Women POWs of Sumatra (1942–1945)

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Women POWs of Sumatra (1942–1945)

Several hundred women, mostly European, Dutch, and Australian, interned with some 40 children in Malaya by the Japanese during World War II, who organized their camp against conditions of brutality, deprivation, and disease, sustaining themselves with a vocal orchestra, newsletter, and dispensary.

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, Malaya, and Singapore (December 7, 1941); Singapore surrendered; women POWs began internment in Palembang (February 15, 1942); Philippines fell to Japan (May 1943); Allies landed in New Georgia, New Guinea, New Britain, and the bombing of Japan began (1943); Gilbert and Marshall Islands, Marianas, Saipan, and Guam recaptured and Tokyo bombed (1944); women POWs moved from Palem-bang to Muntok on Banka Island (October 20, 1944); 210 women died of Banka fever (October–December 1944); British, American, and Chinese forces retook Burma, now Myanmar (1945); Philippines reoccupied (February 4, 1945); Americans landed on Iwo Jima (February 19); survivors of Banka Island moved to Loebok Linggau, in Malayan interior (April 9); Margaret Dryburgh, camp spiritual leader, died (April 21); Victory in Europe Day (May 8); atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (August 6); atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki (August 9); women discovered in Loebok Linggau camp by the British (August 26); Japan formally surrendered (September 2, 1945).

While debates have raged about whether or not women should take part in combat, they served in many capacities during World War II—flying aircraft, driving trucks, nursing the wounded—and they also became prisoners of war. In the Pacific theater, the death rate in Japanese camps was staggering: 20–50% of the POWs died in internment. Because of their status as "noncombatants," women like those held captive in Sumatra have generally been overlooked. When the war ended, they returned to their nations without parades, pensions, or recognition. In recent years, however, as many survivors write books to tell their stories and work to publicize the fate of their fellow captives, a good deal of interest has been awakened in the epic of survival of the women POWs of Sumatra.

Many came from Singapore, an island which was the site of what came to be regarded as the greatest military disaster ever inflicted on the British Empire. The East Indies were home to tens of thousands of British and Dutch colonists, and by 1940 Singapore had been a favorite posting for colonials for well over 100 years, with its wide streets, bustling shops, parks, manicured lawns, and attractive homes. Administrators, planters, and members of the armed forces and their wives were frequent visitors at the Raffles Hotel, which served the finest food and drink available to the region's white rulers.

On December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they also attacked Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Two assumptions were to prove the Europeans' undoing: they regarded the Japanese as inferior warriors, and they believed that the British navy and heavy artillery guarding Singapore made the island impregnable. When Japanese forces began making their way from Burma (now Myanmar) down the Malay peninsula, they were at first ignored. It was commonly believed that the island and its port were further protected by impenetrable jungle. Over the weeks, however, the Japanese hacked their way closer and closer to the British stronghold, and when they captured an entire airfield, British forces fled in panic. The Japanese army was suddenly pouring into Singapore's unguarded back door while its air force rained bombs down from on high, rendering the huge guns pointing out to sea useless. The Japanese navy made short work of the British ships guarding the harbor, and on February 15, 1941, they took Singapore.

The colonists' belief in the impenetrability of their stronghold up to the last moment accounted for the large numbers of women and children still in the city when Singapore fell. In the last days, when defeat was clearly imminent, hordes of people rushed to the harbor to board any available craft, and the Japanese sank many shiploads of refugees. On these vessels were many of the women who would become POWs in Sumatra, among them Norah Chambers , Vivian Bullwinkel , and Betty Jeffrey , on the Vyner Brooke; Margaret Dryburgh on the Mata Hari; and the adolescents Helen, Antoinette and Alette Colijn on the Poelau Bras. Built for 12 passengers, the Vyner Brooke held more than 300, including 65 nurses of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), of which Bullwinkel was one. After a night passed hiding behind islands to avoid being spotted by the Japanese, the Vyner Brooke finally made its way toward escape, reaching the Banka Strait. After taking machine-gun fire which put holes in the starboard lifeboats, at 2 pm on February 14th the vessel suffered direct hits from three bombs. The order was made to abandon ship. Bullwinkel would later remember: "Those that weren't too

keen to leave, we gave a helping hand to." The Vyner Brooke was sunk in about 15 minutes, and the Japanese fired on the hundreds in the water. Throughout the night, despite persistent strafing by Japanese pilots, the survivors headed for a fire on Banka Island, lit as a beacon by the first among them to reach land. By morning, nearly 100 shipwrecked survivors were assembled there on Radji beach.

The decision was made to turn themselves in to the Japanese. One of the senior nurses, Matron Drummond, suggested that the mothers and children head for the village along with the other civilian women. That group departed but the nurses, including Drummond, remained with the men, whose injuries they attended, and were joined by one elderly woman who chose to stay with her husband. What followed would be long remembered. The Japanese arrived on the beach and marched half of the able-bodied men out of sight. They returned moments later to claim the remaining half, who also disappeared. The nurses and one civilian woman were left on the beach. Bullwinkel heard one nurse remark: "There are two things I hate the most, the sea and the Japs, now I've got them both." The ensuing laughter was broken by the sound of rifle fire. The Japanese returned, sat down in front of the women, cleaned their bloody bayonets, and saw to their rifles. They then lined the women up and ordered them to walk into the sea; when the women were waist high in the water, the soldiers opened fire. Bullwinkel was the only survivor. She would later recall:

They just swept up and down the line and the girls fell one after the other. I was towards the end of the line and a bullet got me in the left loin and went straight through and came out toward the front. The force of it knocked me over into the water and there I lay. I did not lose consciousness…. The waves brought me back to the edge of the water. I lay there 10 minutes and everything seemed quiet. I sat up and looked around and there was no sign of anybody. Then I got up and went up in the jungle and lay down and either slept or was unconscious for a couple of days.

