that a number left school early to fight in Korea. Readers should remember that most were raised in the era of when they left home to go to school or the movies, the last thing that their Mother's would say to them was " Have you got clean underwear on ?. What would the Nurses and Doctors think if you were run over by a bus and had to go hospital with dirty underwear ? ". They were always most self conscious of their dirty condition.

The critical and seriously wounded were treated first and arrangements made to have them on a MEDEVAC flight to Japan with the minimum of delay. Depending on the Medical Officers assessments, the remainder of each intake was progressively treated.

The stretcher causalities usually had a small army knapsack on their chests which contained their meagre personal possessions, usually their toilet gear, some letters and photographs, which had been hastily thrown in by their mates who had survived the particular battle or engagement. Many looked so young that a school bag would have been more appropriate. Some were even still clutching their rifles, which most were reluctant to "give up". None of the nurses were immune to the suffering that continually surrounded us, but we were professionals and we had a role to play, irrespective of our personal feelings and emotions. We all wanted to do more for "our boys" but were restricted by lack of facilities and resources. As the war progressed (three years and one month) it became patently obvious that the wounded were becoming younger and younger. In the early stage of the war the wounded were in a higher age bracket, some having served in WW2 and /or spent a number of years in Japan with the Military Occupation Forces. Mostly they were mature and experienced soldiers.

Members of the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) were obliged to complete one (1) Tour of Duty of twelve (12) months, unless they were wounded or became ill. By September 1951 all of the "originals" who had survived had completed their twelve (12) months and were repatriated to Japan and/or Australia. Those who were posted to Japan became instructors to the younger reinforcements for Korea. A number did volunteer for a second Tour of Duty in Korea.

There are many ironies in war. One Australian nursing sister had been formally advised that she was on the next Draft for service with the BRITCOMCZMU in Korea. A short time previously she had been notified that her young brother had been killed in action (KIA) whilst serving with the RAR in Korea. Moves were made to have her withdrawn from the Draft. No way. She insisted on being allowed to serve close to the "front". There is every possibility that she nursed wounded Australians who had served with her brother in the battle in which he was killed. She completed her full Tour of Duty having made a very significant contribution to the care of our wounded.

On several occasions, on night rounds, a Sister would discover an empty bed with a hurriedly scribbled note on the pillow - "Thanks for everything Sister. I have returned to my Battalion". Security was "tight" in and around Seoul as it was known that North Korean and Chinese troops had infiltrated the perimeter. Sometimes our "escapees" would be apprehended, usually by US Military Police, and returned to us, only to "take off" again at a later date.

As I write this article, many memories flood back. Some sad and tragic others humorous and funny. Humour was the element that allowed us to retain our sanity. It came from the staff and from our patients, who despite serious wounds, would continually tell jokes and take "the mickey" out of their fellow diggers and officers. One of the things that impressed me was the genuine and deep concern that the wounded had for their "mates". Invariably, when they became coherent, they would ask - "How is Bill .............?. Did he make it ? Is he here ? ". Many had only known each other for a few short months or even weeks.

They came from all over Australia with different backgrounds. In a very short period of time, bonds were formed that equated to concern and even brotherly love that has lasted a lifetime for those who survived. Such bonds are very difficult for those who have not had such experiences to understand.

Army Nursing Sisters have a similar bond with the infantry combat soldier and I am proud and privileged to be part of that "bonding". Causalities continued to arrive right up to the signing of the Armed Truce Agreement 27 July 1953 and thereafter. No Peace Treaty between North and South Korea has ever been executed. Post war causalities were mainly from minefields and the unexpected detonation of "dud" bombs and shells. On 7 August 1953, we managed to "wrangle" a Pass to the USA 121st Evacuation Hospital at Munsan - Ni, where American Prisoners of War (POW) were being exchanged for North Korean and Chinese POW. With the co-operation of the US Matron we were able to watch this historic event. As the Americans crossed the border into the United Nations Zone it was obvious that many of them had been physically and emotionally abused. Some had been prisoners for years. Emotions ran high that day.

The Australian POW's had or were being exchanged elsewhere and we were not involved in that procedure. At all exchanges the International Media, reporters, war correspondents, photographers and news reel cameramen attended in droves. The story has often been told of a young Australian soldier, as he limped across the border with tears running down his face, ripped the rough Chinese cap off his head and snatched the fur felt (slouch hat) off one of the Australian officials who was coordinating the exchange, and placed it on his own head. He was determined that the media was going to recognise him as an Australian.

The memories that I have of my service in Korea remain vivid today. Many of the names I have long forgotten, but not the faces. I still travel extensively throughout Australia and elsewhere. It is not unusual for an elderly man, sometimes accompanied by two or three grandchildren to approach me in a street or a shopping mall and say, " Hello Sister. How are you ?.. Remember me ?. You nursed me when I was wounded in Korea." The memories flood back and I visualise a young soldier, lying on a stretcher, dirty and unkempt and seriously wounded. The body still trim and taught but the eyes revealed it all. He had been to hell and returned.


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