Veterans' Stories

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Working in Third World Conditions

by Barbara (Babs) Probyn-Smith F159 RAANC

In the late 1990s, the KVAA Inc. instituted the Korean Veterans' Mortality & Health Study which looked at the effects of the conditions endured by those who served in Korea and how it might have affected their later health. The following is an edited excerpt from the account submitted by the late Captain Barbara Probyn-Smith, RAANC, who served in the British Commonwealth Military General Hospital in Kure from early 1952 until October 1952, then in the Australian Ebisu Camp Hospital in Tokyo until transferred to Tokyo Army Military General Hospital. The media of today would present the horrific conditions she and others worked in as a scandal and the mess would, hopefully, be quickly rectified. In 1952, however, it was just a matter of making the best of the circumstances and stoically getting on with the job.

In 1952, at the age of 22, myself and another Sister and four nurses, the first nurses of the ARA, departed from Sydney by Qantas Constellation. After refuelling at Darwin we headed over the Arafura Sea to Manila for an overnight stop, then to Iwakuni in Japan.

We were given quarters in Kure, opposite the large 7-storey British Commonwealth Military General Hospital, established as such in February 1949. Kure had been a huge Japanese naval base. It, and the population housed nearby, had been severely bombed and damaged during the war. Conditions were still very primitive. We were often understaffed. We had Japanese guards and Japanese personnel, who had many endemic diseases to which our bodies had no immunity. They cleaned our quarters and prepared our meals, often with dirty fingernails. There was regular spraying around our quarters, inside the quarters and the kitchens and food preparation areas and food utensils to combat mosquitoes, fleas, flies, rats and other vermin.

A series of canals ran between many of the sites in Kure and Hiro, where the Australian troops were held as reinforcements or in holding camps. The canals were filthy, slimy, full of run-off from excreta-filled paddy fields, rats and mice, and, often, the rotting bodies of humans and animals. Eradication campaigns were constantly waged against the rats and mice with toxic, poisonous baits and traps. We were forbidden to swim anywhere.

Up the hill, behind the Kure Hospital, and opposite and above our quarters was a very sordid town, with no washing facilities, no running water, where the Japanese grew fruit and vegetables in fields manured with human excreta. A terrible smell always emanated from it. It had no sewage. They dug open trenches into which they emptied their "honey buckets" of human excreta, before it was taken to the gardens for growing fruit and vegetables. Although there were wooden covers over the trenches, there were many large cracks between the boards, permitting the entry of flies and other vermin.

In Kure Hospital, we often worked long hours, with limited facilities and staff, particularly when the ambulance convoys and train ambulance carriages arrived with loads of casualties, some quite horrific. As a result, when overworked and dead tired, we sometimes did not take all the normal precautions. Whenever we became sick ourselves, we avoided reporting it, as it meant a greater workload on the remaining sisters and nurses, and curtailed our times off duty, which we treasured. Thus our medical records would not reveal the true extent of whatever illnesses and diseases we ourselves got, mitigating against later claims, to which, at that time, we gave no thought. A similar situation existed with our troops in the frontline. Ambulance convoys often disgorged 100-150 badly wounded casualties at a time, when we had to work around the clock, often without a break. The surgical ward, alone, in the hospital could hold up to 200 cases, and often did.

Many of the soldiers arrived in a filthy condition, in dirty, chemical infested clothing and boots which they had not changed, in some cases, for many weeks. Many of them were infested with lice. They were all fumigated, de-loused, had all their hair shaved or cut off, and were placed in chemically treated baths. I do not know what all the toxic chemicals and solvents used for this purpose were, but there were many, most of which have since been banned. I do know that they were all liberally dusted all over with anti-louse powder and with DDT hand dust guns, or by engine-driven dusting apparatus.

Within the wards, there were many toxic chemicals used to counter infection, cross infection and keep the wards as sterile as possible. These included a variety of bleaches, Creosol and Lysol, to name just a few. Although we should have always used gloves and protective clothing etc., and washed our hands, as, indeed, should have the doctors, between patients, this was not always possible, when we were dog tired and overworked.

First Published in The Voice, April 2011