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Nurses prepared injured troops for medevac flights from Korea

More than 18,000 Australians served in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. Of these, 339 lost their lives.

As in all conflicts, medical staff were there to treat the injured and wounded, including Sisters from the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS). Sister Gay Bury, (now Halstead) served in the RAAFNS from 1951 until 1954 including tours of duty at the RAAF Hospital at Iwakuni (Japan) and the British Commonwealth Z Medical Unit (BCZMU) in Korea.

Others who served in Korea included Sisters Helen Cleary, Patricia Leeming, Catherine Daniels, Eunice Feil, Lorraine Jarrett, Joan Bengough, Gwen Jamieson, Patricia Tansey, Helen Blair, Nathalie Oldham, Julie McCormack, Pam Leahy and Pam Scholz.

Apart from their regular duties of preparing wounded servicemen for medevac flights from Korea to Iwakuni in Japan, Clark Base in the Philippines and to Australia, they often accompanied the wounded on the journeys.

Gay Halstead takes up the story.

"I was posted to Korea on 17 April 1953. Sister Lorraine Jarratt was also scheduled to fly over in the Dakota to accompany a medivac (medical evacuation) back to Iwakuni. Leaving Iwakuni, as usual before dawn, we settled down on top of the cargo and slept part of the way to be awakened by the pilot, 'Want to hear a voice from home?' Through his radio we heard Russ Tyson's breakfast session on Radio Australia.

"The plane was pitching and tossing, like an unhappy ship, due to turbulence. Two hours later we landed, at K16 (Seoul) and disembarked, together with three rather green looking Army officers. When all the waiting patients were loaded and the plane left on its return journey, I suddenly realised that I was here to stay. The wind tore along the tarmac carrying with it sand and dust, soon rain began adding to the discomfort. I was directed to the jeep belonging to the RAF Medical Officer and sat awaiting his return.

"A huge US Globemaster landed and taxied around, not far from the jeep. Its great jaws opened and a seemingly never ending centipede of men filed out, carrying various souvenirs of Japan; they had returned from Tokyo after a few days rest and recreation (R & R). Another group, who had been sitting behind a ranch-like fence on the other side, stood up, briefly drilled, and then they filed in, to be engulfed by the monster. Most looked tired and worn, and the majority in need of a good wash. I was amazed at the sight of these men; few were under 6 feet (183 centimetres). I lost count after 75 had, with exaggerated and characteristic leisure of Americans, entered the aircraft. At last I recognised the grey-blue uniform of the RAF approaching and Flying Officer Dickson dropped his massive form into the driver's seat. With great relief we motored away.

"I can't remember much of the journey from the airport to our first stop, the US Evacuation Hospital, except the colossal bomb damage. Few houses stood, most brick ones were just heaps of rubble and the mud and plaster ones were riddled with bullet holes. Amid one heap of debris, a bright yellow flower, slightly resembling the evening primrose, proudly stood, waving to and fro in the breeze.

"The roads from 121 Evacuation Hospital were third rate, even by Korean standards, and the jeep slithered and slushed in the mud. However, it was not long before we reached the main road to Kimpo, which was a wide road, the trees on either side beginning to show signs of life after the long frigid winter. On the flat below, on either side of the road, were paddy fields but evidence of their pastures were not yet apparent.

"At last the huge airstrip at Kimpo came into view, as we proceeded along comfortably on the newly-made American road. Several Sabres were about to take off as we approached and their hot smelly fumes nearly blew us off the road. We drove along past rows of khaki-grey tents, separated from the road by a barbed wire fence. On the left side were anti-aircraft guns, built in on the rise. At last we came to a sign reading 77 Squadron RAAF and, turning left, we drove through the gateway.

"The medical tent was our first call and here I renewed acquaintance with Flight Lieutenant 'Rass' Rasmussen, the RAAF Medical Officer, who was posted from Amberley only a few weeks before I left there for Japan. After I had signed my 'clearing in' sheet, he took me to be presented to the Commanding Officer and I re-met Wing Commander John Hubble (who had been at Fairbairn RAAF Station in Canberra while I was there for a short time). I blinked for a moment, after introduction, for he had grown a moustache to oust all moustaches and with his 6 feet 2 inches (188 centimetres) height and twinkling grey eyes, he was indeed a dashing specimen of Australian manhood.