Bullwinkel was startled by the voice of a man, Private Kingsley, who had been bayoneted when the Japanese killed the men but was still alive. Injured herself, she nursed him until, about 12 days later, they began the walk to Muntok. There, notes Hank Nelson, Bullwinkel found 31 nurses who had landed in a different location on the island. "From the 65 nurses on the Vyner Brooke," he writes, "twelve were presumed drowned, 21 had been shot, and 32 had been taken prisoner. Over 80 people had been killed on the beach; a quarter of them women." At war's end, Nelson notes, even with evidence of "other and greater horrors," "it was probably the shooting of the nurses and the miraculous escape of Sister Bullwinkel that became the best known of all the POW stories of death and defiance." Bull-winkel would later admit: "At the time I'd say, 'Why me? Why me?' And then as time went on I—you know, I still say, 'Why me?'"

Aware she was in particular danger as a witness to the massacre, Bullwinkel had intended not to speak of the killings to anyone so as not to endanger them as well. But in the emotion of the reunion, as she was pressed for details of what had become of the others, she told her fellow nurses of the murders. "And all agreed," writes Nelson, "that Bullwinkel's escape would have to be secret among the nurses: it was not to be talked about, even when they thought they were alone. Bullwinkel, the lone survivor and the one link with so many dead colleagues, was both precious and dangerous to the other nurses." Though the women would remain silent, the effect of her story would have far-reaching ramifications during their upcoming days of internment. The women POWs were now well aware that the Japanese were willing to kill them.

Unprepared for coping with so many captured European prisoners, the Japanese held those who surrendered to them in contempt, especially the women. The men at least could be put to work as common laborers, but women and children were "useless mouths." This attitude would dictate Japanese policy until the end of the war.

In all, Bullwinkel and the other women and children who were rounded up and sent to Irenelaan camp near Palembang, on the island of Sumatra, represented 27 nationalities and numerous walks of life, including nurses, nuns, doctors, teachers, and wives of administrators and planters. Until their capture, many had been members of the European elite. Thrust into the primitive conditions of the internment camp, they slept, often without blankets, on concrete floors, with only a well and one or two faucets to provide water. Their food was mostly contaminated rice; bathroom facilities were outside and public. The Japanese, unequipped for such numbers, did as little as possible, in the hope that the problem would simply take care of itself. The women were to move to four different camps during their three-and-a-half years of captivity.

Bullwinkel, Vivian (1915–2000)

Australian nurse and prisoner of war who was the sole surviving woman of a massacre on Banka Island . Name variations: Vivian Stathem. Born in Kapunda, South Australia, in December 1915; died in Perth from cardiac arrest following leg surgery on July 3, 2000; daughter of George Bullwinkel (a mining company employee); educated in Broken Hill and District Hospital, 1938; married Colonel Frank W. Statham, in 1977 (died 1999); children: one stepson; one stepdaughter.

Completed midwifery training (1939); served as staff nurse at Kiaora Private Hospital, Hamilton, Victoria (1939–40); served as staff nurse at Jessie McPherson Hospital, Melbourne (1940–41); volunteered with the 13th Australian General Hospital (September 1941); interned at Japanese prisoner-of-war camp (1941–44); named president of the College of Nursing (later the Royal College of Nursing), Australia (1970s).

After working as a staff nurse during the early years of World War II, Vivian Bullwinkel wanted to volunteer her services to the war effort. Initially rejected by the Royal Australian Army Nursing Service (RAAF) because of flat feet, she joined the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) in September 1941, as part of the fledgling 13th Australian General Hospital (AGH), and sailed to Singapore on a hospital ship. When Singapore was attacked by the Japanese and evacuated, Bullwinkel boarded the Vyner Brooke, which was bombed and sunk by the Japanese in the Banka Strait. She and other survivors reached Banka Island, where the Japanese soon arrived to push the women nurses and one civilian woman into the water and open fire on them. Bull-winkel, the only woman survivor of the massacre on the beach, reached Muntok some days later, where she joined other shipwrecked nurses who had landed in different locations on the island. With them, she was interned in the women's POW camp for three-and-a-half years. She reached Singapore at war's end, on September 16, 1945. Bullwinkel resumed her career as a nurse in Australia and, with fellow survivor Betty Jeffrey , toured Victoria to raise funds for a Nurses' Memorial Centre in Melbourne. Established to honor all nurses who had lost their lives during the war, the Centre was also created for the "welfare and advancement" of the profession of nursing.

Following the shock of their internment, they had to adjust to their inferior status if they were to survive. They learned to bow repeatedly to the Japanese or suffer punishment. When food was delivered, dumped in front of them on the ground, they learned that it could be retrieved only after permission was given. The Japanese government had never agreed to the Geneva convention which mandated the treatment of prisoners, and requests for medical care were usually ignored. Red Cross shipments were confiscated and few of these supplies ever reached the 500 women and about 100 children interned in the Palembang camp.

