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White Coolies
By Betty Jeffrey
Read by Beverley Dunn

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White Coolies

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White Coolies
By Betty Jeffrey
Read by Beverley Dunn
Bolinda Audio, (2001)
An Unabridged Audio Recording on 9 Cassettes
ISBN: 1-8644-2291-2
Genre: History, Autoiography

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - February 24, 2002

Just before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese during World War II, two groups of Australian Army Nursing Sisters were evacuated from Malaya, back to Australia. The first group left for Australia on February 11, 1942. After a harrowing journey, they reached their destination. The second group that left on February 12, 1942 was not so fortunate. This second group consisted of 65 nursing sisters, and they sailed on the Vyner Brooke. Two days the Vyner Brooke was bombed by the Japanese. It sunk rapidly, and only 53 nurses reached the shore Bangka Island. Of these, 21 were machined gunned to death by the Japanese soldiers after surrendering. The remaining 32 women spent the next three and a half years struggling to survive as prisoners of the Japanese.

White Coolies is the heroic, and often tragic story of these nursing sisters. One of these nursing sisters was Betty Jeffrey, and this absorbing account is based upon the notes she secretly kept during her captivity. This unabridged audio recording of White Coolies is read by Beverley Dunn. Her reading is quiet and reserved, which perfectly matches the dignity of Jeffrey's narrative.

Jeffrey's account of her time as a prisoner of war is told in a matter-of-fact manner that is, at times, almost as shocking as the atrocities that she is recounting. Perhaps this is an offshoot of her nurses training. Nurses are taught that when they are around a patient, they should never act scared. Furthermore, they should always act as if everything is all right, even when if the world is falling apart. This matter of fact approach to the narrative serves to give the account a noble dignity that touches your heart. It will also make you marvel at Jeffrey's emotional and moral strength.

In White Coolies, Jeffrey's offers background information on how she came to be in Malaya with the Australian Army Nursing Services, and the events that led to the nursing sisters being evacuated first to Singapore, and than to Australia. With her account of the sinking of the Vyner Brooke, Jeffrey's account takes on a surreal aura as she recounts how the Japanese machined gunned the life boats, and the women and children on the deck of the sinking ship. Matters only become more unbelievable as she tells about her struggle to reach land and the cold-blooded murder of 21 of her fellow nursing sisters. Regrettably, while the story may seem unbelievable, it is all too true, and these atrocities were but two of many that where carried out during World War II.

Once on shore, Jeffrey was imprisoned by the Japanese. The bulk of her account details life as a prisoner of war and what happened to her and her fellow nursing sisters with whom she was imprisoned. She tells of the twice-daily roll call, the backbreaking work that they were forced to do, and why she started keeping a diary during her captivity. She also explains how she managed to carry out this task, a task which had to be done in secret because if she had been caught she would have been beaten or, more likely, simply killed. She also tells of the joys of liberation, days after the war ended in 1945, and the hard struggle to regain her health. And most uplifting, her account of her return to Australia in October of 1945, and the tremendous reception that the nurses received when they finally made it home - and the joy of her first hot bath in almost four years!

Jeffrey talks about the struggles and the depravation that the nurses had to endure, including lack of food and a variety of devastating diseases including malaria and scurvy that they all suffered from. She also talks about how they kept their morale up, and how the nursing sisters became like real sisters, helping each other to survive the unsurvivable, and how they helped each other when one of their number died. Amazingly, of the 32 nursing sisters taken prisoner, only eight died in captivity - a true sign of their resiliency and the ability of the nursing sisters to help each other.

Without doubt, parts of this narrative are sad and depressing, yet, overall, this is an inspirational work. Even when Jeffrey and the nurses were at their lowest, they managed to find the necessary spark to carry on - and to do so with compassion and courage. This is a simply amazing and riveting story. The writing is clear, powerful, and vivid - it is a truly remarkable and unforgettable narrative.

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