"After lunch in the mess, the 'clearing in' completed and the 77 Squadron scarf presented, we made our farewells and departed back toward Seoul and the British Commonwealth Z Medical Unit (BCZMU). [The 77 Squadron scarf was light magenta - fluorescent for warmth and also for signalling if shot down.]

"The views during the journey were pathetic and tragic; casualties of the many battles fought in the city. The squalor was beyond belief, with the stench of the foul-smelling seepage everywhere. Everything and anything was thrown together to form some sort of shelter for the unfortunate inhabitants - old tin, sacking, packing cases, opened-out drums - oil lamps and fires provided light and cooking facilities. There were numerous maimed children, hobbling about with makeshift crutches, often wood poles supporting their stumps; all ragged, barefoot, some shell-shocked and crazy, with part of their faces blown away. This was summer - most would not survive the cruel winter.

"On arrival at BCZMU, Flying Officer Dickson drove me to the front of the rickety stairs leading to the female quarters. I dumped my meagre luggage, to seek out the Sister I was to replace. Pat Tansy was relieved to see me; she had been managing on her own for several days and was overdue for R & R. I followed her up the stairs, past the wooden privy half way up, and entered a large morbid looking room. Brown hessian mats partly covered the floor and the furniture consisted of an old settee (goodness knows where it came from) and a wooden chair.

"Up at one end was an oil stove, on top of which continually sat a large tub of water - the only supply of warm water for washing in the mornings. The outlet to the stove was the far window, so that the walls received their share of black soot on the smoke's journey.

"There were three rooms adjoining, one occupied by an Australian Army Matron, one reserved for VIPs and the third our sleeping quarters. This again was a large room, divided into cubicles about 5 feet by 6 feet (1.5 x 1.8 metres), between each was a wall of plywood reaching up to a height of 5 feet 10 inches (2 metres). A curtain of some heavy material hung over the doorway. In all there were six with a washstand and basins at the end, and a can of water, which was brought up each day by a Poppa-san and was the only water we were permitted to drink. I was fortunate in that my cubicle happened to coincide with a window, allowing in fresh air - as well as foul kitchen smell and noise - but I counted my blessings for it also allowed in considerably more light than the others received. It was not until a few hours later that I realised that the air raid siren also blew a few feet away!

"I placed my suitcase and other articles on top of the narrow bed, which didn't give an inch. It was quite comfortable, though, and it was a pleasure to spend time in it I discovered. The old faded and tattered quilt I replaced with a cheap Japanese tablecloth, which I had brought with me, and my room began to assume some semblance of atmosphere.

"The next and most important visit was to our ward. This was known as the RAAF/RAF Medical Evacuation Unit, and was a large wooden building. The main ward accommodated about 32 patients at a pinch, and 25 comfortably. In the centre of the ward was a table made of two boxes joined together, over this was draped a crisp blue linen mat upon which stood, proudly, two home-grown Korean azaleas, supported by a painted Capstan tin. I noticed that the floor was uneven and was informed that it was always caving in and had to be reinforced with anything handy. The windows looked bright with airforce blue drapes, obtained from the RAAF at Iwakuni. By each bed was a painted box for the patient's clothing (if any) and their toilet articles, the opening covered by a piece of material, also obtained through close liaison with the Sisters at Iwakuni. The ward was an absolute palace to what it was when Sister Daniels first walked into it, I was told. The ward was full because there had been another skirmish at The Hook (a strategic hill occupied by the Commonwealth Division) and our casualties were heavy.

"The procedure for preparing our patients for their two-hour flight to Iwakuni was cut and dried. The other RAAF Sister and I alternated our duties, so that one would be rising early one morning and later the next. As I had just arrived and had not experienced this part of the business, it fell to my lot to get up at 0400 hours, after a semi-conscious one hour's sleep, dreamily pull on my khaki slacks, shirt and jacket and find my way down the stairs. On nearing the ward, I could see lights ablaze and the whole place a hive of activity. The walkers were busily washing themselves and some were packing their toilet articles in the small pull-string bags, supplied by the Red Cross.

"All water for washing and drinking was carried into the ward by an old Korean Poppa-san - two large tins at a time, supported across his back by a coolie-type pole. Some water was put into a large tub and heated over an old oil stove, which nine times out of 10 was, in the Leading Aircraftsman's words 'on the blink'; fortunately this morning all was well. Two days later, however, the worst happened and, rather than subject the unfortunate patients to an ice-cold bath we decided on a 'lick and a promise' - just hands and face. The next day I received a curt note from the RAAF Hospital at Iwakuni, stating that certain patients' toenails were dirty and would I ensure that it did not occur again.