Chambers, Norah (1905–1989)

Scottish musician whose role in conducting a vocal orchestra of women POWs in Sumatra during World War II brought her retrospective recognition and inspired the movie Paradise Road . Born Margaret Constance Norah Hope on April 26, 1905, in Singapore; died on June 18, 1989, on Jersey, Channel Islands, England; eldest of four children of James Laidlaw Hope (a mechanical engineer) and Margaret Annie Ogilvie (Mitchell) Hope; sister of Barbara Laidlaw, Ena Jessie, and James Affleck; attended boarding school in Aylesbury, England; graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, London, where she studied the violin, piano and chamber music, and played in the Royal Academy of Music orchestra under Sir Henry Wood; married John Lawrence Chambers (a civil engineer), on March 1, 1930, in Ipoh, Perak, Malaya; children: Sally Hope (b. October 28, 1933, in Ipoh, Perak, Malaya). Lived on and off in Malaya, first with parents, and later with husband; when the Japanese invaded Malaya, trekked through the jungle and arrived in Singapore as evacuation was in progress; evacuated daughter to Perth, Western Australia, but her own rescue vessel, the Vyner Brooke, was bombed and sunk; separated from husband and interned in Japanese prison camp; after 18 months, formed a vocal orchestra (1943); with Margaret Dryburgh, worked from memory to arrange scores of 30 classics for four-part women's voices; with husband after the war, returned to Malaya; retired to Jersey in the Channel Islands (1952); composed for and directed the choir of St. Mark's Church in St. Helier.

During 1943, in an attempt to inspire her fellow prison-camp internees with the will to survive the south Sumatran camps, Norah Chambers conceived the idea of forming a vocal orchestra to perform orchestral works for the entertainment of the 600 women and children in the camp. She took the idea to Margaret Dryburgh , a gifted Presbyterian missionary, and they worked from memory to transcribe and arrange over 30 miniature classics for four-part vocal harmonies.

Chambers was born to Scottish parents in Singapore in 1905, the eldest of three girls and one boy. From Malaya, where their father was an engineer, the children were sent to boarding school in Aylesbury, England. For three years during the 1920s, Chambers was a student at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London where she studied the violin under James Lockyer. According to correspondence exchanged in the 1980s between Chambers and New Zealand musician Cara Hall , Chambers' greatest influence in those years came from playing in the Academy orchestra under Sir Henry Wood. He was, wrote Chambers, "a brilliant man, very eccentric and he hammered anyone who made a mistake…. I can still see Sir Henry lifting his left hand and yelling 'VEEBRATO!' What a man. I loved playing in the orchestra where I learned a lot. Unfortunately, I didn't have a hope of getting into one after I left—very few females allowed—they were mostly harpists. Fiddlers were two a penny. It took a prison camp to realise what I could do. Funny, isn't it?" Years later, when she came to conduct her own vocal orchestra in the prison camp, Chambers simply knew how to conduct. Sir Henry had made a lasting impression.

After graduating from the Royal Academy, Chambers, with her mother and two sisters, rejoined her father in Malaya. In March 1930, she married John Chambers, a civil engineer in the government service working in a small, up-country white community in the northeastern town of Kuala Trengannu. There, she began teaching violin to local children. Their daughter Sally was born in 1933 in Ipoh, Perak, Malaya.

When the Japanese invaded Malaya in 1941, the Chambers family made a harrowing five-day trek through the jungle, eventually finding a railway line and arriving in Singapore where a full-scale evacuation was in progress. The young Sally was safely evacuated to Perth, Western Australia, but her parents were not so lucky—their ship, the Vyner Brooke, was sunk, and after several days at sea they came ashore on Sumatra. There, they were captured and interned in separate camps—one for women and children, the other for men.

In the brutal conditions of the camp, Chambers came up with the idea of performing orchestral music, using voices as instruments. Even the guards in the camp fell completely under the spell of the music she made with her vocal orchestra and later came to all the concerts. When Chambers refused to add a Japanese song to the repertoire, she was made to stand for hours in the sun without water.

Unlike her musical partner Dryburgh, Chambers survived the years of internment and lived to see the music of the vocal orchestra widely performed in the postwar years. Three years before her death, she met a musician whom she felt precisely understood her music and interpretations, Dirk Jan Warnaar, music editor and director of the Dutch Vocal Orchestra from Bodegraven. He conducted a concert of the music the women had performed in the camps. Wrote Chambers to Cara Hall: "He seemed to know my mind. His girls sang exactly as mine did." In 1987, aware of the wide interest in the story and music of her vocal orchestra, Chambers wrote Hall: "I believe now that our music will not die."

Dryburgh, Margaret (1890–1945)

English Presbyterian missionary in China and Singapore who acquired the status of a kind of saint among the women POWs in Sumatra and gained posthumous recognition for her role in creating a repertoire for the vocal orchestra of women . Name variations: Daisy. Born in February 1890 in Sunderland, northern England; died on April 23, 1945, in a Japanese prisoner-ofwar camp in Belalau, Sumatra (then the Dutch West Indies); first of three daughters of William Dryburgh (a Presbyterian minister) and Agnes Dryburgh ; studied education and music at Newcastle College, a division of Durham University, B.A., 1911; never married. Taught at Ryhope Grammar Girls' School, where she led the school choir; worked for the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Association in Swatow, South China (1919–25); went to Singapore to work among the Teochow Chinese, whose language she spoke fluently; became the first principal of the Kuo Chuan Girls' School on Bishan Street, as well as organist in the Presbyterian Church in Orchard Road; was aboard the Mata Hari (February 1942) when it was seized by the Japanese in the Banka Strait off Sumatra; was a prisoner of war in a series of camps for women and children in southern Sumatra (1942–45); in the camps, quickly emerged as a religious and social leader whose regular church services as well as her verse, plays, songs and drawings of prison scenes served to inspire those around her; many of her creative works, including poems, drawings and a hymn, have been published in accounts of life in the prison camps.