"The next items on the agenda were the dressings, then placing each patient on his litter, which was then placed on the bed. At 0700 hours, breakfast was served; some of the men too excited to eat, for each stage of the proceedings would be bringing them just that much nearer home. At 7.20 am, sedatives were given to any cases prone to airsickness or anxiety neurosis and at 0730 hours they were loaded, according to their numbers, into the waiting ambulances.

"Meanwhile, the other Sister breakfasted, checked the manifest, patients, etc and, complete with her first aid box and flying gear, was ready to precede the convoy in the jeep with the MO, to K16. We were always prepared to fly, in the event of Iwakuni being unable to supply a Flight Sister, and so it happened in this case. After the general exit, a few orderlies and I were left behind to clean up the chaos. I had been to breakfast and returned to the ward, which closely resembled the morning after a colossal party. On every locker there were papers, cigarette packets and, nearly always, a small item of uniform, which had been forgotten; over the months we collected quite a selection of hats and caps, badges and webbing.

"It was rather amusing, but also pathetic, to watch the Poppa-sans appear from all over the hospital on evacuation morning; like vultures on the rubbish - popping everything and anything into their tin containers for sorting out at their leisure, later. It took about two hours to achieve some semblance of order; the floor was scrubbed then disinfected, beds aired and remade with clean linen - if the Quartermaster would provide it - all ready for the afternoon influx. I returned to the office, a room just off the ward, to rule up the report book, when my eye caught sight of a diagram describing the methods of evacuation from the FRONT, nailed to the wall. It was clear, concise and described exactly our position in Seoul.

"Later that day we received a call on our field telephone to meet the hospital train from the Front as there were 16 Commonwealth patients on board. Four ambulances were arranged, the MO and I leading them in our jeep to the station, a mile or two to the east. We arrived a little ahead of schedule and were inundated by small children begging for sweets; I always remembered to take some on my other trips.

"The train arrived and we climbed up the ladder into the British Commonwealth compartment. It was a streamlined US hospital train, beautifully appointed with six or eight litters in each compartment. We were greeted by an American nurse and doctor. With the latter, our MO proceeded to examine his patients. He decided that 14 were fit for transportation to our ward and they were loaded into the waiting ambulances. The remaining two were carried on to the 121 US Evacuation Hospital for specialised treatment until fit for travel.

"When we returned to the ward, five skin cases had been received from the Army division of the hospital for evacuation, so of course we prepared for another medivac next day. I left some orderlies behind to clean while I accompanied the patients to K16. It was always a great thrill to meet the RAAF Dakota from Iwakuni, for with it came all fresh news, gossip and, best of all, mail from home; this morning was no exception. Armed with half a dozen letters and some magazines (the only reading matter in the mess was a 1940 Punch and a few ancient Strands, donated by the Red Cross). I decided to return to BCZMU in one of the ambulances, as the MO had to go on to the 121 Evacuation Hospital.

"As we turned in through the gates, we passed a Poppa-san leading a pure white kid goat on a bright red lead. I asked the driver to pull up and asked the price. Poppa-san looked very wise and said $5. Alas, I only $1.50 so we drove on. A little later, in the ward, I heard some footsteps, then silence; turning around quickly I saw to my delight the little kid poised in the doorway, behind it were the smiling faces of the orderlies, 'Poppa-san has reduced it to $1.50 for you and is waiting at the door'. I paid him my $1.50 and Marilyn Monroe belonged to us.

"Marilyn was the envy of all the other wards but it wasn't until the Commanding Officer's inspection that she could really become official. As luck would have it, we had acquired a new CO; this was his first command and, eager to put to practice the old idiom that a new broom always sweeps clean, he started, with a vengeance, on Marilyn. Orderlies had built her, just outside the ward, a structure resembling a dog kennel, in which she used to sit happily and chew her cud.

"The day before the CO was due, it was mutually decided, after a small conference with our MO, that we should give her a disinfectant bath. This was performed with warm water, disinfectant and very little fuss, except that her beautiful white throat suddenly became a bright pink - the red lead, which was still on, had oozed, its colour rendering added distinction. The CO had almost completed his round when he spotted her. 'And what is that?' I answered that it was a kid goat, completely aseptic and our mascot. 'You will get rid of her immediately,' he boomed.