Born into a devout Presbyterian family in 1890 in Sunderland, northern England, Margaret Dryburgh was the eldest of three daughters, all of whom were accomplished in music and the arts. She studied education and music at Newcastle College, a division of the University of Durham, and graduated with a B.A in 1911. Her first teaching post was at Ryhope Grammar Girls' School, where she led the school choir. Dryburgh subsequently spent more than 20 years as a Presbyterian missionary in China and Singapore, where she was much admired for the expression of her faith through music. She was 52 years old when she was taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1942. Helen Colijn , one of three adolescent sisters interned in the camp with her, recalls: "When I first met Miss Dryburgh, she had struck me as a rather dull bird: eyes peeping through thick round lenses, brownish hair in a tight bun at the back of her head, a short stocky figure wearing the sensible loose-fitting cotton dress and Mary Jane-type shoes…. But I soon discovered that Miss Dryburgh was not at all a dull woman."

Dryburgh was among 320 women and children who had been evacuated from Singapore in the last days before its fall. She was aboard the Mata Hari when it surrendered to the Japanese in the Banka Strait off Sumatra. Together with survivors from other fleeing ships sunk at sea, those from the Mata Hari were rounded up on Sumatra and interned in two separate camps—one for women and children, the other for men."

Survivors stress that one of the most dislocating aspects of their internment was their complete isolation from the outside world. Dryburgh understood the significance of being able to draw upon the culture which the internees had left behind to provide an alternative context for their present circumstances. Her composition of The Captives' Hymn, an early example of this, was first sung on July 5, 1942, and drew upon conventional and well-known patterns of hymnal music and verse to create a piece which also acknowledged the particular anguish of the internees. As if in testimony to its particular and universal relevance, when repatriation came it was carried by a Eurasian girl to Singapore to be sung by the prisoners there.

When fellow POW Norah Chambers decided to create a vocal orchestra for women in the camp, she collaborated with Dryburgh on the scores which would one day be used to recreate the women's performances around the world. Their music helped sustain the prisoners through three-and-a-half years of internment. Dryburgh, however, was among the many who died before seeing freedom.

Lavinia Warner and John Sandilands note that "the loss of Miss Dryburgh was sorely felt…. She was the vigorous and inventive spirit who made a large and disparate body of women coalesce to find strength against a common peril…. The church services she initiated, amid the doubts and impatience and even embarrassment of those around her at the start of the imprisonment, endured as a vital rallying point to the very end. But in fact she did more, fostering the tribal strength that became the foundation of survival when the desperate fight at Belalau forced each person there to call upon their last individual resources."

While performances of the vocal orchestra music have been held in many countries, perhaps the most specific tribute to Dryburgh's creativity has come from Dutch musician Dirk Jan Warnaar, whose oratorio Margaret was based on her prison-camp poems and first performed in Holland on May 4, 1990. It is dedicated to Norah Chambers, to honor the collaboration of the two women. So great was Dryburgh's impact on her fellow prisoners that although she died before peace was declared in 1945 her reputation as an inspiring figure, a musical genius, even a kind of saint lives on among the survivors today.

Prisoners suspected of treachery were taken to the Palembang Jail, which was run by the Kempei Tai, the Japanese version of the Gestapo. Women who survived the confinement and torture were often returned to camp without knowing the crime with which they had been charged.

Nevertheless, the women began to create a community. Two early leaders were Sister Catherina , a member of the Dutch Order of St. Borromeus, who had come to Sumatra in 1936, and Reverend Mother Laurentia , the order's mother superior, who organized the prisoners into groups, each headed by a captain. These representatives assessed their group's day-to-day needs, distributed their few precious resources when available, and carried out orders dictated by the Japanese. Mother Laurentia also marshaled the captive nuns to minister to prisoners, both physically and spiritually. Dr. Jean McDowall , a Scot who always carried her black medical bag with her, and Margot Turner , a British nurse, set up a crude dispensary staffed

by nurses who were mostly Australian; Zaida Short , born in Baghdad and married to a British soldier, negotiated with the guards to procure many badly needed goods like cloth, medicine, and additional food.

The crowded and dismal conditions made organization and cooperation essential to survival. The rice supply had to be picked through, grain by grain, to remove glass shards, bits of straw, and rodent excrement. The meat and vegetables, dumped on the ground, had to be thoroughly cleaned. When the women learned to add ferns, bamboo, and other jungle plants to their diet, groups were sent out to forage. Firewood had to be gathered and chopped for the preparation of meals, laundry had to be done, and latrines had to be cleaned to prevent disease. Tasks were assigned on a daily and weekly basis, and cultural differences sometimes created tension, but the framework of a daily routine helped somewhat to soften the harsh conditions.

Three quarters of the 600 internees were Dutch. Apart from the 32 Australian army nurses, a group of Dutch nuns from Java and Sumatra, and a handful of Eurasian internees, most of the women in the camp were expatriate Dutch or British women accustomed to leading a life of leisure in the colonies. From the beginning, these women organized entertainments for each other and for the children in their national groups: in the squalid, crowded conditions of the camp there were concerts, theatrical performances, and lending libraries of the few books available. In the British group, the English missionary Miss Dryburgh (as she was always known to her fellow internees) quickly emerged as a leader.

Noted Lavinia Warner and John Sandilands: "On the very first morning in the barracks, equipped with her Bible and a prayer-book borrowed from young Phyllis Liddelow , she announced that each morning and night she would say prayers and read from the Bible, and invited anyone who wished to do so to join her. This was the first indication of some form of leadership emerging amongst the women." With musician Norah Chambers, the Scottish wife of a government official, Dryburgh prepared music for choral singing in a glee club and a choir which sang on Sundays at regular church services. Amidst the filth and suffering which characterized the life of the prison camps, Dryburgh urged the women to "Look up!"—a literal redirection of the attention from the sordidness below to the sky above. To help maintain their spirits, she began a newsletter. When the children, left with little to do, began to form gangs and become increasingly disruptive, Dorothy Moreton, Mamie Colley , and Dryburgh restored some structure to their lives by founding a school. Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries were observed in the camp. In December 1942, the women applied their ingenuity to the observance of the first Christmas as prisoners. The camp was decorated, a Christmas feast was improvised, and there were homemade games and toys for each child. On Christmas Eve, the men in another camp nearby, separated from their wives and children, were dumbstruck to hear the strains of "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful" ring out, followed by other carols.

Like Dryburgh, Chambers emerged as a central figure. Helen Colijn would recall in Song of Survival: "In charge of the kitchen were two women who worked every day—and most of the day unless they were ill—for the duration of our captivity. These were the British Norah Chambers and the Dutch Saartje Tops . At four or five every morning they rose to start the fires, wheedling the flames out of embers they kept alive from the previous evening. A match was a rarity in the camp. Another of Chambers' jobs was to carry water for the baths of the Japanese, whilst the women's own water—a cup a day for everything during the dry season—came from a dirty well and had to be boiled."

Warner and Sandilands argue that the difficult, dirty and dangerous jobs in the camps acted as a yardstick for character, drawing respect and admiration in more or less reverse proportion to the view taken of such tasks in normal life. Two of the first volunteers to empty the overflowing cesspools in the second camp were Chambers and her best friend there, the New Zealander Audrey Owen . Every day before breakfast, they each used a halved coconut shell to scoop the contents into kerosene tins and, using a yoke, carried the vile contents outside the camp. They returned to repeat the process until the job was done. Chambers would later note: "Audrey taught me a great deal…. She knew a lot about the stars and on clear nights we would sit outside and she would point out the constellations to me, a wonderful escape from everything around us. She was a very intelligent, gentle person and sometimes, to take our minds off our sanitary forays, she would recite poetry to me as we worked. And even in that ghastly mess we found flowers, beautiful passion flowers which we would pick and take back and give one bloom to anyone who had a birthday." Chambers' ability to find hope in the midst of squalor would help sustain the other women as the effects of starvation worsened.

So close your eyes, and try to imagine you are in a concert hall hearing Toscanini or Sir Thomas Beecham conduct his world-famous orchestra.

—Margaret Dryburgh at the first performance of the vocal orchestra in the women's POW camp

After 18 months of captivity, when the 600 women and children were moved to a compound no larger than a football field, their creative energy began to evaporate, and entertainments slowed almost to a stop. Here starvation rations had to be eked out, the sick and dying nursed without medication, and latrines emptied. Margaret Dryburgh became ill with dengue fever, and the choir languished without her dynamism. Chambers, a graduate of the Royal College of Music, hit upon the notion of using voices instead of instruments to present orchestral pieces. She took her idea to Dryburgh, and together the two women, working entirely from memory, created exquisitely crafted miniature instrumental works arranged for four-part women's voices. Chambers would later recall of Dryburgh: "She had an infallible memory for both music and words, perfect pitch and an instant command of harmony. You could go to her, hum a tune and straight away she could write it down and harmonize it." The vocal parts were copied out in the smallest manuscript on precious scraps of paper. Rehearsals for the first concert were held in secret. It was to be a festive occasion and a surprise for the audience.

The first concert took place on December 27, 1943, introduced by Dryburgh:

This evening we are asking you to listen to something quite new, we are sure: a choir of women's voices trying to reproduce some of the well-known music usually given by an orchestra or a pianist. The idea of making ourselves into a vocal orchestra came to us when songs were difficult to remember, and we longed to hear again some of the wonderful melodies and harmonies that uplifted our souls in days gone by.

Large gatherings were forbidden by the Japanese, and the guard rushed into the audience waving his bayonet. Chambers ignored him, raised her hands and the vocal orchestra began the hushed opening of the Largo from the New World Symphony. The guard, entranced, listened quietly. The Dvorak ended "with a great crescendo to give the impression of victory over all," recalls Colijn. "What the guard's private thoughts were we'll never know, but the impact on the internees was enormous. Many wept. They had not expected such beauty amid the hunger, the bed-bugs, the rats and the filth that had come to characterise their lives. The concert helped to renew the women's sense of human dignity, of being stronger than the enemy."

Recalled Bullwinkel:

There were 30 women in the choir. They were so weak from malnutrition that they had to sit on wooden stools as they sang, and it was difficult for them, at times, to sustain notes for their full strength. It was a spiritual moment; it transported us right away from our surroundings. Until then we were close to despair. Remember, it was our second Christmas in captivity, and we had no idea how long we would be there until liberation. But after that performance I don't think we ever despaired again. It stood out as the most joyful experience in three and a half years of captivity.