"This order led to great consternation and an inter-camp crisis almost occurred, when some fights took place in the men's quarters late that day. The Army gloated, the Air Force seethed and the culmination of it all was that I decided to take Marilyn to 77 Squadron at Kimpo. An airman took her in his arms in the back of our jeep and, with the Corporal driving, we set off for Kimpo. When we arrived we drove straight to the CO's office and made the presentation. All were highly delighted - they already had various species of rabbit, but no goat.

"On 19 April 1953 there was great excitement when the first prisoners of war were exchanged in what was known as Operation Littleswitch. Flying Officer Dickson and I motored up to the 121 US Evacuation Hospital to see the Commonwealth POWs and to decide if they were fit for flying. We waited on the steps of the hospital for General Wells, the Australian Commander-in-Chief. At the appointed time, heralded by a squad of motor cycles, he alighted from his staff car and we accompanied him upstairs to the receiving ward. The doorway to the ward was closely guarded by two heavily armed US soldiers, more to keep out unwanted persons than to keep anyone inside.

"The General and Flying Officer Dickson slowly singled out the Commonwealth prisoners, while I chatted to others. 'Chatted' is rather an ambiguous term for our conversation, as it was definitely one sided. In fact, it was a thoroughly eerie experience. The ward was full of men, some lying on stretchers, some sitting and a few strolling about but, curiously enough, all had the same facial expression that reminded me of sleepwalkers; their eyes completely devoid of emotion. Only a few were on the thin side and these were suffering from various illnesses. The majority had obviously been given clean clothes and fattened up for the occasion.

"One young American was quietly sobbing, his head in his hands, a figure of total dejection. I went over and asked him what was wrong, but he didn't appear to hear, just muttered over and over again 'Oh my God! Oh God what am I to do'. The most normal of the group seemed to be two heavily bearded Indians, who nodded and grinned at the slightest provocation, and seemed altogether overjoyed at the prospect of their new-found freedom. The American nurses were moving among the men, quietly and efficiently, some sponging, others feeding or administering in some way, while the Medical Officers examined each man.

"Our mission was completed after Flying Officer Dickson had made arrangements with the US authorities to have the POWs at K16 (Seoul) next morning and we retuned to BCZMU to make arrangements for an RAAF medivac Dakota to be flown over for them.

"In complete contrast, six weeks later, on 2 June 1953 a cocktail party was held at the British Commonwealth Officers' Club, in the north-east of Seoul, for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth 11. Every off-duty officer of the Commonwealth forces was invited, as well as the General Commanding US Forces in Korea, Mark Clark, other American Officers and officers representing every country of the United Nations.

"The President of South Korea, Syngman Rhee, was also invited but declined, pleading a previous engagement and sent his representative (he did not approve of the negotiations for peace talks at Panmunjom preferring unification).

"The varied uniforms were fascinating and the conversation, punctuated with gesticulations, added to the charm of the spectacle. National anthems of all the nations represented were played by the band which was assembled in the courtyard below. We were indeed the United Nations that memorable night. Some of the Army Sisters and I were taken over to be introduced to General Mark Clark and, while we were chatting, an unfortunate English steward came round the corner carrying a tray with glasses of champagne. I can only imagine he was dazzled by the three stars on the General's lapel for he lost his footing and, with bulging eyes, deposited the lot over the General's tunic. With quiet nonchalance, the latter wiped off the fragments of glass and drips of French champagne, and to the spluttering, apologetic steward said, 'Forget it, it could happen to anyone,' then turned to continue his conversation with us.

"Despite such occasional excitement, life at 'Brit-Com' (BCZMU) went on as usual. We continued to have our nocturnal visitations from 'Bed-Check Charlie' and medical evacuations nearly every day. [Bed-Check Charlie was an intrepid Chinese pilot of a small plane, who flew from the North, under the radar screens, to deposit bombs by hand and at random on Seoul, Inchon and other small towns.] Every morning, at 0800 hours (sharp!), the CO held a parade of his troops in the ground sloping beyond the Officers' Mess, where he held kit inspection and issued daily orders. One morning, standing stiffly to attention beside an Australian staff sergeant was a tiny figure, dressed in the uniform of an Australian private - to scale of course. It was Kim, a Korean orphan aged four, who was found abandoned as a small baby in a roadside ditch near Seoul from which he was rescued and reared by a group of American Marines. He continued to live with his 'foster fathers' until they had to move on, reluctantly relinquishing their protege to an Australian sergeant who took over the responsibility and brought him to live with him and his fellow sergeants in the sergeants mess. Kim was given a specially constructed bed and was, of course, subjected to mess discipline. Often he would confide to me that he had been fined for swearing or some other misdemeanour and, as punishment, sentenced to only three cokes a week. I can't help wondering what has happened to him, for he was certainly a stranger in his own land, not being able to read or write one word in his native tongue.