Because the songs sung by the vocal orchestra were without words, the music transcended the language barriers that had stood between the Dutch and the English-speaking women and helped create a cultural harmony the camps had not previously known. Musician Cara Hall notes that the remarkable thing about the Dryburgh-Chambers achievement was the way they condensed complex works (even movements from symphonies) entirely from memory, taking main themes with the right modulations and harmonic changes, then weaving them into miniature works complete in themselves. The process was a total collaboration between the two women. Chambers chose the works they could try, then Dryburgh worked them out. If Dryburgh ran into difficulties, Chambers lent a hand, completing such works as Ravel's Bolero and Rutland Boughton's Faery Song. Dryburgh "was a genius," wrote Chambers, "and we got on so well in every way. Though she was my senior by 20 years, age doesn't matter a hoot where music is concerned. It has a language all its own."

Though the first concert and those which followed lifted the women's spirits, it could not change their malnourishment. Most had the swollen bellies brought on by starvation and poor nutrition, and most had ceased to menstruate. Because of this, one woman did not realize she was pregnant until her seventh month. Mosquitoes were inescapable, causing malaria and septic sores, and dysentery, beriberi, and skin infections were common. Few medications were available and all medical treatment was crude; only the desperately ill were sent to the hospital. Despite these conditions, there were relatively few deaths from 1942 to 1944.

As the Allies drew closer to Malaya, and the Japanese troops became increasingly cut off from supply lines, the circumstances of the POWs deteriorated. On October 20, 1944, the women learned they would be moved to Muntok Camp, on Banka Island, just off the coast of Sumatra, which at first appeared to be an improvement. The new site had nine wells and large airy sleeping huts; chopped wood was even provided. But the island hosted the virulent Banka fever. The location of the latrines and the addition of 200 prisoners enhanced its spread, and malnourishment made the prisoners easy prey. The women sang for over a year, but when more than half of their number had died, the vocal orchestra was silenced. The deaths began in earnest in the last month of 1944. In late November there were 210 victims of Banka fever lying in the huts. In December, six Englishwomen and three Dutch nuns died; by Christmas Eve there were fifteen dead. By the end of January 1945, there were two or three funerals every day, as the women dug graves for their companions.

On April 9, 1945, the survivors were forced to move again. Packed first into the hold of a ship, and then into a train, they were transported without food or water to Loebok Linggau, an old rubber plantation. Several women died on the way, and conditions at the new camp proved even worse. Roofs full of holes provided little shelter from torrential downpours, and the prisoners were ordered to grow their own food supplemented by what they could gather from the jungle. In an act of particular cruelty, their captors did not allow the women to eat the many tropical fruits growing on the plantation, which were left to rot. After the harrowing journey, Dryburgh was desperately ill. Norah Chambers recalls her last moments: "She was semi-conscious and it was obvious that she was dying. She should have recovered but she was so weak from starvation that she just couldn't." On April 21, 1945, Margaret Dryburgh died at Loebok Linggau, a loss that symbolized all that the women had endured.

When Victory in Europe was declared less than three weeks later, on May 8, 1945, the women, still isolated from the outside world, were unaware. In early August, after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted in the surrender of Japan, word had still not reached the inmates. But the victorious Allies had heard rumors of large numbers of POWs in Japanese hands. Up to that time, their "island hopping" strategy had kept the Allied forces out of combat in Malaya, with the result that there were 80,000 well-armed Japanese troops still in the area. If these forces declined to surrender, there was a risk that their prisoners might be slaughtered. The British decided to parachute in a few men to negotiate the military settlement and locate any POWs, still without any notion that the women's camp even existed. On August 26, 1945, Major Gideon Jacobs was in charge of the first men to reach the shocking campsite, where the internees were now hardly more than skeletons. Jacobs radioed immediately for an airdrop of food and medical supplies, and a huge four-engined Liberator bomber was soon raining provisions down on the camp. British soldiers took up the work of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the sick; by this time, the number of the original captives who had died had risen to 237.

Hall, Cara Vincent (1922—)

New Zealand concert pianist who has played a central role in providing creative artists with background information on the establishment of the vocal orchestra of women POWs in Sumatra . Name variations: Cara Kelson. Born Cara Vincent Hall on October, 16, 1922, in Christchurch, New Zealand; daughter of George Francis Hall (an accountant) and Gladys Amelia (Vincent) Hall; sister of Charles Stanley Vincent; educated at Fendalton and Elmwood schools, Christchurch, and Wellington East Girls' College; graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, London, where she studied the piano with Vivian Langrish; studied in Paris with Lazare-Levy and Olivier Messiaen (early 1950s); married Robert Natahaniel Kelson (a political scientist, academic, and author), on May 7, 1955, in Wellington, New Zealand; children: Stanley Crispin Kelson (b. February 11, 1957).

Performed on first radio broadcasts (1935); gained the LRSM and awarded a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London (1937); performed extensively around the world (1940s–50s), and became especially known in New Zealand, where she performed solo in concert halls and schools, in recitals and concertos with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and on radio and in film; known for her articles on musical subjects and for her collaboration with creative artists in providing background information on the vocal orchestra of women POWs in Sumatra.

Cara Hall grew up in Christchurch, New Zealand, during the Depression years of the late 1920s and 1930s. She learned piano from age 7, began to broadcast on New Zealand radio at 13, and at 15 gained her LRSM and a scholarship to study at the prestigious Royal Academy of Music in London (1937). Her studies at the Royal Academy, interrupted by her return to New Zealand during World War II, were resumed in 1945. After a short and successful career in England, she returned to New Zealand in 1948 to pioneer an innovative music-education program for the New Zealand Education Department, performing 100 live piano lecture-recitals for children in rural schools and colleges throughout the country. She returned to Europe in the early 1950s to study with Lazare-Levy and Olivier Messiaen in Paris. A further period of performances in England was followed by a return to New Zealand in late 1954 to take up engagements with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

Within months of her return, she met and married Robert Kelson, an American Fulbright scholar from Boston, Massachusetts, who was lecturing at Victoria University, Wellington. They traveled extensively throughout South East Asia, the Middle East and Europe en route to Duke University, North Carolina, in the United States. Her performance career ended soon after the birth of their son in 1957.

During the 1980s, Hall lived in retirement with her husband in Perth, Western Australia, and turned to music journalism. She became particularly fascinated by the story of the formation of a vocal orchestra in a women's prisoner-of-war camp in Sumatra during World War II, and began a five-year correspondence with Norah Chambers , conductor of that orchestra. After Chambers' death in 1989, Cara Hall was music adviser to the Red Cross organizers of a concert held in Perth, Western Australia, in 1990 to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the release of the Australian army nurses from the prison camp. Subsequently, she has provided information and inspiration to a number of creative artists who have adapted the story into various art forms, including the feature film Paradise Road and the play Voices by Mary Morris which premiered in Western Australia in May 1997.

In the first days of their postwar experience, even generous helpings of food, too much for frail bodies, could be dangerous. The visible reactions of outsiders were a reminder of the terrible physical toll the ordeal had exacted. The news of the past three-and-a-half years, both personal and public, had to be absorbed. One of the greatest problems for the women turned out to be the adjustment to solitude. After years of living without privacy, many were uneasy without constant companionship, a situation poignantly anticipated by Dryburgh's 1943 poem "Alone: A meditation on community life."

I never can be quite alone,
My soul I scarce can call my own,
Five hundred voices fill the air,
Five hundred figures cross the square….
I dress before a hundred eyes,
A public bath the camp supplies
I read, embroidered is my tale
By stories of how others ail,
I write, the cook says "Time to eat."
"Remove your paper!" I retreat …
Shrill blast of whistles, clang of bells.
Alone! Alone! When shall I be
All by myself in privacy?
When that day comes, mayhap I'll own
I rather fear to be alone.

Having grown close during their ordeal, the women found themselves abruptly, and often permanently, separated from the support network which had sustained them. The colonial lifestyle they had known was now vanished forever, and many could not return to their former existences. Most went back to Europe, where their homecomings were low-key, and resumed their lives as best they could, without public recognition of what they had endured. Governments offered them no financial aid.

The camp administrator, Captain Siki, was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment for his brutal treatment of the inmates. But former captives showed surprisingly little bitterness toward the Japanese, demonstrating the same largeness of spirit, perhaps, which had sustained them in captivity. According to Major Jacobs, the morale of the women at the time of their liberation was much higher than that of the men in their camps. "Perhaps the women were more adaptable or had greater inner resources than the men," he said, "but they seemed to withstand the rigours of imprisonment more stoically."

On January 28, 1978, the story of the women POWs gained its first widespread attention after the broadcast of the British version of the television program "This Is Your Life," featuring one of the captives, Dame Margot Turner. More than 30 years after their liberation, some of the former prisoners were reassembled for the show. Since then, the story of the women's vocal orchestra has been retold many times. In Australia, Betty Jeffrey's autobiography White Coolies was published in 1952. Since Antoinette Colijn Mayer donated her original scores to Stanford University in 1980, performances of the vocal orchestra's music have been held throughout the world. In Britain, Lavinia Warner and John Sandilands' book Women Beyond the Wire was the basis for the BBC-TV series "Tenko" in the 1980s. In California during 1983, a documentary film was made of the performance of the music by the Peninsula Women's Chorus conducted by Dr. Patricia Hennings . In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Bruce Wells, resident choreographer of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, prepared a dance work called A Capella, premiered by the Mary Miller Dance Company on November 1, 1990. In Holland, Dutch musician Dirk Jan Warnaar's oratorio Margaret, based on Dryburgh's prison-camp poems and first performed in Holland on May 4, 1990, was dedicated to Norah Chambers to honor her crucial role in helping so many women survive the horrors of prison-camp life. And in Australia, Martin Meader and David Giles wrote a film script which was subsequently used by Bruce Beresford as the basis for his film Paradise Road, released internationally in 1997.

By writing books, promoting the music of the vocal orchestra, and publicizing the events that they had survived, the women of Sumatra's POW camps made sure that those who perished there would be remembered. In December 1946, Bullwinkel gave evidence at the Tokyo war crimes trials. For her heroism, she was awarded many honors, including the Order of Australia, the MBE, and the Red Cross' Florence Nightingale Medal. After returning to Australia and working at the Heidelberg Military Hospital there, she retired from the AANS and returned to civilian nursing until her marriage to Colonel Frank W. Statham in 1977. Throughout her retirement, she participated in numerous philanthropic projects that benefited veterans and nurses. Fifty years after her imprisonment, she returned to Banka Island with other nurses to honor her fallen colleagues; near the place where she believed the massacre had occurred, they unveiled a memorial.