"One night, when we were returning from Kimpo in the jeep, travelling along a fairly lonely stretch of road, just before entering the main highway to Seoul, we were fired upon by an unknown assailant, apparently hiding in the paddy fields. Needless to say, we did not wait to investigate but instead sped along for the protection of the cliffs, which we were nearing. I was recounting our adventure to a member of the Red Cross later that evening and she asked me to describe the vicinity in detail. 'Well, for heaven's sake! It sounds like the very spot,' and she told me of an outing she had had the previous week.

"The road had been suffering for several weeks with an enormous quantity of rain and, consequently, was in an even worse condition than usual. She was perched between the driver and a Canadian Lieutenant in a jeep, when they swerved to dodge a particularly large hole in the road; the jeep spun on two wheels and leant dangerously over the edge then it righted itself. The driver wiped his brow. 'Phew. That was a near thing. Crikey,' but he was talking to himself, his passengers having disappeared. He got out and peered around. There they were, sitting up, rather dazed, wet and smelling like nothing on earth in the paddy fields below. The only casualty was the Canadian, who had lost his upper dentures, and who dryly commented, 'They'll get a shock when they find them at harvest time'.

"On 25 June 1953, the third anniversary of the war in Korea, we were confined to barracks. However, contrary to expectations, the local populace also remained indoors while 'Bed-Check Charlie' waited until the following night to skip over and dislodge four bombs, on various targets in and around Seoul. At the same time, another hazard, which we had to overcome, was the thawing and consequent flooding of the Han River. It threatened to take with it the strategic bridge over which we passed with our ambulances en route to the airport.

"The US personnel camped along the banks and nearer K16 were flooded out. Likewise, dozens of Korean farmers who had their paddy fields ruined and, because of this, eked out a lonely hungry existence, isolated by swirling waters in their tiny shanties built on the highest part of their tiny holdings. I was staggered to learn that nearly every spring the same thing happened - just how fatalistic can one get?

"Early in July I received wonderful news. A signal arrived informing me that I was to proceed back to Iwakuni, prior to accompanying a medevac to Australia. By that time, the route to Australia was via the American Naval Base at Guam thence to Port Moresby and Sydney but returning, as usual via Darwin and Manila. My worry, however, was crossing the flooded Han River on the scheduled day. The day dawned, the sun shone and the Han River had broken over the bridge and was rising rapidly. With apprehension, we set off with our convoy of ambulances. At the bridge, several US Military police had the situation in hand; they were halting vehicles and checking weights; if these were satisfactory they were allowed to proceed slowly, cautiously and singly over the bridge. The water lapped at our wheels as we crept across but we made it.

Sister Bury completed her journey to Australia via Guam and Port Moresby before arriving in Sydney. After some leave she returned to Iwakuni. The Korean War was officially suspended on 27 July 1953 with the signing of an Armistice. The base at Iwakuni continued to operate for three more years.

On her return to Australia, Sister Bury was posted to the Queen's Flight for Queen Elizabeth's first tour of Australia and completed 20 flights. She left the RAAFMS in April 1954.

Gay is married with two children and two grandchild.

The material for this article was supplied by Gay Halstead (nee Bury) of Victoria

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View a larger picture of Nursing Sister Gay Bury 1952.
View a larger picture of Nursing Sister Gay Bury 1952. Nursing Sister Gay Bury 1952.

View a larger picture of Sister Gay Bury in uniform of Queen’s Flight for Royal tour 1954.
View a larger picture of Sister Gay Bury in uniform of Queen’s Flight for Royal tour 1954. Sister Gay Bury in uniform of Queen’s Flight for Royal tour 1954.

View a larger picture of Sister Gay Bury writing reports in Korea May 1953.
View a larger picture of Sister Gay Bury writing reports in Korea May 1953. Sister Gay Bury writing reports in Korea May 1953.

View a larger picture of Gay Bury at work on medevac flight to Japan, 1953.
View a larger picture of Gay Bury at work on medevac flight to Japan, 1953. Gay Bury at work on medevac flight to Japan, 1953.

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