Although the 237 graves hacked out of the Malayan jungle by the women have long since disappeared, tributes to the fallen will continue. In the town of St. Helier on the island of Jersey in England's Channel Isles, near which Norah Chambers lived from 1952 until her death on June 18, 1989, a handmade wooden cross resides on the altar of the Lady Chapel in St. Mark's Church, bearing the inscription, "In the memory of those women who died in prison camps in Sumatra whose graves will never be found." This simple message, handcrafted in ancient oak by the husband of one of the camp survivors, belies the intensity of the events which occurred half a world away, half a century ago.


Ager, Mary, ed. Song of Survival. CA: Song of Survival Productions, 1985.

Barber, Noel. A Sinister Twilight: The Fall of Singapore 1942. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Caffrey, Kate. Out in the Midday Sun: Singapore 1941–45. London: André Deutsch, 1974.

Callahan, Raymond. The Worst Disaster: The Fall of Singapore. London: Associated University Press, 1977.

Colijn, Helen. Song of Survival: Women Interned. Sydney: Millennium, 1996.

Hall, Cara. "The Dolmetsch Tradition," in Early Music Journal. Vol 13, no 2. June–July 1990.

——. "Filming underway of wartime drama," in Artswest. May–June 1996, p. 23.

——. "Gift of Love," in Artswest. March–April 1992, pp. 22–24.

——. "Music gave them the will to survive," in Destinations, Skywest. November–December 1989, pp. 24–27.

——. "Parry's plea for national concert circuit," in Music Maker. September–October 1988, p. 31.

——. "Song of Survival—now an oratorio and a dance," in Artswest. March–April, 1991, p. 30.

——. "Vocal orchestra music to be heard in Perth," in Music Maker. March–April 1990, p. 9.

Ienaga, Saburo. The Pacific War, 1931–1945: A Critical Perspective on Japan's Role in World War II. NY: Pantheon, 1978.

Nelson, Hank. "A Map to Paradise Road: A Guide for Historians," in Journal of the Australian War Memorial. Issue 32. March 1999.

——. "The Nips are Going for the Parker. The Prisoners Face Freedom," in War and Society. Vol. 3, no. 2. September 1985, pp. 127–143.

Personal correspondence between Cara Kelson (Hall) and Norah Chambers, 1984–89.

Roland, Charles G. "Allied POWs, Japanese Captors and the Geneva Convention," in War and Society. Vol. 9, no. 2. October 1991, pp. 83–102.

——. "Stripping Away the Veneer: P.O.W. Survival in the Far East as an Index of Cultural Atavism," in Journal of Military History. Vol. 53, no. 1. January 1989, pp. 79–94.

——, and Harry S. Shannon. "Patterns of Disease Among World War II Prisoners of the Japanese: Hunger, Weight Loss, and Deficiency Diseases in Two Camps," in Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences. Vol. 46, no. 1. January 1991, pp. 65–85.

Warner, Lavinia, and John Sandilands. Women Beyond the Wire: The True Wartime Story of Women Imprisoned by the Japanese. London: Michael Joseph, 1982.

Wigmore, Lionel. The Japanese Thrust. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1968 (Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series I [Army], IV).

suggested reading:

Crouter, Natalie. Forbidden Diary: A Record of Wartime Internment, 1942–1945. NY: B. Franklin, 1980.

Jackson, Daphne. Java Nightmare: An Autobiography. Padstow, Cornwall: Tabb House, 1979.

Jeffrey, Betty. White Coolies. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1954.

Keith, Agnes Newton. Three Came Home. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1947.

Leffelaar, H.L. Through a Harsh Dawn: A Boy Grows Up in a Japanese Prison Camp. Barre, MA: Barre, 1963.

Manners, N.G. Bullwinkel. Carlisle, WA: Hesperian Press, 1999.

Norman, E., and D. Angell. "Vivian Bullwinkel: Sole Survivor of the 1942 Massacre of Australian Nurses," in Nursing History Review. No. 7, 1999, pp. 97–112.

Simons, Jessie Elizabeth. While History Passed: The Story of the Australian Nurses Who Were Prisoners of the Japanese for Three and a Half Years. Melbourne: William Heinemann, 1954.

related media:

Paradise Road (115 min. film), starring Glenn Close Pauline Collins, Frances McDormand, Julianna Margulies , and Cate Blanchett , directed by Bruce Beresford, Fox Searchlight, 1997.

Song of Survival (video), produced by Helen Colijn and Brighton Video, New York, 1985.

Three Came Home (106 min. film), starring Claudette Colbert , covers the ordeal of Agnes Newton Keith in North Borneo internment camp, 1950.

A Town Like Alice (303 min.), internationally acclaimed Australian television miniseries, starring Helen Morse, Dorothy Alison , and Bryan Brown, teleplay based on the novel by Nevil Shute, adapted by Rosemary Anne Sisson and Tom Hegarty, produced by The Seven Network Australia, 1981.


Cara Hall's memorabilia are lodged in the Music Archives of the National Library of New Zealand in Wellington.

Cara Hall , former New Zealand concert pianist, now retired and living in Perth, WA, Australia; Lekkie Hopkins , Co-ordinator of Women's Studies, Edith Cowan University, Perth, WA, Australia; and Karin Loewen Haag , writer, Athens, Georgia

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Women POWs of Sumatra (1942–1945)

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Women POWs of Sumatra (1942–1945)